‘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.
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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.

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