Congressional baseball game pits Republicans against Democrats in strange yearly spectacle


“Baseball is a Funny Game.” – Book title by late Major Leaguer and baseball broadcaster Joe Garagiola

“Baseball is like church. Many attend. But few understand.” – Legendary New York Giants, Brooklyn Dodgers, Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros manager Leo Durocher

“When you start the game, they don’t say ‘Work ball!’ They say ‘Play ball!’” – Hall of Famer and Pittsburgh Pirate Willie Stargell

Even if you are a baseball savant, you’ve probably never seen a ballgame like the annual Congressional Baseball Game at Nats Park Wednesday night.

Around 25,000 fans descend on the stadium to watch congressional Republicans face congressional Democrats on the diamond before a nationwide audience telecast on FS1.

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But the annual Congressional tilt is, to paraphrase Garagiola, not just a funny game. It’s a down-right weird one. The Republicans wear standardized uniforms. But each player dons a different cap – usually an homage to their local Big League club. Like Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, has worn a Cincinnati Reds hat. But others wear caps from local community colleges, high schools or even minor league clubs. Rep. Greg Steube, R-Fla., is the starting pitcher for the Republicans. Steube festooned his pate with a red “Make America Great” cap last year.

But it’s easier to calculate a player’s “Defensive Efficiency Ratio” (DER) or “Expected Fielding Independent Pitching” (xFIP) than to keep track of the uniform numbering scheme Republicans use for their players.

In short, there isn’t one.

Rep. Greg Steube, R-Fla., wears a red GOP team uniform and a MAGA hat as he pitches during the 2023 Congressional Baseball Game at National Park in Washington.

Rep. Greg Steube sports a “Make America Great Again” hat as he pitches during the Congressional Baseball Game at Nationals Park in Washington on June 14, 2023. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

The Republican Party often touts itself as the side championing free markets and liberty. The GOP players seem to wear any number they want.

Last year, Republicans suited up two number threes: Reps. Greg Murphy, R-N.C. and Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn. Two number 11s: Reps. August Pfluger, R-Texas., and Juan Ciscomani, R-Ariz. Two number 16s: Reps. Blake Moore, R-Utah, and Kat Cammack, R-Fla., and three number fours: Reps. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich., William Timmons, R-S.C., and Jake Ezell, R-Texas.

Bill James couldn’t keep track of this stuff.

Meantime, Democrats don’t have a uniform uniform system. The Democrats dress like the American League All-Star team in the 1980s, donning any outfit they want.

Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., is in her second year managing the Democratic squad – the first female skipper in Congressional baseball history. Sanchez wears a Los Angeles Dodgers jersey. Last year, Sanchez’s getup featured the name “Valenzuela” emblazoned across the back and a number “34.” That’s an homage for Mexican star Fernando Valenzuela, who seized the National League by storm when he debuted for the Dodgers in 1981 and won the Cy Young Award.

By contrast, Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., plays first base and wore a Humboldt State uniform last year. Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif., tells Fox he will wear a San Diego Padres uniform. However, it’s unclear whether Levin will appear in contemporary Padres togs – ala Fernando Tatis or Manny Machado. Or maybe Levin will wear a vintage Padres jersey, circa Randy Jones and Dave Winfield. They wore garish mustard and brown uniforms for the Padres in the late 1970s.

Durocher remarked that, like the mysteries of faith, baseball can be hard to understand. Even if you pay regular pilgrimages to the stadium.

The Congressional Baseball Game is no exception.

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., led off last year for the Republicans, playing second base. But Scalise struggles to run after he was nearly killed on the field during the baseball practice shooting in 2017.

Rep. Jeff Jackson, D-N.C., slides to steal third base in the second inning of the Congressional Baseball Game at National Park in Washington.

Rep. Jeff Jackson, D-N.C., steals third base in the second inning of the Congressional Baseball Game at Nationals Park on June 14, 2023. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

As Scalise stepped into the batters box last year, Timmons crouched down in a track stance in foul territory. Timmons positioned his cleats as though he were climbing into starter’s blocks at the Paris Olympics. Timmons would bolt for first base as soon as Scalise made contact. This is the phenomenon of “designated runners” in the Congressional Baseball Game.

As Durocher might say, this is the hard to “understand” part.

Some players can’t run. Or at least run very well. So players are allowed to hit. And faster than you can say “Herb Washington,” they are immediately replaced by a designated runner if they make it on base. This phenomenon allows the players to stay in the game, unlike someone being lifted for the remainder of the game by a conventional pinch runner.

Timmons, Fleischmann and Rep. Max Miller, R-Ohio, did the bulk of the pinch running for Republicans last year. However, Timmons and Miller both pulled up with hamstring issues while running the bases.

Sanchez flagged how the GOP used Timmons and others during a pregame conversation with the umpiring crew last year. Sanchez believed that players running the base for Scalise and others were getting into position too far up the first base line from home plate. That shaved the standard 90 feet to first base down to 86 or 87 feet.

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Just like the Major Leagues, everyone is looking for an edge. That minor controversy is emblematic of how both parties take the congressional game so seriously.

As Pittsburgh Pirates hero Willie Stargell suggested, baseball is a game and is supposed to be fun. It’s a diversion to be “played.” Not “worked.” Even though the baseball vernacular is stocked with phrases about “working the count” or the bullpen “getting too much work.” The Congressional players (not workers) truly relish “playing” the game.

But it is a lot of work.

Practice for both teams begins in February when the ground is still frozen and as hard as the bricks comprising the outfield wall at Wrigley Field. Lawmakers are only in Washington a few days a week. So both teams maximize their practice schedules. Members often find themselves triple and quadruple scheduled during a typical day on Capitol Hill. They dart between hearings and legislative markups to unexpected floor votes. It’s all punctuated by late night and weekend sessions. So when are lawmakers free to field some ground balls or take batting practice? Try 5:45 in the morning.

Both squads do this – punctuated by the occasional evening scrimmage.

Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Fla., runs home as Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., braces for a collision at the plate during the first inning of the Congressional Baseball Game at Nationals Park in Washington.

Democratic catcher Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., braces for a collision at the plate with Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Fla., during the first inning of the Congressional Baseball Game at Nationals Park in Washington on July 28, 2022. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Don’t tell Stargell the Congressional game isn’t “work ball.”

The Congressional Baseball Game sometimes even takes on an air of South American soccer. Each office has a “cheering section” in the stands for their member. Aides and interns often clump together in a cluster of seats. Some wear the same T-shirts and even rally through a series of cheers just for their boss. Some offices informally compete about who has the best attire or the loudest cheering section.

Perhaps the Congressional baseball permutation is Garagiola’s characterization of the national pastime as a “funny game.” Baseball has its standard rules and field layouts. But each park is different. Each league is different. Knothole leagues develop their own divergent regulations. Kids playing in the backyard make up ground rules about throws that wind up in the neighbor’s swimming pool next door. There are provisions for if a ball hitting a particular slat on a barn constitutes fair or foul territory.

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The Congressional game is no different. The contest embosses its own stamp on the national game, played in its very own peculiar, particular way. But nonetheless, it’s baseball.

And every game begins the same. Just as the game will commence on Wednesday night at Nats Park. The umpire will declare, “Play ball!”

And despite all of the preparation and pre-dawn, 25 degree practices in late February, Willie Stargell would likely be pleased. 



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