Democrats Smell Dynasty as Game Day Nears

Posted May 21, 2010 at 5:28pm

Rep. Mike Doyle is done losing.

The Democrats’ win in last year’s Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game was a welcome reprieve for the team’s manager after an eight-year slide that had earned his team perennial underdog status. The Pennsylvania Democrat has no intention of returning to those days, nor does he think it likely: When he sees this year’s squad practice, he envisions a dynasty.

The Democrats assembled on a field at the Hamilton School in Northeast Washington on Thursday for their third week of practice. As Doyle pointed out, this puts them about three weeks ahead of their Republican counterparts, who are not scheduled to begin practicing until Tuesday. After last year’s 15-10 victory, Doyle’s players are determined to keep winning and hold on to the coveted Roll Call trophy.

“This is sort of like optional spring training,” he said. “Guys come into camp early; they’re enthusiastic.”

Players started arriving around 7 a.m., a swiftly rising sun already dissipating the lingering coolness of the early morning. By 7:10, 27 players were on the field taking warm-up tosses. A few fragments of conversation, such as the phrase “chief of staff,” were punctuated by the intermittent pops of balls hitting leather.

The Democrats will be fielding essentially the same squad at the 49th annual game on June 29 as last year. Reps. John Boccieri (Ohio), Frank Kratovil (Md.) and Mark Schauer (Mich.), all of whom started as freshmen last year, infuse the team with youth and athleticism. (Boccieri played baseball at St. Bonaventure University.) Pitcher Rep. Joe Baca (Calif.) shows no signs of flagging at age 63: Last year he threw a complete game, and on Thursday his throws to the plate were strong and accurate.

Meanwhile, the Republican team is in transition. Its core, composed of many players swept into power during the GOP rout of 1994, is aging, and several stalwarts may not be returning. Sure-handed shortstop Rep. Zach Wamp (Tenn.) and catcher Rep. Gresham Barrett (S.C.) are running for governor of their respective states and may not be able to play. Former Rep. Chip Pickering (Miss.), longtime third baseman, and former Rep. Kenny Hulshof (Mo.), first baseman, a two-time most valuable player and last year’s Congressional Baseball Hall of Fame inductee, are gone.

For Doyle, the trend is clear: The Democrats are set to eclipse the Republicans and, with luck, establish a winning streak of their own.

“If we keep the nucleus of this team together, we’re going to be tough to beat for a number of years,” he said.

Thursday was the first day practicing situational hitting. Kenny Burkhead, a retired Capitol Police officer who has helped coach the Democrats since the early 1980s, sprayed balls around the infield and shallow outfield as Doyle moved around base runners to simulate bases loaded with no outs or turning a double play with a man on first and one out.

While the team was for the most part steady in the field, a decent number of balls skipped underneath gloves or sailed wide of first base. Veteran third baseman Rep. Tim Bishop (N.Y.) was unfazed.

“We were a little shaky in the field today, but it’ll come around — we’ve got a month,” Bishop said. “We were successful last year, so we’re going to be fine.”

After fielding came batting practice, each player getting two bunts and two full swings. Most of the hitters made good contact on their swings, although several of them popped the ball up behind the backstop, watching it clang off the roof of a truck parked directly behind the diamond. Doyle said he emphasizes putting the ball in play, preferably on sharp line drives, rather than swinging for the fences at a Major League Baseball stadium such as Nationals Park.

“We’ve got a lot of guys who hit the ball, and when you’re playing one game a year, then there’s going to be errors,” Doyle said. “So the key is getting your bat on the ball and making [the defense] make a play.”

Shortly after batting practice, Members started trickling off the field to early meetings, or in one Congressman’s case, a prayer breakfast. When an aide mentioned the importance of being on time for Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s address to a joint session of Congress, a player suggested that Calderon would be sympathetic to a Member being delayed by practice.

“The Mexican president can wait,” he said. “He understands this game.”