‘It Frickin’ Hurt Like a Motha”: Politicians on the Agony of Congressional Baseball

And the agony of Republican defeat.

This illustration can only be used with the Alex Rogers piece that originally ran in the 6/20/2015 issue of National Journal magazine.
National Journal
Alex Rogers
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Alex Rogers
June 19, 2015, 1:01 a.m.

Rand Paul tipped his hat and gave a little bow to Pres­id­ent Obama be­fore step­ping back in­to the bat­ter’s box at Na­tion­als Park. It was a crit­ic­al mo­ment in last week’s an­nu­al Con­gres­sion­al Base­ball Game: Down 2-to-1, the GOP had run­ners on second and third with two outs, and Paul was down to his last strike. For the past sev­en weeks, the sen­at­or from Ken­tucky had been res­ist­ing the de­mands of his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, driv­ing his Mazda hatch­back “al­most” every morn­ing to the Re­pub­lic­ans’ 6:30 a.m. prac­tices. After los­ing six years in a row — in­clud­ing a 22-0 hu­mi­li­ation in 2013 — Paul’s party was des­per­ate to win again. “We must, ab­so­lutely must beat the Demo­crats,” Paul said, half-ser­i­ously.

Now, in front of nearly 10,000 chant­ing staffers, lob­by­ists, fans, and fel­low mem­bers of Con­gress, the sen­at­or was fa­cing off against Rep. Cedric Rich­mond, the Louisi­ana Demo­crat and former col­lege play­er dubbed “the Babe Ruth of Con­gress” by The New York Times for his dom­in­ant bat­ting and pitch­ing per­form­ances. And the pres­id­ent, a sur­prise vis­it­or, was stand­ing in front of the Demo­crat­ic dugout, arms crossed.

Rich­mond de­livered. Paul swung and missed. In­ning over. Obama cheered, gave one clap and a fist-pump, and left the ball­park after shak­ing play­ers’ hands and wav­ing to the fans. Fol­low­ing his de­par­ture, Re­pub­lic­ans mustered just one more run and ended up los­ing again, 5-to-2 — and spec­u­lat­ing about wheth­er the pres­id­ent’s un­ex­pec­ted ar­rival had doomed them.

To be sure, most spec­tat­ors saw the pres­id­ent’s cameo — the day be­fore a ma­jor vote on fast-track au­thor­ity for the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship — as a mat­ter of polit­ics, not base­ball: a ploy to rally skep­tic­al Demo­crats be­hind the deal. But that didn’t stop Re­pub­lic­ans from grip­ing — some more ser­i­ously than oth­ers — that the en­tire af­fair had af­fected the out­come of the game it­self. Was this the curse of the Bambino or the curse of Obama?

“Well, I think he timed it,” said a stone-faced Rep. Ro­ger Wil­li­ams, the Re­pub­lic­an coach from Texas who was draf­ted by the At­lanta Braves in 1971 and played a few years in the minor leagues. “He came right in the middle of our rally; I was a little an­noyed by that,” said Rep. Ry­an Cos­tello, the fresh­man Re­pub­lic­an shortstop from Pennsylvania. “I blame him for all the loss,” ad­ded Rep. Mick Mul­vaney of South Car­o­lina, tongue firmly in check. “It was a little in­tim­id­at­ing with the pres­id­ent there,” said Sen. Jeff Flake of Ari­zona, who’d man­aged a single in front of Obama be­fore Paul’s whiff.

If the pres­id­ent was dab­bling in games­man­ship, it wouldn’t be the first time a politi­cian had gone to ex­treme lengths to win the char­ity game, which dates back to 1909. At one point, in 1958, House Speak­er Sam Ray­burn felt com­pelled to can­cel the series, say­ing it had be­come too phys­ic­al. (The game re­sumed in 1962.) Those who have par­ti­cip­ated in re­cent years can at­test that the phys­ic­al­ity hasn’t di­min­ished, and they have the memor­ies of torn ACLs and frac­tured arms from vi­ol­ent col­li­sions to prove it. Rep. Joseph Crow­ley of New York can point to the muscle he popped in his leg three years ago (“It frickin’ hurt like a motha‘“Š”). In 2003, Rep. Kev­in Brady, the Texas con­gress­man, slid head­first in­to the catch­er (then—Demo­crat­ic Rep. Tim Hold­en), break­ing and dis­lo­cat­ing his shoulder. “I mean, he just crushed me,” said Brady, a 19-game vet­er­an who says he has also broken his nose and turned both calf muscles in pre­vi­ous edi­tions of the game. “We just com­pete,” Brady said. “I mean we’re all com­pet­it­ors. We like to win.”

The Re­pub­lic­ans’ los­ing streak ap­pears to have rat­cheted up their in­tens­ity. After the 22-0 shel­lack­ing a couple of years back, some dis­gruntled play­ers asked House Speak­er John Boehner to can their man­ager, Rep. Joe Bar­ton of Texas, who’d been ap­proach­ing the game as something less than a win-or-die pro­spect, giv­ing every­body on the team a chance to play by us­ing dif­fer­ent lineups for bat­ting, base-run­ning, and field­ing. Bar­ton kept his job — tra­di­tion dic­tates that the man­ager gets to choose his suc­cessor, and as Bar­ton rightly noted at the time, Boehner is “not the own­er of the Re­pub­lic­an con­gres­sion­al base­ball team.” But Bar­ton now tends to leave his best play­ers in the game, and Wil­li­ams, who once coached the Texas Chris­ti­an Uni­versity base­ball team, has taken the lead as coach, run­ning high-tempo prac­tices that of­ten sur­prise new play­ers.

