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Shimkus a Worthy Successor to Largent

Like a long-serving Member failing to hold a competitive seat, a veteran player retiring from the Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game can strike fear in the heart of a team. For Republicans, their biggest worries likely came after the 2001 game, when then-Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.) made his last appearance, finishing off an eight-year Congressional baseball career in which he went 5-1 with a 2.44 ERA as the team’s ace.

Losing Largent — an NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver — was supposed to end Republicans’ baseball dominance, but in the past six contests, Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) has pitched four complete games and been named most valuable player twice. Republicans have won every one of those games.

“I think John Shimkus has turned out to be a pretty good pitcher,” Largent said of his former colleague. “He is a great guy and I talk to him regularly, but he doesn’t need my advice. I’m sure he’ll do very well.”

Shimkus said his successful pitching career comes after years of watching Largent on the mound.

“I’m a catcher by trade, so I didn’t tire my arm out when I was younger,” said Shimkus, who caught for Largent before taking his place. “A pitcher should have a feel for how the game should go, and I think I have that.”

Largent, who played for the Seattle Seahawks for 13 years, said Shimkus’ consistency has been crucial for the team. Since taking the mound in 2002, Republicans have gone undefeated and won some big games. In 2006, the GOP held Democrats to just one run in a 12-1 victory.

“You have to have a pitcher who can throw strikes because walks are the difference in the game, I think,” said Largent, now president of CTIA-The Wireless Association.

The Democrats counter with Rep. Joe Baca (Calif.), a former semi-pro shortstop who also played in college. In 2007, making his second appearance on the mound, Baca threw a complete game, giving up eight hits to Shimkus’ five. But unlike his Republican counterpart, Baca did not walk any players.

“It’s the guys that get on base for free that hurt you in the end,” Largent said. (Nevertheless, Baca was done in by fielding errors behind him, leading to a 5-2 loss.)

Shimkus, 50, has kept his throwing arm in shape by playing catch with his sons. Baca, who hit the House gym in February to train for the game, is aiming to repeat his 2007 performance.

“I’m going to have to throw strikes and we’ve got to play defense,” said Baca, 61, hoping to end the Democrats’ losing streak this year. “You lead your team by trying to throw a good game and make the plays.”

Baca is perhaps taking a cue from his opponents. In their back-to-back victories in the first two games of the best-of-five series, Republicans have proved that strong defense and good fielding — more so than solid hits — secures wins. The team that can repeat that model will take home the trophy this year, Largent said.

“You’ve got to play good defense in the infield because that’s where the hits are going to go. Your midfielders are very important,” he said.

An older team with a deep bench of long-serving players, the Republican squad will lose the starting first and third basemen — Reps. Kenny Hulshof (Mo.) and Chip Pickering (Miss.), respectively — to retirement after this year. Shimkus, a 12-year veteran, said he will play as long as he remains useful on the mound.

“Republicans are all about competition. If someone younger comes along and can pitch, I’ll step down,” Shimkus said. “Until then, I’m happy to play.”

Like Shimkus, Baca said he will return to the mound every year that he is needed, but unlike the Republicans, who have not been re-energized with newly elected players, the California Democrat said his team’s stock will continue to rise.

“I think chemistry is very important. Every year we grow and get better. It’ll only help us down the road.”

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