As he gripped a baseball in his hand early Tuesday morning, Louisiana Rep. Chris John (D) remarked, “It’s been a year since I’ve touched one of these.”
The half-joking admission was shared by several lawmakers, as both the Republicans and Democrats kicked off their preparation for the 42nd Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game with separate morning practices.
The teams are preparing to face off July 10, for the first game in the best-of-five series. With their 9-2 victory in 2002, Republicans retired the coveted Roll Call trophy for the eighth time. But that success has not dimmed their desire to win again. “We don’t want to give them an inch,” said Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.).
It was clear from the first practice that Sweeney’s teammates share his conviction. As a little rain drizzled on the GOP’s Alexandria, Va., field, Rep. John Shimkus (Ill.), whose pitching led the team to victory last year, was again throwing from the mound.
The GOP coach, Rep. Michael Oxley (Ohio), hung around home plate, dressed in gray sweats and watching his hitters swing. Around 45 minutes into practice, he turned to lefty Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.), who was holding a baseball bat. “You follow Pickering,” Oxley said.
Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.) was deftly sending Shimkus’ pitches into the outfield, often hitting the ball low and fast. “One more good one,” Oxley told Pickering.
Shimkus must have heard; all of a sudden the pitches, too, came lower, faster. Pickering swung and missed a few times before finally sending the ball out beyond first and second bases.
Coming off the field, he was slightly out of breath. “It’s always a lot of fun,” he said of the baseball game, pausing to say only a few words before heading out to man third base. “We always go into the game with high hopes.”
Resting in the dugout after his pitching session, Shimkus said the Democrats have a chance only if his team implodes. “The only time we’ve lost is when we’ve self-destructed,” he confidently said of a squad filled with veterans and rookies alike.
Sweeney, on the field for his fifth straight year, said the Republicans have to win. “Who the heck wants to listen to [Democrats] talk about their prowess for a year when they know the only time they’ve won is when we pretty much beat ourselves,” he said.
The annual game is good fun, but it nonetheless becomes “serious business when you get out,” added Sweeney, who claims to be the first Republican to play with prescription goggles. “Rather than get a fly ball off the top of my head, I thought I’d do something,” he explained.
Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) was having problems with his own glasses in the outfield. “You can’t play left field and catch a fly ball with bifocals,” he said, adding that he would see an ophthalmologist before the game.
Freshman Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.), a college football player who relieved Shimkus on the mound during practice, admired the starter’s dominance. “Look at him,” Sessions said. “He’s a big man.”
The Republican squad was full of theories on why they have outperformed Democrats in baseball. Sessions argued that its rural base gives the GOP an edge over the Democrats in athletic competitions because city slickers are less likely to play sports well.
Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) attributed his party’s baseball success to the influx of young Republicans after the 1994 elections. “We brought a lot of youth in with that class,” he said, adding that voluntary term limits also keep the Republican bench fresh.
The game itself is “just a kick in the pants every year,” Ensign said.
Later, Renzi, taking a breather after pitching, said his teammates were holding their own. “Some of my pitches were in the high 70s and they were hitting them. They were catching up to me,” he said, explaining that the key to pitching is control, not loading up the bases by walking batters.
Behind the plate for much of the practice was Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), who said players were “a little bit rusty.” But, he added, “They’ll be hitting [the ball] hard.”
During the same hours the Republicans were readying themselves in Virginia, the Democratic squad was practicing on a field in the District’s Northeast quadrant.
As he watched infielders return ground balls, Rep. Martin Sabo (D-Minn.), the team’s longtime manager, reminded his players not to risk potential injuries by going out too aggressively on the first day.
“Don’t fire ’em folks, play in close today,” Sabo called out as one rookie player, Rep. Tim Bishop (N.Y.), threw the ball.
Sabo said little about individual players during the initial practice, stating only that the team looks “fresh and anxious to go.”
“We’ll see how they develop as the week goes along,” he said. Depending on voting schedules the team will hold 10 practice sessions in the next few weeks, including two at Prince George’s Stadium in Bowie, Md., the site of the game.
The Minnesota lawmaker did note the team’s veteran pitcher, Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.), is “always in good shape and good condition.”
Several team members also pointed to the performance of another rookie, Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), the only female Member to attend the Democrats’ practice.
“She could be the best woman ever to play in the Congressional baseball game,” said Mike Erlandson, Sabo’s chief of staff.
The California lawmaker, who took turns playing second base and centerfield, remarked to her teammates, “I’m having a hard time making the transition from a softball to a baseball.”
Sanchez demurred when asked about her role on the team, and said only of her hopes for the game, “A win and a good time, is there anything better in baseball?”
Democrats last won a game in 2000 (the team last captured a full series in 1994), and many team members said they are “hungry” for another chance.
“They govern arrogantly and they play arrogantly,” Rep. Sherrod Brown (Ohio) said of the competition. “We’re ready for them.”
While some Members seem to relish the intensity of the game — like Reps. Joe Baca (D-Calif.) and Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), who just missed a home run in practice with a hit to the left-field fence — Watt believes the Democrats need to pursue a more laid-back strategy on the field this season.
“We may have been trying too hard,” Watt said. “We need to relax a little bit.”
Of course, there’s more motivation to winning than just taking home the coveted Roll Call trophy, as Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) noted: “Your bodies hurt a lot less after you win than after you lose.”
The game will begin at 7 p.m. on July 10; tickets cost $8 and will be made available through the coaches’ offices. Keep reading Roll Call for more information.