The Fiercest Battle in D.C. Is on the Baseball Diamond

If you think Capitol Hill is polarized, overcompetitive, and obsessed with winning, wait until you see the Congressional Baseball Game.
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The 2012 Congressional Baseball Game at National Park in Washington (Chet Susslin/National Journal)

Ron DeSantis dug into the batter's box, his shadow stretching to the backstop in the morning light.

The first pitch was a fastball, although that's a generous description. Even through his sun-squinted eyes, it must have resembled a beach ball as it floated to the plate. With an almost casual flick of the wrist and a twist of the hips, DeSantis sent it soaring. It traced a spectacular arc before landing over the fence -- a good 320 feet from home plate -- and coming to rest beside a sign that boasted "Home of the Titans."

The sign referred to the high school baseball team that plays at the Alexandria, Va., field -- but to the Republican onlookers, scrimmaging a month before their annual congressional game against the Democrats, it felt like a portent. To this clutch of lawmakers in ill-fitting baseball pants and gut-hugging T-shirts, DeSantis wasn't just a 5-foot-11 first-term House member from Florida, a man who in suit and tie looks like any of a thousand lawyer-lobbyists who clog the capital. He became a Titan of their very own.

And he has much to bear. His teammates view DeSantis as a solution to the problem that is Rep. Cedric Richmond, the young Democratic pitcher from Louisiana who is universally considered the best congressional baseball player in memory, and the reason the Republicans have been completely embarrassed in the past two contests at Nationals Park.

"I think we'll call him the 'Cedric Slayer,'" said Rep. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, as DeSantis trotted around the bases of the freshly manicured field. Rep. Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, also impressed, turned to one of his colleagues. "I wanted to play the Darth Vader theme song when I came up to bat. But after that hit, I think maybe Ron should use it."

It's been a while since Republicans on Capitol Hill have had much to be excited about. Under the direction of Rep. Joe Barton of Texas -- a manager who has been accused of abandoning free-market competition in favor of giving everyone playing time -- the team has suffered a four-year losing streak. It hasn't been fun. Most members of Congress already endure being backbenchers in the least productive and most despised institution in America. Add four humiliating defeats on a professional baseball field, and even the most self-assured members of society begin to doubt themselves.

Morale reached a nadir in 2011, a year that had looked good on paper. The Tea Party had swept dozens of new members into office, and the Democrats managed to elect only nine new faces to the House of Representatives. Unfortunately for the GOP, one of those rookies was the fearsome Richmond, a former starting pitcher for Morehouse College. In his first outing for the Dems, he pitched a complete-game one-hitter with 13 strikeouts. Last year, he fanned 16. The Republicans saw no end to that streak in sight.

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But the 2012 elections brought them DeSantis, a former Navy officer who in 2001 captained the Yale baseball team. And now he was already the first GOP player ever to hit a ball out of this Virginia park, where the team has been practicing since having to leave its training site after an errant foul ball struck a teacher out on a smoking break.

Normally, a freshman from Florida would not be recognized in the halls of Congress, even by his colleagues. But prowess on the field trumps the furtive anonymity of legislating, thus making DeSantis one of the most popular new members in his caucus. Not a week goes by at the Capitol, he said, that he's not stopped on the House floor or in the hallway to be asked about his arm or his swing.

The annals of sports are filled with names conjoined by epic rivalries: Magic and Bird; Ali and Frazier; Palmer and Nicklaus. For the most obsessed members of the congressional baseball teams -- of which there are plenty -- that list, they hope, could include Richmond and DeSantis.

"How serious do we take this?" asked Rep. Dennis Ross, a conservative from Florida with warning-track power. "We're up at 5:30 [every] morning, practicing for an hour and a half, for one game."

He added, "You won't see a lot of these guys this serious in their other congressional duties."

But the 2012 elections brought them DeSantis, a former Navy officer who in 2001 captained the Yale baseball team. And now he was already the first GOP player ever to hit a ball out of this Virginia park, where the team has been practicing since having to leave its training site after an errant foul ball struck a teacher out on a smoking break.

Normally, a freshman from Florida would not be recognized in the halls of Congress, even by his colleagues. But prowess on the field trumps the furtive anonymity of legislating, thus making DeSantis one of the most popular new members in his caucus. Not a week goes by at the Capitol, he said, that he's not stopped on the House floor or in the hallway to be asked about his arm or his swing.

The annals of sports are filled with names conjoined by epic rivalries: Magic and Bird; Ali and Frazier; Palmer and Nicklaus. For the most obsessed members of the congressional baseball teams -- of which there are plenty -- that list, they hope, could include Richmond and DeSantis.

"How serious do we take this?" asked Rep. Dennis Ross, a conservative from Florida with warning-track power. "We're up at 5:30 [every] morning, practicing for an hour and a half, for one game."

He added, "You won't see a lot of these guys this serious in their other congressional duties."

Pain and Gain
Nobody comes to Washington to lose. The 535 members of Congress are some of the most competitive people in the world, and some of the more competitive of those suit up to play congressional baseball. It's always been that way. It counts. So when Ross says his colleagues are putting the game ahead of other aspects of the job, he's saying they are part of a century-old tradition.

In 1914, the contest between the parties made it impossible to get enough bodies on the House floor to debate a Civil War cotton-damage bill. House Speaker James Beauchamp "Champ" Clark dispatched the sergeant-at-arms to retrieve a group of members from the field, but even with a quorum, the chamber adjourned without making progress on the bill: The members still had their heads in the game.

And it's not just the players' work that takes a backseat to baseball; it's their health as well. The first injury came two days before the first game in 1909, when Edward Vreeland broke his collarbone at practice, and recent examples abound. In 1994, Rep. Mike Oxley shattered his arm running into Sen. Sherrod Brown at first base; in 1996, Rep. Tim Holden collided mouth first with Rep. Bill Jefferson in foul territory, leaving tooth marks in his fellow Democrat's forehead and sending them both to the emergency room; and in 2008, Rep. Louie Gohmert tore his ACL and meniscus on a play at the plate.

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Ben Terris is a staff reporter for National Journal.

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