The 43rd Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game was pretty much decided Thursday night by the bottom of the second inning, and even the Japanese ambassador knew it.
After the Republicans turned an early rally into an insurmountable 13-1 lead, Ambassador Ryozo Kato, a lifelong baseball fan who put in a special appearance at the game, decided to pack things up and head back to Washington even before the start of the third inning.
By scoring early and often, GOP manager Ohio Rep. Mike Oxley’s squad gained a 14-7 victory against the Democrats in front of a record-setting crowd of 4,878 fans Thursday. The victory earned the Republicans a 2-0 lead in the current best-of-five series and moved them one step closer to retiring a ninth coveted Roll Call trophy. Each year, the game raises about $100,000 for charities, including the Washington Literacy Council and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington’s Metropolitan Police Clubhouses.
After the game, Democratic pitcher Rep. Mel Watt (N.C.) was quick to sum up the second inning: “It seemed like it’d never end.”
And after the GOP blazed 10 runners across the plate in the second, Democratic skipper Rep. Martin Sabo (Minn.), who has guided his squad for the past 18 years, could only tell his team, “Just keep trying, just keep trying.”
“We really got hurt in that second inning with some sloppy fielding,” Sabo said after the game.
The only lead of the night for Democrats came at the top of the first when Rep. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), whose baserunning blunder ended the Democrats’ final rally last year, scored off a shot to right center by Rep. Brian Baird (Wash.). Brown’s hussling prompted longtime Congressional baseball announcer and former Rep. Marty Russo (D-Ill.) to quip, “Someone get the oxygen out for Sherrod Brown.”
The bottom of the first saw the return of Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) to the batter’s box — at least for a little while.
Brady left the 2003 contest in the opening inning after breaking and dislocating his left shoulder when he collided with Rep. Tim Holden (D-Pa.) at home plate. Unfortunately, Brady didn’t fare much better this year, as he had to leave the game after straining his right calf muscle while running to second on a hit by Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.). (See story, p. 23.)
After Brady was helped off the field, the GOP tied the game on a shot by Sen. John Ensign (Nev.) that sent pinch runner Rep. Adam Putnam (Fla.) home. Republican pitcher Rep. John Shimkus (Ill.) and the GOP most valuable player, Rep. Bill Shuster (Pa.), each knocked a run in later in the first, which ended with the Republicans going into the lead 3-1 and never looking back. (Bayou State Rep. Chris John, who went 2-for-2 at the plate, was the Democrats’ MVP of the game.)
After Shimkus and Co. made short work of the Democrats at the top of the second, all hell broke loose when the GOP came to bat that inning. The bottom of the inning saw the Republicans send 15 batters to the plate, starting with base hits from Rep. Jeff Flake (Ariz) and Wamp.
For much of the inning, the bases seemed continually loaded for a somewhat frazzled Watt. The North Carolinian, who was making his 10th consecutive start, let his shoulders noticeably drop after a Shuster slam to deep left made the score 9-1. Shuster went 3-for-3 on the day with two RBIs.
The one-sided scoring prompted talk among fans about the possibility of a 10-run “kill rule.” In response, one GOP fan behind the dugout yelled, “This is what happens when liberal Democrats don’t believe in the death penalty.”
But the Democrats were able to claw their way out of the inning after Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.) — who for two at-bats was listed as “Joe Baba” on the scoreboard — tagged out Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) on an infield rundown and Ensign was then thrown out at first base.
However, Oxley knew the Democrats would try to chip away at the GOP lead, so in the third inning he focused on defense and warned his players that “no lead is safe.”
The Democrats did their best to come back by rallying later in the game. Remembering the basics — get on base and move the runners — they started scoring some much-needed runs, at the very least bringing the Democratic crowd back into the game.
Shimkus, though, was prepared and never let the Democrats climb all the way back, even though he faltered in the sixth inning, earning a couple of trips to the mound by Oxley.
The Illinois Republican recovered to finish the game and afterward estimated that he had to throw 30 or 40 more pitches this year than he did in 2003, when he also had a complete game.
“I wasn’t celebrating early,” Shimkus said. “I lost my concentration at the end and was throwing fastballs at their big hitters. … They didn’t give up. We let them get back in the game a little and they never gave up.”
One of the Democratic bright spots was Rep. Linda Sanchez (Calif.), whose plan before the game was to “hit the ball and run like hell.” And she did just that, inspiring fans and giving her team hope.
Noting that once again the Democrats were down early and had to battle back against the Republicans, Sanchez shrugged and said, “It happens every year.”
The Democrats scored two runs in the fourth inning off base hits by Brown and Rep. Jim Marshall (Ga.). The fifth inning saw the Democrats score two more runs, stemming the flow of fans who, like the Japanese ambassador, had started to leave early.
By the “fifth inning stretch” some of the tension of the game was broken by Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa), who donned his Harry Caray glasses and performed a whimsical version of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” When the game resumed, the Democrats seemed to be gaining more momentum behind relief pitcher Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who had three strikeouts in his two innings of pitching.
A two-run hit by Rep. Ben Chandler (D-Ky.) in the sixth brought in Weiner and fellow New York Rep. Tim Bishop, and a shot to third by Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.) knocked in Sanchez just two batters later.
But the rally was too little, too late.
The Republicans went on to score one more run in the bottom of the sixth off the bat of Rep. Gresham Barrett (S.C.), and the Democrats had nothing left at the top of the seventh.
But in the end Members shook hands and smiled about their night under the stadium lights.
“Playing here is sort of like fulfilling your dreams of playing in the majors,” Sanchez said. “I tell my friends I have two things I want to do before I die: appear on the Letterman show and play in the majors. So I guess I can sort of cross one of those things off my list.”
Or as one excited GOP Member yelled out in the dugout during the game, “Glory days! This is the best man, I love it.”
Sonny Bunch and Colin Gustafson contributed to this report.