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U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., wears patriotic socks as he participates in the 57th Congressional Baseball Game at National's Park in Washington, Thursday, June 14, 2018.
Rep. Fred Upton wears patriotic socks as he participates in the 57th Congressional Baseball Game at National’s Park. Cliff Owen/AP

Republicans Finally Have a Chance to Win This Year: On the Baseball Field

The GOP is putting its hopes and dreams into this year’s congressional baseball game, after a year in which its hopes and dreams in Congress were dashed.

It’s 6:40 a.m. at an undisclosed baseball field in Washington, D.C., one week before the annual game between the two parties in Congress, and no one is here.

Practice for the Democratic team was supposed to start at 6:45 a.m. But it isn’t until 6:44 that three Democratic members mosey into the dugout. No one is stretched. No one is ready. A dog named Foxy is wandering around home plate.

Eventually, around 7 a.m., Rep. Linda T. Sánchez begins the process of trying to get the practice going, which starts — in a very congressional way — with a roll call. But about half of the team is absent. Multiple names are called and met with awkward silence. Congressional hearings get a better turnout than this.

If you play how you practice, the Democrats have no chance — not compared to the Republicans, whose practice a day before looked like something between those Tom Emanski AAU baseball drills from back in the day and Seal Team 6 training.

For the Republicans, the game just means more. At least, it does this year.

***

The GOP team’s practice was supposed to start at 6 a.m. But when NOTUS showed up around 5:52, the majority of the team was already on the field, their arms warm and their hamstrings loose. Most were wearing jerseys and gray baseball pants.

The Democrats showed up in combinations of sweatpants, shorts, T-shirts and soccer jerseys. They looked like “The Bad News Bears” at the beginning of the movie. The Republicans look like the rich kids in “The Sandlot” — but with the gear and the game. They look like a real baseball team. The Democrats do not.

As both teams prepare for the annual Congressional Baseball Game — a contest that oscillates between bipartisan goofiness and partisan combat, depending on the Congress — the two teams this year seem to be, if not on different planets, then at least in different leagues.

Republicans are using the game to literally tee off on Democrats. Months of crack-of-dawn practices and buckets full of bruised baseballs can attest to their frustration — a frustration borne out of uncomfortable political realities.

The party is divided. Their majority has dwindled. And their presidential nominee just became a convicted felon.

The year, in short, has been bad. And in the minds of many GOP lawmakers, it’s the Democrats’ fault. It’s Democrats standing in the way of the GOP’s legislative wins. It’s Democrats who joined with eight Republicans to jettison Kevin McCarthy from the speakership. And it’s Democrats who should pay. If Republicans can’t win on the House floor, they can at least win on the baseball diamond.

For Democrats, the game is just that: a game.

“This is, like, the best time of year in all of Congress,” Sánchez, the coach for the Democratic team, tells NOTUS. “Because it’s fun.”

But fun seems to be the last thing on the GOP’s mind.

“It’s a big rivalry. Everybody says [the game is] bipartisan; it’s not really bipartisan,” Rep. Roger Williams, the GOP coach, says. “And with all the stuff that’s happening, this is another way to get after each other.”

***

“All the stuff that’s happening” seems to refer to the troubles of the GOP conference. To say that Republicans have struggled this Congress is an understatement. Republican efforts to score political points have left Democrats basically pitching a shutout.

There have been no major Republican wins. The impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden is going nowhere fast. Even efforts to embarrass the president by calling out his troubled son, Hunter, have backfired.

Republicans are down so bad that they have stumbled on the easiest items. An impeachment vote against the Homeland Security Secretary initially failed on the floor because Republicans didn’t count their votes correctly. Procedural votes go down with alarming regularity. And Republicans on the Rules Committee — colloquially known as “the Speaker’s Committee” — have repeatedly blocked bills from the House floor.

Speaker Mike Johnson has also sided with Democrats — and against the majority of the GOP conference — on some critical items, most notably a long-sought Ukraine aid bill. The episode triggered a motion to vacate against Johnson, which Democrats had to help quash to save everyone from the embarrassment of another Speaker debacle.

