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Joe Donnelly: From ‘The Sandlot’ to Nationals Park

Donnelly, left, and Rep. Tim Ryan share a moment during warmups at the 50th Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Donnelly, left, and Rep. Tim Ryan share a moment during warmups at the 50th Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

It’s 1960 and a young boy is tossing a baseball with his dad in the backyard, dreaming of playing in the outfield for the New York Yankees one day, just like his idol Mickey Mantle.  

Fast-forward 54 years and that same boy is playing in the outfield at Nationals Park. But he isn’t a professional ballplayer. He’s a U.S. senator.  

Sen. Joe Donnelly will take the field at Nationals Parks for the eighth time Wednesday, as an outfielder for the Democrats in the 53rd Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game . “If I could do one thing every day, it would be to be out playing ball,” Donnelly told CQ Roll Call. “I spent my life playing baseball. As a kid it was my passion,” the Indiana Democrat said. “My dream in life was to be the center fielder for the New York Yankees following Mickey Mantle. And so the chance to play in this game is really fun for me.”  

Donnelly’s description of his childhood baseball games sounds like a scene out of the movie “The Sandlot” (minus the confusion over what constitutes a s’more).  

“The entire neighborhood would show up at a little scrubby field and, you know, we’d have about 15 kids running around,” Donnelly said. “Old equipment, old gloves, old bats, old balls, but having an awesome time.”  

In addition to playing baseball in Little League, high school and after college, Donnelly coached his children’s baseball and softball teams. But Donnelly said he doesn’t bring his coaching experience to the Democrats’ practices.  

“I have ideas,” Donnelly said, “but Mike Doyle is in charge, and I never forget that.”  

Donnelly said the Pennsylvania Democrat is “a very close friend and has been a tremendous manager,” adding, “If Mike ever decides to retire as a congressman, I think the Pittsburgh Pirates should find him a spot on their team.”  

Donnelly also counts many of his other teammates as good friends, even though they make fun of him for being one of only two senators on the team.  

Doyle, left, and Donnelly are long-time teammates. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Doyle, left, and Donnelly are longtime teammates. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

“Since I’ve gone to the Senate, all the House members have abused me constantly,” Donnelly said with a laugh. “They say, ‘Ah, think you’re too good for us now, huh?’”  

Joking around with one another goes both ways, too. Rep. Timothy H. Bishop, D-N.Y., is one of Donnelly’s closest friends and the team also gives Bishop a hard time about his scraggly beard. “We say he’s actually got a side job as a fishing captain in Montauk,” Donnelly said, referring to the old Long Island fishing community.  

“Tim and I have been friends for a long time,” he said. “And after the 2010 election, which was so rough on Democrats, Tim and I were the only people left in the entire starting field.”  

After 2010, the Democrats worked to rebuild their team. “We were very fortunate that a young man from New Orleans was successful in his election,” Donnelly added, referencing Democratic star Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, who pitched a shutout in last year’s game.  

Donnelly said the game also gives members of Congress the chance to forge bonds across the aisle, and he said those friendships can help lawmakers work together when they trade their baseball uniforms for business suits.  

“What you know is that because of the friendships you develop, that you can trust them, you can work with them,” he said.  

Balancing work as a legislator with practice time is not difficult for Donnelly, though he often combines the two.  

“During practice this morning, I did two radio interviews with stations back home,” Donnelly said last week. “And I did them in the right field corner, out by the foul pole.”  

But Donnelly said he wasn’t worried about a fly ball interrupting the conversation. “You know we all love to play ball,” he said, “but nobody has the ability to hit it all the way out to the right field foul pole.”  

Other members of Congress also find their early morning baseball practices colliding with their congressional duties. At the beginning of May, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., gave a speech downtown in his baseball uniform after rushing from morning practice to the event.  

“I have not done that yet,” said Donnelly, though he noted, “I have come very, very close.”  

Donnelly is looking forward to Wednesday’s game and hopes the Democrats can pull off a sixth-straight win against the Republicans. But he cautioned against predicting a Democratic victory.  

“I’ve been on both ends of this game,” he said. “I’ve been there when the game’s over and not been so successful, so I take nothing for granted.”  

While Donnelly enjoys playing in a professional stadium and making friends in Congress, he also said the annual outing is a wonderful opportunity to raise money for D.C. charities .  

Last year’s game raised $300,000, and this year the funds will once again benefit the Washington Literacy Center, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington and the Washington Nationals Dream Foundation.  

“To know that because of going out there playing, maybe some young kid can get a book to read or can get a new mitt or a new helmet that they can play with — that’s really neat,” Donnelly said.  

The Indiana Democrat hopes to continue playing as long as he can, but admitted, “I don’t cover as much ground in the outfield as I used to. So I hope to keep playing until the coach looks at me and says you’re probably better off serving coffee to the team.”

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