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RFK a Hitter’s Paradise

Questionable pitching and strong bats, combined with no shortage of real estate on the field of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, promise to make tonight’s 44th Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game an old-fashioned slugfest.

Players drove the ball deep into the outfield during Wednesday’s practices at the stadium, giving onlookers (including the opposition’s scouts) an idea of what to expect.

Surveying the outfield, Rep. Martin Sabo (Minn.), the Democrats’ manager for the past 19 years, summed up his impression of the gaps in left- and right-center: “They’re big.”

Add in a first-time pitcher for the Republicans and a 59-year-old hurler for the Democrats, and the move from Prince George’s Stadium in Bowie, Md., to cavernous RFK becomes much more significant.

The switch gives batters an unprecedented opportunity to take advantage of an outfield that stretches 410 feet to the centerfield wall, 335 feet in the corners and 385 feet in the gaps.

In the outfield, “you’ve got to keep the ball in front of you,” said Rep. Mike Oxley (Ohio), the GOP manager, “so you’ve got to play pretty deep and concede the single.”

“You don’t want anything over your head,” Rep. Jeff Flake (Ariz.), the GOP centerfielder, said. “You don’t want [Rep. Brian] Baird and [Rep. Joe] Baca hitting it over your head.

“I need a horse out there,” he added.

Sabo agreed.

“Defense is going to be key,” he said. If “routine plays are taken care of, you’ll do well.”

Of course, the routine plays are easier when the pitchers are doing well.

Thursday’s contest will pit Republican Sen. John Ensign (Nev.) against the Democrats’ veteran pitcher, Rep. Mel Watt (N.C.), a three-time Democratic MVP making his 11th consecutive start. Watt was lit up for 15 hits, while walking five and striking out one, in last year’s match up.

The GOP routed the Democrats in that game, 14-7, taking a 2-0 lead in the current best-of-five series. If the Republicans win tonight, they will capture the 12th coveted Roll Call trophy.

Since 1962, the Republicans have won nine trophies and the Democrats two.

“We fell apart last year,” Watt said during batting practice Wednesday. “I hope my control will be a lot better. The most important thing in this game is getting the ball over the plate.”

“It’s about finding the corners, or even the center, of the plate,” Watt added.

When asked whether he’s added any new pitches to his repertoire , Watt, a curveball and fastball pitcher, said, “If you haven’t developed any new pitches by 60, you’re not going to.”

In the bullpen for the Democrats will be Rep. Bart Stupak (Mich.), who struck out three and walked one in two innings of work last year.

Ensign, a right-hander untested on the mound, will have tough shoes to fill. Rep. John Shimkus, the Republican ace, would likely be taking the mound had he not undergone heart surgery earlier this year. The Illinois lawmaker, who takes over assistant coaching duties this year, threw a complete game in last year’s victory, striking out 10 and walking three.

Although Ensign’s bag of tricks includes a fastball, curveball, slider and change-up, he has not pitched since Little League and will be expected to throw all seven innings.

The first-term Senator said his approach will be to “throw strikes” and “keep it down.”

Dependable pitching has been the linchpin in the GOP’s domination of the Democrats. Prior to Shimkus, the GOP could count on former House Member and Seattle Seahawks Hall of Fame wide receiver Steve Largent (Okla.). After retiring from Congress, Roll Call inducted Largent, a three-time team MVP who led his team to five victories in seven years, into its Congressional Baseball Hall of Fame.

“It’s going to be a whole new ball game,” said Flake. “Ensign looks good, but seven innings is a long time.”

Especially when the batters can really hit.

Baca, a former collegiate and semi-pro player, smacked a pitch in batting practice Wednesday morning that carried about 300 feet, but landed foul.

“One time I could hit it out of the ballpark,” Baca said. “If you hit it far enough, you don’t have to run that fast.”

“Hitting’s not the problem,” he added, “running is the problem.”

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), third base coach, said he will take into account the rusty axles of some of his players when deciding to whether they should make the turn toward home.

“I’m not going to base it on how far away they are from the ball,” Barton said. “It’s how red they are in the face.”

Baird’s place in the lineup was questionable because of a separated shoulder, but Sabo said the second baseman can still swing a bat.

Baird’s injury “may actually help,” Sabo said. The separation causes him “to swing level and easy; the ball jumps off his bat.”

“Better watch out for an injured Brian Baird,” Sabo said.

Later during batting practice, Baird brought credence to Sabo’s statement with a fly ball to left-center that traveled at least 350 feet. Despite the impressive distance, Baird said the practice had him in a bit of a quandary.

Because of his injury, Baird needed to hit well in batting practice to earn a spot in the lineup as a designated hitter. But, pointing to a group of GOP staffers in the stands watching the Democrats take batting practice, he said, “If they see me hit well, they’re going to play me deep.”

Although Baird played baseball as a teenager, being a power hitter is a role he’s taken on late in life. It also might be short-lived.

“I played in high school, but I’ve been on steroids ever since,” joked the four-term House Member. “But they’re going to start blood testing next year.”

GOP slugger Rep. Zach Wamp (Tenn.), the 1999 Republican MVP who went 2-4 last year, driving in one run and scoring twice, said fundamentals will determine the winner of tonight’s game.

“No doubt that whomever walks the fewest batters and makes the fewest errors is probably going to win,” Wamp said. (Last year’s game had 10 errors between the two teams.)

Perhaps more than anything else, however, tonight’s contest comes down to a good time, some serious baseball and raising money for the Washington Literacy Council and the Boys and Girls Club of Washington, D.C.

“When they’re playing the game, it’s serious,” Barton said. “But in between innings and before the game there’s a lot of hoo-rah-ing going on.”

“We all come out here for charity,” Baca said. “We’re all coming out here for one cause.”

But as exciting as it might be to kick the same dirt as major leaguers, the amount of adrenaline coursing through Members’ veins by game time may be the biggest obstacle both sides face.

“We’ll all be fighting a little anxiety,” Wamp said, “but you’ve got to relax or you’ll make errors.”

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