It’s been a long year for Johnson — and it’s only been nine months.

As if stealing advice from the 12-step program, Republicans are now only seeking to control the things they can control. And Democrats are fully aware that means the GOP is gunning for them at Nationals Park on Wednesday.

***

CA Rep Tony Cárdenas' bat, signed by members of the Democrats' roster during a morning baseball practice.
Rep Tony Cardenas’ bat, signed by members of the Democrat’s roster during a morning baseball practice. Anna Kramer/NOTUS

Ever since former Rep. Cedric Richmond left the House to join the Biden administration, the Democrats haven’t won the congressional baseball game. (Richmond last played in 2019. There was no game in 2020 because of COVID.)

During Richmond’s tenure in the House, the Democrats went 8-1, with Richmond — a former college baseball player — usually handling the pitching duties and taking care of more than his fair share of offense.

This year, Democrats have no illusions about who’s the favorite.

“They’re definitely a lot better at baseball than they are at governing,” says Rep. Jared Huffman, a former player who’s now the Democrats’ first-base coach. (Huffman told NOTUS he gave up playing because the early morning practices were too much.)

For the Republicans, there’s no hour too early for baseball.

At their practice, before the official 6 a.m. start, the GOP team is circled up around Coach Williams. The former minor leaguer was drafted by the Braves in 1971, and he became the head coach at his alma mater, Texas Christian University, after a torn rotator cuff ended his days in center field.

Once practice begins, Williams stands in the infield grass and hits baseballs to a rotating depth chart of left fielders. They each make the catch, smoothly transfer the ball to their throwing hand, and hit the cutoff man. Behind Williams, two bat-wielding assistants pound grounders to both sides of the infield. In right field, a fly-ball machine shoots sky-high pop-ups to another group of outfielders.

Behind the bleachers, members take cuts in the batting cages. Sen. Eric Schmitt is making the pitcher flinchy. He drives a hard liner past the screen as the pitcher ducks behind it.

“He’ll be our leadoff hitter,” Williams says of Schmitt. “Set the tone.”

***

The game hasn’t always been this way. Since Rep. John Tener, a former major league pitcher, founded the contest in 1909, it has been a yearly opportunity to get away from politics. In a 1948 floor speech, Rep. James Richards summarized the game’s appeal: “It is a fine thing when two great parties of a great nation, the greatest nation on the face of the earth, can drop the care and worries of Capitol Hill, forget about the heat and temporary animosities of debate, and go out at night to a baseball field where the great American game is played.”

Across decades of dysfunction and shifting party lines, the game has been a marker of bipartisan friendships. “Mike Doyle, who was a Democrat coach forever, he and I were in a Bible study together,” former Rep. Jack Kingston, who still attends the GOP practices, tells NOTUS. “We were buddies. You don’t take swings at people you know.”

But that sentiment seems to be from a time when Kingston was in Congress. Kingston, now a lobbyist, left Congress at the end of 2014, before Donald Trump came to town.

By the time Trump had arrived, there were already cracks in the facade of friendliness. The shooting at a Republican baseball practice in 2017 brought the teams closer together, but the rancor throughout the Trump years also drove them apart.

By 2019, then-freshman Rep. Greg Steube started taking the pitcher’s mound for the Republicans sporting a MAGA hat. The game has always had a spirit of partisanship running through it — it is, after all, Democrats v. Republicans — but many Democrats felt Steube’s gesture crossed the line. Most players wear gear from a college or professional team in their district or state. Steube’s MAGA hat seemed designed to trigger the Democrats, which it did.

“That was deeply offensive,” Huffman says of Steube wearing the MAGA hat.

“Here’s this guy on the mound, throwing to all of us, wearing a Make America Great Again hat,” he tells NOTUS. “That was just one of many unfortunate diminishments of the camaraderie we’ve seen in recent years.”

