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Republicans Begin Their Title Defense

Rep. Joe Barton (Texas) is doing his best to lower expectations for this year’s Republican baseball team.

“Well, I think we’re trying to make a decision about whether we’re going to show up or not this year,— the manager joked after his squad’s first practice for the 48th Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game. “I really do think that if we just forfeit the game, it’s only 1 to nothing in the record book. We’ll just have to keep trying, and if we can find nine guys that don’t embarrass us, we may show up for the game.—

Barton has heard the hype about the Democrats’ new recruit, Rep. John Boccieri (Ohio), who played baseball at St. Bonaventure University, and he’s well-aware that two of his best players, first baseman Kenny Hulshof (Mo.) and third baseman Chip Pickering (Miss.), left the House in 2008.

Behind the facade, though, Barton’s not that concerned. A 22-year veteran of the Republican team, first as a player and coach and then as a manager for the past two years, he knows a good team when he sees one. Barton has some strong recruits, too, and he has faith in his returning players.

The Republicans narrowly escaped with an 11-10 victory in 2008, closing out that best-of-five series and retiring home their 10th coveted Roll Call trophy. Now a new series starts, and the murmuring about the Democrats, who expanded their majorities in the House and Senate in 2008, winning their first game since 2000 is growing louder.

At the Republicans’ practice early Tuesday morning in Alexandria, Va., the manager stood on the mound and watched each player pitch. He’s on the lookout for a couple relief pitchers to back up his ace, Rep. John Shimkus (Ill.). Freshman Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.), who was elected in 2008 to fill the vacancy left by his father, stood out from the crowd.

“The guy that impresses me the most of our freshmen is Hunter,— Barton said. “Well, he appears to still be in shape from being in the Marines, for one thing. He’s tall, and he has that champion’s instinct.—

Hunter has little baseball experience, but he played soccer growing up and still surfs and snowboards.

Another top recruit is Rep. Tom Rooney (Fla.), who played football at Syracuse University and Washington & Jefferson College. Rooney said he played first base and right field in high school but is happy to play “wherever they want me— in this game.

“I just don’t want to play behind Duncan Hunter,— he joked. “That would be embarrassing.—

[IMGCAP(1)]Freshman Reps. Gregg Harper (Miss.), John Fleming (La.) and Erik Paulsen (Minn.) also turned out for practice Tuesday. Paulsen said he didn’t have much choice in the matter.

“You know, my three housemates are the intense leaders of the team … so the pressure was to play,— he said, adding that the four men rode together to the field in Alexandria.

Paulsen’s housemates are indeed among the team’s stars. Shimkus, a two-time most valuable player, has pitched in the last five games. Rep. Kevin Brady (Texas) has been playing second base for the Republicans for more than 10 years and was MVP in 2008. Rep. Steve Scalise (La.), the only Republican rookie in 2008, backed up Rep. Zach Wamp (Tenn.) at shortstop in his first game.

Wamp, who is one of the lead-off hitters, is running for governor in 2010, as is Rep. Gresham Barrett (S.C.), the team’s catcher and another of its standouts. Barton hopes he’ll be able to replace the two starters.

“I haven’t figured out the secret that the Democrats have, you know. They go out and recruit for athletic ability for the baseball team in their candidates, and so I’m trying to think of some Major Leaguer … maybe Curt Schilling? I’ve heard he’s a Republican,— he said.

At this practice, which was optional for players, team leaders kept it low-key. Each player warmed up by playing catch, took some infield practice and tried out for pitcher. They expected to begin batting practice this morning.

The Republicans will spend an hour or more at Four Mile Run Park at 7 a.m. every day that Congress is in session until the game June 17 at Nationals Park. Money raised through sponsorships and ticket sales benefits the Washington Literacy Council and Boys & Girls Clubs.

Between now and game day, Barton, who interacts with Democratic manager Mike Doyle (Pa.) regularly at Energy and Commerce Committee meetings, has his mind on what’s important.

“He’s winning where it counts, which is in the committee room. He’s waxing my bottom right now every day in committee, so it’s only fair that we have a little bit of a chance out here,— he said.

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