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Key players return to Congressional Softball Game, this time at the microphone

Former Reps. Cheri Bustos and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen will join the announcers’ booth

Cheri Bustos collides with Debbie Wasserman Schultz during the Congressional Women's Softball Game in 2021. Bustos will return to the game this year as an announcer.
Cheri Bustos collides with Debbie Wasserman Schultz during the Congressional Women's Softball Game in 2021. Bustos will return to the game this year as an announcer. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Cal)

Now in its 16th year, the annual Congressional Women’s Softball Game has taken on historic importance — at least according to Jane Campbell.

“It’s a moment of bipartisan collaboration,” the CEO of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society said during a webinar Thursday about the upcoming game. “It is a time when the women of Congress come together.”

Campbell was joined by former players Cheri Bustos and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who hyped up Wednesday’s coming contest between lawmakers and Washington journalists.

The bipartisan pair — Democrat Bustos represented Illinois’ Quad Cities region from 2013 to 2023, while Republican Ros-Lehtinen represented South Florida from 1989 to 2019 — will serve as this year’s announcers, alongside MSNBC stalwart Andrea Mitchell.

During the preview event, Ros-Lehtinen noted frequently that she had more enthusiasm than athletic talent. “I’m a lousy athlete, but I just love the camaraderie on the field,” she said.  

Despite that self-deprecation, Bustos revealed that Ros-Lehtinen will be inducted into the game’s hall of fame this year, joined by Mikayla Bouchard of CNN, Carrie Budoff Brown of NBC News, Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report, photographer Marty LaVor and former Reps. Grace Napolitano, D-Calif., and Martha Roby, R-Ala. Another inductee will be Megan Cavanagh, who played Marla Hooch in “A League of Their Own.” Bustos herself is already a member.

The annual charity match began in 2009, with members of Congress competing against a team of campaign staffers. The next year, the elected officials faced off against a team of journalists, and the Fourth Estate has been their foe on the field ever since.

Shortly after revealing her breast cancer diagnosis publicly, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., founded the game along with former Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Susan Collins, R-Maine.  

The Congressional Women’s Softball Game has always been a fundraiser for the Young Survival Coalition, a nonprofit for women struggling with early-life breast cancer diagnoses. Since its founding, the event has raised $3.7 million for the group, and organizers expect this year’s game to bring in more than $600,000, which could rival last year’s record haul.

Alongside Wasserman Schultz and Gillibrand, the lawmakers’ side will once again be captained by Rep. Stephanie Bice, R-Okla., and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.

Two rookies will join the roster: Reps. Val Hoyle, D-Ore., and Erin Houchin, R-Ind. But the biggest change for viewers in the stands this year may be the new voices at the announcers’ table, replacing longtime staples Sen. Amy Klobuchar and CNN’s Dana Bash.    

Bustos, a college athlete who grew up playing in sandlots with her baseball-obsessed family, said Wasserman Schultz recruited her to the softball team early. “I had just been elected. I hadn’t even been sworn in, and she was running the Democratic National Committee,” Bustos said during the historical society event Thursday. “She goes, ‘I have a question, and your answer could be career-ending if you don’t answer the right way.’”

Wasserman Schultz asked if she’d join the softball team. It was an easy yes for Bustos, who went on to chair the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and is now a lobbyist with Mercury Public Affairs.

The softball game’s new announcers remarked on its similarities with and differences to the older and more famous Congressional Baseball Game, which began in 1909 and has been played every year (except for 2020) since 1962. Ros-Lehtinen was one of the first women to integrate the baseball game in 1993. 

“I used to be young and thin. My Florida Marlins uniform was so big — it was a real uniform that we wore from our home team,” said Ros-Lehtinen, now a lobbyist with Akin Gump.

The ball “hit my very big shirt,” she said, “and that’s how I got on base.”

The baseball game pits Republicans against Democrats in a typically partisan affair. Republican manager Roger Williams corrected reporters this year who called it bipartisan, saying, “It’s not bipartisan. They want to beat us and we want to beat them.”

But the softball game is truly nonpartisan, with members of both parties playing side by side against the press corps’ Bad News Babes. The bonds formed during early morning fielding drills have led to bipartisan proposals. “I became the Republican sponsor of a bill that [Massachusetts Democratic Rep.] Katherine Clark had regarding animals [called] the PAWS Act,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two games is scale. While the Congressional Baseball Game’s organizers said they sold roughly 30,000 tickets to this year’s iteration at Nationals Park, the softball teams are expecting a more modest crowd to fill the bleachers at Watkins Elementary School in Southeast Washington this year. At the Congressional Baseball Game, defense contractors and lobbying firms ran ads between innings on the jumbotron and set up recruitment booths along the concourse for the boozed-up crowd of Hill staffers. At the Congressional Women’s Softball Game, you’ll find face painting, ice cream and other family-friendly entertainment.

As elected officials, members of the congressional team obviously know how to run, but historically they’ve choked against the hard-hitting journalists, who have won 10 games to the members’ four.

Tickets cost $10 and are still available for Wednesday’s game, as are corporate sponsorships, Bustos said. The gates open at 5:30 p.m., and the first pitch is scheduled for 7 p.m.