“The first time I came out here, I real­ized how ser­i­ous it was,” Rep. Marlin Stutz­man of In­di­ana told me at the fi­nal 6:30 a.m. prac­tice, a day be­fore the game. “I came out here in sweats and ten­nis shoes. The next day I was like, ‘I can’t go out there like that. They take this too ser­i­ously.’ And it’s a good thing.” But he also adds, “I’m start­ing to feel the aches and pains.” In­deed, Mul­vaney won­ders wheth­er the prac­tice ses­sions don’t hurt as much as they help, giv­en the age of many mem­bers. “Some­times I won­der, the more we prac­tice, the worse we get,” he told me. “Be­cause all we do is get broken down. I can barely move my arm. We’re old. There’s just no two ways about it.”

As im­port­ant as win­ning is, there’s a dis­tinct ele­ment of wish-ful­fill­ment for politi­cians who grew up nurs­ing big-league dreams. This year, Demo­crat­ic Sen. Joe Don­nelly of In­di­ana had a high­light he’ll surely re­play for years: The big first-base­man dove to catch a ball, got up, then fell, and got up again in time to touch the base and get the run­ner out. Four years ago, Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Chuck Fleischmann of Ten­ness­ee had his mo­ment. Fleischmann began play­ing base­ball at 6 years old, but he stopped com­pet­ing in high school when his moth­er was bat­tling ter­min­al can­cer. Fleischmann says he’d “al­ways prayed” he would land in the Base­ball Hall of Fame someday — and in 2011, when the 5-foot-4 (“and a half”) second-base­man made a diving play that was cap­tured by a Na­tion­al Journ­al pho­to­graph­er, he did. The photo was sent to Cooper­stown as part of a Con­gres­sion­al Base­ball Game col­lage. “I got there God’s way, not my way,” he says.

The bad mo­ments linger, too, of course: The Re­pub­lic­an play­ers still cringe at years-old memor­ies of egre­gious er­rors and flail­ing strikeouts, and com­plain about lack of play­ing time. They’re play­ing for their party but also — these are politi­cians, after all — for them­selves. Be­fore the game, Re­pub­lic­an House Whip Steve Scal­ise told me his per­son­al goal this year was to “steal home on Cedric like I did last year.” He and Rich­mond are friends who rep­res­ent dif­fer­ent parts of New Or­leans, and Scal­ise figured the pitch­er’s dander would be up after he showed a pic­ture of his suc­cess­ful steal to folks from back home when they vis­ited the Cap­it­ol.

Rich­mond nev­er had a chance to bean Scal­ise, who didn’t have an at-bat against him. But the next day, their ho­met­own news­pa­per, The Times-Pi­cay­une, in­cor­rectly re­por­ted that Rich­mond had struck Scal­ise out. This was adding in­sult to in­jury, and it was not long be­fore a highly un­usu­al cor­rec­tion ap­peared: “An earli­er ver­sion of this story said that Rich­mond had struck out Scal­ise. Though he was an­nounced as the hit­ter, and his face ap­peared on the score­board, it was some oth­er Re­pub­lic­an that got called out on strikes from a Rich­mond curve ball, ac­cord­ing to Scal­ise’s of­fice.” Some­times small vic­tor­ies have to suf­fice.

COR­REC­TION: The ori­gin­al ver­sion of this piece mis­quoted Rep. Steve Scal­ise. The quote has been cor­rec­ted. The ori­gin­al ver­sion also mis­spelled Rep. Mick Mul­vaney’s name, which has been cor­rec­ted.

What We're Following See More »
TO DISCUSS OPERATION WITH MATTIS
Trump Wants Military Parade On Veterans’ Day
7 hours ago
THE LATEST

President Trump directed the Department of Defense to organize a military parade for November 11, Veterans Day, according to an unclassified memo written by H.R. McMaster and sent to Defense Secretary James Mattis. The memo says "Trump wants Mattis to brief him on 'concepts of operation for this event.' The memo also said that the parade route should begin at the White House and end at the Capitol." Trump was reportedly inspired by Bastille Day festivities in France.

Source:
TILLERSON HAS SIGNED OFF ON FINAL PLAN
U.S. Embassy to Move to Jerusalem in May
8 hours ago
THE LATEST
AND POLICE OFFICERS IN EVERY SCHOOL
Gov. Scott Wants to Raise Gun-Purchase Age to 21
11 hours ago
THE LATEST
SAYS WE NEED “OFFENSIVE CAPABILITIES” AT SCHOOLS
Trump Wants Concealed Carry at Schools
11 hours ago
THE DETAILS

At the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump announced his support for allowing teachers to carry concealed firearms at schools. "Why do we protect our airports, our banks, our government buildings, but not our schools?" Trump asked the audience. "It's time to make our schools a much harder target ...When we declare our schools to be gun free zones, it just puts our students in far more danger." Trump said that roughly "10 or 20 percent" of teachers were very adept with guns, and that "a teacher would have shot the hell out of him [the shooter] before he knew what happened. They love their students, folks, remember that."

Source:
IN THE WAKE OF NEW CHARGES
Gates Expected to Plead Guilty, Cooperate with Mueller
12 hours ago
THE LATEST

Former Trump campaign adviser Rick Gates is expected to plead guilty to a raft of new tax and fraud charges filed against him by special counsel Robert Mueller on Thursday. Gates is expected to cooperate with Mueller's investigation.

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login