When avowed sports nut Tim Johnson first joined Rep. Mike Oxley’s (R-Ohio) staff on a fellowship in 1994, he knew immediately that he had come to the right place.
“The first conversation I had with Mr. Oxley when I came into his office was about the 1968 World Series champion Detroit Tigers,” Johnson recalled recently. “I think I’m part legislative director and part sports trivia buff for him in the office.”
When he’s not filling those two roles, Johnson busies himself with another task that blends sports and politics — helping to organize the Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game.
Along with the two coaches — Oxley on the Republican side and Rep. Martin Sabo (Minn.) for the Democrats — several staffers pitch in each year to help make the diamond matchup a success. From raising funds to hitting fungoes, aides play a crucial role every step of the way.
In recent years, the two staffers who have done the most work have been Johnson and Sabo Chief of Staff Mike Erlandson, who has been involved in the game for so long that he seems to have it down to a science.
“When you’ve done it this many times it doesn’t really take that much time anymore,” Erlandson said, explaining that tasks he once found arduous, like getting umpires, can now be accomplished with a single phone call.
Such efficiency is particularly valuable to Erlandson, who spends his spare time in Minnesota, where he serves as chairman of the state Democratic-Farmer-
Labor Party. Yet despite all of his professional commitments, through 2002’s game Erlandson hadn’t missed a single early-morning Democratic practice.
“I’ve thrown a lot of batting practices,” Erlandson said. “I’ve hit a lot of pop flies over the years. I’ve hit a lot of grounders. … I remember doing it ’til your hands would bleed because you’ve hit so many of them.”
The staffer’s most notable bodily sacrifice came the year Democrats brought in a Double A-level minor league pitcher to throw batting practice. None of the lawmakers had much luck hitting the guest pitcher, but Erlandson got the worst of it.
“Somehow or another I got to be the lucky person to put the catching gear on,” he recalled. “All I did was hold my hand out there and close my eyes.”
The 39-year-old Erlandson, who hails from just outside Minneapolis, first became involved with the game in 1987, the same year he joined Sabo’s staff. Since then, Erlandson has helped to make it bigger and better, improving the event’s entertainment value while also increasing the size of the checks handed out to local charities after the games are in the books.
Erlandson said he is particularly pleased that the game’s fundraising strategy has changed from the older practice of distributing money to huge national charities. Now, the focus is on helping local groups like the Washington Literacy Council.
“The emphasis is on giving large chunks of money to small charities, for whom the baseball funds will really make a difference,” Erlandson said. “You’ve got Members of Congress who live everywhere else in the country but Washington as home, and they’re giving back to this community. There’s not enough, I don’t think, given back to the Washington community as is taken by the folks just showing up.”
The baseball game’s coffers have gotten a particular boost from the addition of Oxley as GOP coach. The Financial Services chairman is known as a prolific fundraiser and has tapped his network of donors to aid in the effort.
Aiding local charities has been gratifying to Johnson, but the GOP staffer has also enjoyed the action on the diamond.
“My first favorite moment was probably last year when we won the game and that meant we retired the Roll Call trophy,” said Johnson. “Mr. Oxley had just wanted that for so long. … That was the ‘One Moment in Time, I’m Going to Disneyland’ moment for us.”
Like Erlandson, Johnson has in his job description the task of helping to run early-morning practices for his squad.
The Oxley aide said the most challenging part of those sessions is beating lawmakers to the practice field. Last year, he would arrive 20 minutes before the scheduled 7 a.m. start only to find Members waiting for him. So he began arriving at 6:30 a.m., and yet he still wasn’t the first one there. Finally, a few GOP Members suggested adding a voluntary 6 a.m. batting practice. Oxley assured them that he wouldn’t be there that early, but Johnson would.
In addition to getting up at the crack of dawn, Johnson also has to deal with a roster full of highly competitive players.
“I have been approached at receptions by Members lobbying for more playing time,” he said with a laugh.
Originally from Jamestown, N.Y., Johnson did local television and radio news in his hometown before coming to Washington and joining Oxley’s staff. Not surprisingly, he is a big New York Yankees fan, while Erlandson pulls for the Minnesota Twins.
Ultimately, it’s that love for baseball — and politics — that makes working on the game more than just a worthy cause for the two staffers.
“The feeling of being down on the field during a game is the same feeling as being on the floor of the House of Representatives during a close vote,” Johnson said. “Everything is going fast — almost faster than you can follow, and the main thing you’re trying to do is keep all the Members happy.”