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New Majority, Same Great Tradition?

Just as summer brings beer, hot dogs and baseball to major and minor league ballparks all over the country, so, too, does it bring those things and more — Members of Congress — to the diamond on Capitol Hill.

For 46 years without fail — through ups and downs and changes in power in the Capitol — Republicans and Democrats have squared off every summer in the Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game. The tradition continues at 7:30 p.m. today at RFK Stadium.

Since 1962, when Roll Call founder Sid Yudain made the event an annual affair, Republicans have won 31 of the 45 games played and have “retired” nine coveted Roll Call trophies — which are awarded when a team wins three games in a best-of-five series — to the Democrats’ two.

The Republican dominance, especially in recent years, has been staggering, not only in the number of wins but in the GOP’s margins of victory: The Republicans have won nine out of the past 10 contests by a combined score of 107-49.

But all dynasties come to an end sooner or later, and the 2006 electoral wave that swept Democrats to power in Congress may be the catalyst that changes the party’s sour fortunes on the diamond.

“We had 41 new Members and we’ve got a bunch of new blood,” said Rep. Mike Doyle (Pa.), now in his second year as the Democratic manager. “We’ve got at least a half a dozen guys that are going to be brand new this year that look like they can play.”

In essence, November’s Democratic landslide brought more Democratic Members to Congress, and more Members means a larger pool of talent to draw from.

On the GOP side, the last time former Rep. Mike Oxley (Ohio) was not on the field either playing or managing at the Congressional baseball game, Jimmy Carter was president, “Funkytown” was topping the charts and a postage stamp cost 15 cents. Now with Oxley retired after his successful tenure leading the Republicans to Congressional baseball dominance year in and year out, he officially has passed the managerial baton to Rep. Joe Barton (Texas).

“Only pay off the umpires if you absolutely have to,” Barton said of the advice Oxley gave him. “No, he and I have talked about it and basically he just said, ‘Barton, don’t screw up.’”

As Barton takes over the Republican squad, he inherits a 1-0 series lead as result of last year’s 12-1 blowout of the Democrats. While he has a Hall of Fame legacy to live up to, he acknowledges that the 2006 elections bring greater opportunity for the Democrats. Nonetheless, the strategy for the Republicans will be not only to win the game, but also to have fun.

“I think it will be a very competitive game,” he said. “The Democrats have gotten better and we’ve gotten older. … Basically, we try to make sure that at the beginning of the game we try to put the best players on the field and that if the game goes on we make sure that all the Members that are there get to play and participate in a meaningful way.”

While past skippers of the Democratic squad have naturally sounded hopeful about their chances right before their almost inevitable defeat to their Republican counterparts, Doyle may have more reason for optimism.

The last Democratic series victory occurred way back in 1994, right before the Republican Revolution brought a bevy of new talent to the GOP side.

Electoral victories have had a mixed history of leading to success on the field. In 1964, Democrats picked up 36 House seats to claim a veto-proof majority. But their political triumphs didn’t translate into athletic prowess as they lost the next two games before the Republicans picked up 47 House seats in the 1966 elections. By the time 1975 rolled around, the Democrats had lost 12 of the first 13 contests.

The 49-seat victory in the Watergate elections of 1974 that gave Democrats a two-thirds House majority finally was accompanied by progress on the diamond. The Democrats won four of the next six games, including two in a row in 1975-76, tying their longest winning streak of all time (1979-80, 1986-87 and 1993-94).

Clinging to Ronald Reagan’s coattails, the Republicans picked up 34 seats in 1980, and those new Members helped them end the Democrats’ two-game winning streak in 1981. But the momentum did not last as they lost the game a year later in a squeaker.

Republicans had lost three of four before the 1994 midterms, but since the Republican Revolution netted them a 54-seat gain, the GOP has reeled off 10 of 12.

Now the tide may have turned, not only as a result of the Democratic Congressional victories in 2006, but possibly because of that slowly creeping enemy that takes its toll on all athletes — age.

“When you look at [the Republicans’] class, I mean, I just think they are victims of what we became victims of,” Doyle explained. “Their team is basically the same team they’ve had in place since 1994 when a bunch of them showed up here. … When you look at their starting lineup it is the class of ’94 and ’96 basically. But now they are getting a little long [in the] tooth because, you know, they have been here a dozen years and those guys … some of them were 40 when they started and now they are 50-something. And that makes a difference when you are playing hardball.”

When the two teams go at it tonight, the average age of the Democrats will be more than a year younger than their Republican opponents, 48.1 to 49.6. Last year, the Republicans had the age advantage with an average of 49.25 compared with the Democratic average of 50.9.

Though the game only began to be crystallized into the Capitol’s memory back in 1962, its roots reach further into history.

The game’s heritage stems all the way back to 1909, when Rep. John Tener (R-Pa.), an Irish immigrant and former major league pitcher, organized a game among Members at American Park in Northwest Washington. In the spirit of good sportsmanship and competition, Tener agreed to play shortstop and was rewarded by being trounced by the Democrats 26-16.

The game would continue to be played on a sporadic basis for the next 37 years until the now-defunct Washington Star newspaper signed on as the game’s sponsor in 1946. The game was an annual affair when then-Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Texas) put an end to it in 1958 after becoming concerned over a rash of injuries that resulted from it. Roll Call revived the game in 1962 and it has been played every summer since.

As always, the real winners of the game will be local charities. This year’s contest will raise thousands of dollars for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington and the Washington Literacy Council.

Regardless of whether 2007 marks the year the Democrats start to turn the tide against their Republican tormenters, failure has consequences and takes a toll on competitive men. While Barton talks about “try[ing] to have a good time” and playing everybody, he should expect to see a Democratic squad out for not only respect, but blood.

“I’m not a guy that’s like a Little League guy that thinks everyone has to play,” Doyle said. “I am trying to win. I am going to play my best nine players. … I don’t care what their seniority is. I don’t care where they come from. I just care about if they are the best person I can put in that position. If the game is competitive, we are going to try and win the game.”

Daniel Heim and Paul Singer contributed to this report.

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