When Rep. Mel Watt (D) takes the mound this year for his 10th straight Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game start, first-time fans might be forgiven for thinking the North Carolinian isn’t all that excited about playing.
But while Watt may project a steady calm, inside he is a fierce competitor.
Just ask Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.).
In 2000, Wamp let a slow Watt curveball hit him in the back even though he easily could have gotten out of the way. The Democrat was not pleased, and he let the Republican know it the next time Wamp came to bat.
“He knew and I knew that I had taken the hit,” Wamp recalled. “So the next time up he just threw right at me.”
Wamp now admits he probably deserved to get beaned. Watt doesn’t have any hard feelings either, and while he still takes the game seriously, he has also mellowed with age.
“I’ve come to view it more as a game than as life or death,” Watt said. “This is not life or death.”
During the past decade of Congressional baseball, Watt has been a consistent performer, quietly working to keep the Democrats in the game even when they were overmatched — a frequent occurrence back when then-Rep. Steve Largent (Okla.) regularly took the mound for the GOP.
Rep. Tim Holden (Pa.), the Democrats’ longtime catcher, said Watt’s ability to stay calm and not “get riled up” is particularly important given that the defense behind him is sometimes less than stellar. When innings are prolonged because of errors, Watt does not lose focus or get angry at his teammates.
“He’s improved with age,” said the Democrats’ coach, Rep. Martin Sabo (Minn.).
The skipper explained that he believes Watt’s control is better than it was earlier in his career and suggested that Watt, like many aging pitchers, has become craftier. “He’s psyching the Republicans out,” Sabo said.
Watt may have improved his mental approach to the game, but things certainly haven’t gotten any easier for him physically.
“If you’re 58 years old and you pitch seven innings of baseball, it’s painful,” Watt said. “I don’t think you can train adequately for a game like this.”
While casual observers might assume that arm strength is the key to pitching success, a hurler’s effectiveness is often determined by his ability to push hard off the mound. Like Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan — professional pitchers who have had success beyond age 40 — Watt has put an emphasis on keeping his legs in shape.
But no matter how much time he puts in on the treadmill or the practice field, Watt admits that it is nearly impossible to keep his pitching skills sharp during the yearlong offseason.
“It’s kind of like learning to speak Spanish. You don’t use it enough to really learn it,” he said. “It’s my one-time-a-year foreign language experience.”
For that reason, the North Carolinian has kept his pitching repertoire small, throwing only fastballs and curveballs rather than trying to develop new pitches.
“He still throws strikes,” said Holden. “In this game that’s the most important thing.”
While he has never been able to shut the GOP offense down, Watt has shown a talent for keeping Democrats competitive and giving them at least a chance to win.
Though his overall record is 2-7, Watt has allowed a respectable 5.3 earned runs per game in his nine starts. In 60 innings, he has registered 48 strikeouts while yielding just 30 walks.
Perhaps Watt’s best performance came in 1998, when he lost a pitchers’ duel to Largent after giving up four runs on nine hits in six innings while walking two and striking out seven. Watt also did well in a loss last year, yielding five runs on seven hits.
Right now, there are no obvious successors to take over Watt’s role as the Democrats’ ace, and he has no plans to retire from the game anytime soon, though he wouldn’t mind being penciled in somewhere else in the lineup.
“If we had a viable alternative I would love to move to the outfield,” Watt said with a laugh. “Any position other than catcher. …
“I’d like to win the last time I pitch.”