***

There is, sometimes, something beautiful about a thing past its prime. A cherry blossom a week after peak bloom. The quiet sadness, but sheer charm, of a decaying home. A grandmother’s wrinkled hands. The Japanese even have a word for this beauty of rotting, of imperfection: wabi-sabi.

There is no beauty to be found on the Congressional Baseball diamond.

In the past, opposition researchers have been dispatched to the game to get footage of certain candidates wearing baseball pants. (It’s almost impossible for anyone over the age of 40 to look good in baseball pants; it’s actually impossible to look good in baseball pants if you’ve authored a bill that has become a law.)

Athletes lived in these swollen frames once, in these rickety bones. The gloves don’t pop like they used to. The throws that used to zip across the diamond instead float. But Republicans and Democrats alike bear the indignity of being human, of looking ridiculous, of confronting an athletic pursuit — in front of their colleagues and thousands of staffers and other onlookers — past their peaks of athleticism.

They dare to be embarrassed in their old age, for the chance at being young again. For two hours or so on a humid night in June, they get to take the field at a major league stadium and be something other than a member of Congress. They get to show everyone that they could have been something else, that they have something more to offer than a bill, that they still got it.

***

It’s 7:10 a.m. at the Democratic practice, and members still aren’t really practicing. Sen. Alex Padilla lays on his back in front of the dugout, working his right hip. Behind him in right field, the team has finally started stretching. Sánchez calls the team to the mound. They’ll work on baserunning and looking to the third-base coach before a pitch, she says.

Sánchez loves baseball. She’s also intense. When retiring right fielder Tony Cárdenas overthrows his cutoff man, she lets him have it. “Hit your cutoff, Tony!” she shouts.

“He’s short!” Cárdenas playfully responds.

“Aim for his chest!” Sánchez yells, unamused.

Sánchez knows the game. As staffers demonstrate a rundown between first and second base, she yells some more. “Follow the fucking throw!” Sánchez roars.

Sánchez, who has more than held her own at the plate in recent years, explains the challenges of coaching the Democratic team.

“I’m a woman, and I’m trying to coach 15 men who all have egos,” she tells NOTUS. “So yeah, you’ve got to be a little hard on them. I run a tight ship.”

Asked about the late start time compared to the GOP’s practices, Sanchez emphasizes that’s just not possible with the Democrats.

“If I tried to get these guys out here at six o’clock, there’d be mutiny on the bounty,” Sánchez says. “There’d be no way.”

When we catch up with Cárdenas about the missed cutoff and the back-and-forth with Sánchez, he’s all smiles.

“We don’t listen very well sometimes, so I don’t blame her,” Cárdenas says. “Coaches have to be intense. But I’ve heard that the Republican practices are a heck of a lot more intense.”

***

Practice is wrapping up for the Republicans, but Rep. Morgan Luttrell is still at the plate. He’s spraying opposite field line drives deep to right field.

Finally, he cracks one good enough that it sails over the fence.

“I just hope I can do that during the game,” Luttrell says.

Meanwhile, Williams is recalling his playing days, sharing a story about something Hank Aaron told him one day in the Braves spring training locker room.

“He said, ‘Kid, let me tell you something. In this league, there’s moments.’ He said, ‘You be ready for your moment,’” Williams says.

He starts another Hank Aaron story — something, it seems, he does often, because it’s Hank Aaron — but some action on the field catches his attention. He stops mid-sentence to encourage his team.

“Let’s get after it!” he calls out.

Without missing a beat, Williams goes back to his story. It means something to him, the same way this game means something to him, the same way it means something to the entire Republican team.

“I tell people, go back to your high school days, when you played your biggest rivalry in football,” Williams says. “All you thought about was that, right? At school, you didn’t do your homework, you didn’t study. You’re ready to get out there.”

“It’s the same thing with this,” he says.


Ben T.N. Mause and Ryan Hernández are NOTUS reporters and Allbritton Journalism Institute fellows. Anna Kramer, a reporter at NOTUS, also contributed to this report.