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Teams Stock Up on New Talent

When Republicans take the field for the 44th Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game tonight, one notable name will be missing.

Resisting a major recruitment effort by his former House colleagues, South Dakota Sen. John Thune has decided not to play for the Republican side.

Thune, who starred on the team during his three House terms from 1996 through 2002, said recently he had decided against playing this year due to a strained calf muscle.

“I have been getting harassing phone calls from [Illinois Rep. John] Shimkus and [Mississippi Rep. Chip] Pickering,” Thune acknowledged.

Though Thune is not on the Republican roster for the game, two newly elected GOP House Members — Connie Mack IV of Florida and Mike Conaway of Texas — are committed to make their debuts.

On the Democratic side, only freshman Rep. Russ Carnahan (Mo.) is new to the team.

The lack of new faces is in part a result of the 2001 redistricting, a process that by and large strengthened incumbents, making it even more difficult to topple a sitting Member.

In fact, Carnahan, Conaway and Mack all won open seats in heavily partisan districts where, after emerging on top in their respective primaries, they faced little general election opposition.

A lack of opposition has been the story of the last several Congressional baseball games, as Republicans have won the past four contests and hold a 2-0 lead in the current best-of-five series.

Republicans return much of the core of their team with stalwarts like Nevada Sen. John Ensign, Tennessee Rep. Zach Wamp and Pickering all set to take to the field. Ensign, the team’s shortstop in past contests, is likely to be tapped to pitch at least a few innings as the regular starter, Shimkus, has been forced to the bench as he recovers from heart surgery.

Mack appears to have the potential to be the strongest player among the newcomers. Of course, his baseball and political bloodlines are strong.

Mack’s great-grandfather managed the Philadelphia Athletics to five World Series championships during his five decades as the team’s skipper. And, his father served in Congress for 18 years — six in the House, 12 in the Senate — representing Florida.

Mack has also had a brush with Major League Baseball — literally. In 1992, Mack got into a fight at a bar in Georgia with then-Atlanta Braves slugger Ron Gant. Mack broke an ankle in the scuffle and sued Gant. A jury found that Gant had started the fight but awarded no damages to Mack.

Having put that experience behind him, the one-time high school shortstop, catcher and outfielder impressed his new colleagues with his ability to spray the ball to all fields at a practice session last month.

“It’s got to be at least 10 years since I’ve swung a bat,” Mack told Roll Call. “It felt great.”

Carnahan, too, is part of a political legacy. His father, Mel, served as governor of the Show Me State from 1992 until 2000, when he was killed in a plane crash just three weeks before the conclusion of his challenge to then-Sen. John Ashcroft (R).

Mel Carnahan won the election posthumously and Russ’ mother, Jean, was appointed to the seat but lost a bid for a full term in 2002.

Thanks in large part to his famous last name, Carnahan emerged from a crowded Democratic primary to replace former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D). Carnahan’s sister, Robin, was elected Missouri secretary of state last November as well.

It didn’t take long after his victory for the recruitment process to begin.

“In the first caucus after the election [New York Rep.] Joe Crowley was scouting for people to play on the team,” recounted Carnahan.

Carnahan said that he played baseball as a teenager and softball as an adult. “I always loved the sport,” he added.

Carnahan’s 11-year-old son will accompany him to the game.

“He thinks it’s pretty cool that dad is getting to play at RFK Stadium,” said Carnahan. “I don’t think he really believes it yet.”

Conaway’s background — like most West Texans — is in football, not baseball.

The freshman, and one-time business partner of President Bush, played football for Permian High School — the subject of Buzz Bizzinger’s book “Friday Night Lights.”

Conaway went on to play football at Texas A&M University at Commerce.

“I am just looking forward to competing,” he said. “I’m happy to be a part of the team and I am planning on having a lot of fun.”

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