Why the congressional baseball game is about more than a game

U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-LA., slides in at 2nd base as Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, waits for the ball during the 50th Annual Congressional Baseball Game held at Nationals Stadium in Washington, D.C. on July 14, 2011. Photo by Douglas Graham/Roll Call

Editor's note: Texas Tribune reporters don't usually write pieces for TribTalk, but we've made an exception for this commentary by Washington Bureau Chief Abby Livingston, a member of the press team in the Congressional Women’s Softball Game.

WASHINGTON — There are few things more ridiculous than the annual gathering of members of Congress who pitch, hit, run, throw and catch on the field at Nationals Park.

Baseball pants can be unkind to the middle-aged and out of shape. Most of these players look like they should be coaching Little League rather than playing in a Major League Baseball stadium.

But the men and women who compete in the Congressional Baseball Game are living out the embodiment of the Bruce Springsteen song “Glory Days,” playing ball with a childlike abandon they are not allowed in any other part of their lives. It’s that enthusiasm — and absurdity — that makes this the best day of the year for Capitol Hill.

Half of the stadium is filled with Republicans, the other side full of Democrats. Fans (or really, staffers) show up with hand-painted signs to support their bosses.

“It’s just a joy,” said U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, the House Ways and Means Committee chairman — and one of the GOP team’s star hitters. “I never dreamed playing baseball growing up that I would I get a chance to still do this.”

Brady made those comments this week from a hospital, where he was holding a vigil for his wounded friend, U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana.

Scalise was seriously wounded Wednesday morning when a shooter cut loose on the GOP practice in suburban Virginia. Several others suffered injuries, including two U.S. Capitol Police officers, an aide to U.S, Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, and a lobbyist.

Williams, the GOP coach, hurt his ankle diving into the team dugout during the shooting.

Even before the shooting, the game felt different this year.

Given the partisan rage that continues to pervade Washington after a divisive 2016 presidential campaign, the game somehow fell by the wayside within the Capitol Hill subculture.

Folks here are just exhausted.

The same goes for the charity game I participate in: the Congressional Women’s Softball Game. It’s much newer, and something of a sister to the baseball game.

That game pits female members of Congress against female members of the Capitol Hill press corps. Unlike the partisan divide on the baseball side, the game’s founders, U.S. Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat, and Jo Ann Emerson, a now-retired Missouri Republican, wanted their team to be bipartisan and went out in search of a common enemy.

They quickly stumbled onto my reporter friends and me.

I add my own flamboyance to the game. I strut around in my #34 jersey (for Nolan Ryan) and pack enough sunflower seeds into my mouth that I had to dispel a rumor that I chew tobacco.

To drum up awareness of the game and its mission of early breast cancer detection, players from the two teams sometimes engage in trash talk. It’s usually silly and dumb.

The men in congressional leadership show up to the game in breast cancer pink ties, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi misses no opportunity to do her own trash talking from the stands.

But things are different in softball, too.

Sometimes, when trash talking with a member on Twitter, I find myself caught up in endless feedback loops of vitriol. The tone and accusations have surely escalated, in line with the national revulsion toward Washington and Congress.

But one line of recurring commentary hurt, even though it was not directed at me. It goes along the lines of “Congresswoman X. Why are you talking about softball AND NOT DOING YOUR JOB?”

I suppose that amid Comey hearings, health care debates and Russia investigations, the silliness looks appalling.

I asked Brady this year if his job as Ways and Means Committee chairman might preclude baseball. He gave me a determined no.

“I love playing baseball, and that is one of the most enjoyable several months of each year. It’s early in the morning,” he reiterated on Wednesday. “It doesn’t interfere with work.”

I would concur that anyone willing to rise at 5:30 a.m. to play ball before work is not neglecting one’s constitutional obligations.

But also, perhaps members playing ball ARE doing their jobs. It is impossible to move legislation through Congress without strong interpersonal relationships.

"First of all, this baseball game benefits charity," said U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey of Fort Worth, who is making his debut on the Democratic team this year. "We practice before the business day begins, and this is one of the handful of times where we do get together in a bipartisan manner, where we have fun and socialize — which is important for any sort of business."

And there is no better incubator of friendships than a dugout.

The day before the shootings, I crashed the women members’ softball practice. I like to study their hitting patterns and needed to scout their new relief pitcher, U.S. Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah.

The members don’t seem to mind the intrusion, mostly because I bring them coffee as a disingenuous apology for spying.  

After the practice, Love huddled with two Democrats — Wasserman Schultz and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — and they traded tips on batting stances.

“There is nothing quite like being out on the baseball field with friends, taking grounders and hitting BP [batting practice] and being a kid again,’ Brady said.

A shooter stole that joy from the baseball team on Wednesday in the most horrifying way.

But it affected my team, too. As I threw batting practice pitches Wednesday morning, I noticed that one of our strongest hitters wouldn't set her phone down. Then Coach Carl Hulse called an abrupt end to practice: We had news to cover.

An hour later at the crime scene, still in my cleats and baseball cap, I wondered: What if the shooter had come for the women members? The press? Our field has no underground dugout to dive into.

That afternoon at the Capitol, I encountered one of my rival congresswomen. We were both shaken, and she worried out loud about whether it was even safe to attend her own practice the next morning.

Baseball has always been the glue that held Washington, D.C., together. The Nats acclimated to the city at light speed when they first arrived a little over a decade ago — hardly anyone can recall what life was like before they came from Montreal.

In the summer, the National Mall is crowded with various Capitol Hill office teams who compete against one another in softball. On Saturday mornings, the newsrooms trek out to the suburbs to compete in a co-ed softball league.

Walt Whitman predicted so much.

“Base-ball is our game: the American game: I connect it with our national character,” he wrote.

“We are some ways a dyspeptic, nervous set: anything which will repair such losses may be regarded as a blessing to the race,” he added.

“We want to go out and howl, swear, run, jump, wrestle, even fight, if only by so doing we may improve the guts of the people: the guts, vile as guts are, divine as guts are!”

On Wednesday morning, someone tried to take baseball away from Washington.

He will not succeed.

I checked in with one of my sources and learned that that shaken-up congresswoman showed up to practice.

Some outside the swamp might look at these rituals and see ridiculousness. I argue that given the toxicity of our politics, ridiculous is exactly what we need.

And… lighten up.

After the week from hell, baseball is saving our souls.

Abby Livingston

Washington bureau chief, The Texas Tribune