Column: Congressional Bonding Through BaseballNovember 18, 2013

Column: Congressional Bonding Through BaseballCan baseball foster cooperation between Democrats and Republicans and end the bickering and gridlock that permeates Congress today? Maybe not, but two members of Congress are intent on giving it a try.

Roger Williams, a freshman Republican Congressman from Texas, along with fellow Congressman Mike Doyle, a ten-term Democratic legislator from Pennsylvania, have formed the first-ever Congressional Baseball Caucus. The group’s purpose is to transfer the relationship members of Congress enjoy on the field of play during the annual Congressional Baseball Game (CBG) to the halls of Congress. Williams was the coach of this year’s Republican team and Doyle was team manager for the Democrats.

According to Williams, the caucus, which was approved by the House Administration Committee last month, is an effort to “take the edge off the tension that we have every day by talking sports, sharing baseball stories and maybe having hot dogs and apple pie.” Although Williams and Doyle don’t expect to resolve the big political issues of the day during the group’s monthly meetings, “we might get into a baseball caucus meeting and find out that we’ve got some common ground on an issue, and maybe be able to do something in that venue we couldn’t do on the House floor,” said Williams.

The annual CBG has been dubbed the “most competitive contest in sports.” First contested in 1909, the game has been played at various Major League stadiums in Baltimore and the District of Columbia. This year’s contest, won by the Democrats, was played at Nationals Park, home of the Washington Nationals. The game is attended primarily by congressional staffers and assorted dignitaries and during the ‘60’s featured “bipartisan cheerleaders.”

The CBG is not for the faint of heart. Players rise before sunup for daily practices during the weeks leading up to the event. Injuries are commonplace and have included broken arms, legs and collarbones in addition to stretched muscles and torn ligaments. Some injuries occur during practices; others in the game itself.

While the games will never be confused with professional ball, they are competitive. According to Roll Call, the Republicans hold the all-time series edge with 38 wins to 37 for the Democrats, with one tie. The games have been played for charity since their inception and millions have been raised for local charitable organizations.

I first became aware of the CBG in the 1970’s when my former law partner, William Cohen, who served as a Congressman, Senator and Secretary of Defense, pitched for the Republican team. Bill was best known, in his words, for throwing “fast and scary wild.” Modesty notwithstanding, in a nod to his mastery on the mound, Bill was labeled by his Republican colleagues as the “Nolan Ryan” of Congress.

“No one dug in on me,” said Bill, “not if they valued their safety. I was known to be non-partisan in Congress and most assuredly on the diamond. I broke Democrat Walter Fauntroy’s ankle during one game and just to show that I was not throwing ideologically aimed curve balls, I fractured Republican Lou Frey’s forearm during batting practice.

“It was a great experience for all who played,” said Cohen. “We gained respect for each other’s talents or lack of them, but relished in the camaraderie of old guys on the field of our once young dreams.” But those were different times, before the words “government shutdown” and “default” became part of our lexicon. Whether talking baseball can put an end to the vitriol that permeates Washington and promote compromise and cooperation in government remains to be seen. But Doyle and Williams are optimistic.

“When you know somebody personally and know a little bit about them and their family, I think it leads to a little more civility,” said Doyle. “I think we could use a little more civility in the House, so I’m for anything that helps do that.” He won’t find much argument on that score, not from legislators on either side of the aisle and most assuredly not from their constituents back home.

There’s always the chance that competitive men talking baseball could serve to escalate the tension and gridlock that currently engulfs the nation’s capital. But there’s no harm in trying to defuse the rhetoric by building relationships through the common appreciation of the Grand Old Game.