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Well that was awkward: With trade-deal vote looming, Congressional Baseball Game gets political

This year, two Minnesotans — 1st District Rep. Tim Walz and 3rd District Rep. Erik Paulsen — played for the Democratic and Republican squads, respectively. 

Sen. Rand Paul reacts to striking out during the annual Congressional Baseball Game on Thursday.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

WASHINGTON — One night every summer, Democratic and Republican members of Congress trade their suits and ties for cleats and gloves in a longtime D.C. tradition: the Congressional Baseball Game. It’s meant to be a way for lawmakers to mingle and engage in a little good-natured bipartisan bonhomie, free of partisan posturing and rancor…or something like that.

For the most part, Thursday night’s game lived up to its romantic expectations, but — this being D.C. — partisan politics weren’t kept at bay for too long.

This year’s installment — the 54th under the sponsorship of the Roll Call newspaper — saw the Democrat and Republican teams’ all-time records in the series tied up. The Democrats came into the night having won the last six games behind the arm and bat of Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-Louisiana, a former college baseball player. This year, though, Republicans said they had fielded their best team in years, and felt poised to break the streak.

Two Minnesotans — 1st District Rep. Tim Walz and 3rd District Rep. Erik Paulsen — played for the Democratic and Republican squads, respectively. Baseball isn’t exactly the specialty of either man. Walz — a former high school football coach — is a Congressional Baseball Game rookie, and Paulsen is a hockey fanatic. According to an aide, the Republican likes to join in because his D.C. roommates — including Republican Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana — play. It’s a prerequisite for living in their house.

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As Republican and Democratic staffers trickled into Nationals Park just south of the Capitol, Walz and Paulsen joined their teams in warm-ups on the field. Walz, wearing the purple and yellow baseball uniform of Mankato State University, was, as they say, just glad to be there. “It’s really fun — I can’t believe it took me so long to do this,” he said. Paulsen arrived at the Republican dugout wearing the uniform of the Minnesota Baseball Association’s Chaska Cubs.

While lawmakers were mostly fun and games, the consensus was that the environment surrounding the game was a bit more political than usual. It fell on the eve of the House of Representatives’ huge vote on Trade Promotion Authority and Trade Adjustment Assistance, and as lawmakers took the field, Obama and GOP leadership were furiously trying to sway lawmakers on both sides to vote for the package. Most Democrats intend to vote no on TPA, and may vote against TAA to block the package entirely.

Obama in the dugout

So when Obama showed up in the Democratic dugout in the bottom of the third inning — well, things got a little weird.

The Democratic side of the stands—where many held up “no to fast-track” signs — began cheering wildly when they got a glimpse of Obama, who’s arguably the face of fast-track. Chants of “O-ba-ma!” swirled around. The president then moved over to the Republican dugout to shake the players’ hands. This is not friendly territory for him, but that night, he was greeted by applause and chants of “TPA!”

President Barack Obama posing for photographs in the dugout
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
President Barack Obama posing for photographs in the dugout at the annual Congressional Baseball Game.

When all of that subsided, though, there were some genuinely nice moments and playful displays of trash talk. The GOP side of the stands, crowded with young interns and staffers and felt like a college student section, held up signs like, “Democrats can’t get to first base.”

Rep. Linda Sanchez ignites the crowd

On the field, after Richmond hit a double to center late in the game, the Republican pitcher, Mark Walker of North Carolina, gave him a pat and looked to congratulate him. In the final inning, when the game’s only female player — California Democrat Rep. Linda Sanchez—took the field, both sides cheered. When she crushed a line drive to right field, the ballpark was loud — major-league loud.

No matter what happens on Capitol Hill today, Democrats can at least say they still own bragging rights on the baseball diamond. After a close contest for most of the game, the Democrats opened it up late, and ended up winning 5 to 2, extending their streak to seven. Paulsen stayed on the sidelines, but Walz—an avid runner — got in a pinch run late in the game.