Heard on the Hill

Republicans look to avenge last year’s baseball rout

GOP team hopes new blood will reverse recent fortune in the Congressional Baseball Game

Capitol Hill staffer Zack Barth, right — here with his boss, Texas Rep. Roger Williams, at a GOP practice last year — is feeling optimistic about the Republicans’ chances in next week’s Congressional Baseball Game. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Republicans hope that roster additions and A-list advisers can help their team avenge last year’s blowout loss in the Congressional Baseball Game.

“Any outcome is going to be better than last year,” says Zack Barth, a staffer for Texas Rep. Roger Williams, who’s been involved with team practices. That’s when Republicans got routed 21-5 behind a complete-game pitching effort from Louisiana Democratic Rep. Cedric L. Richmond. Former New York Rep. Joseph Crowley called it “more of a football game.”

It was the second victory in a row for the Democrats, who have also won nine of the last 10 summer classics. The 16-run margin was the largest since 2013, when Democrats blanked the GOP 2-0.

Barth, a longtime practice squad member who was wounded in 2017 when a gunman opened fire on an early morning Republican training session, says Team GOP has an ace up their sleeve this year — or rather, a tiger, as in former Detroit Tiger and World Series champion Darrell Evans. The two-time Major League All-Star is one of several former professionals helping the lawmakers get over the hump.

Evans, who is a friend of Williams’ from their time in the minor leagues, would go on to have a pretty distinguished Major League career. He hit 40 home runs in 1985, becoming the oldest player, at 38, to lead the American League. (He was also on base in 1974 when Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run, breaking Babe Ruth’s all-time career record.)

For the last three months, a select group of GOP lawmakers has woken up to the smell of fresh-cut grass and the metallic “ping” of an aluminum fungo bat. The practice sessions last anywhere between 60 and 90 minutes, according to Barth. Lawmakers work up a sweat fielding grounders and fly balls, reviewing game situations and occasionally scrimmaging against each other.

Barth wouldn’t reveal too much about the training routine for fear of giving too much away to the other side. But it’s common for staffers and professionals to show up to get lawmakers in shape, shagging fly balls during batting practice or pairing off for warmups, a sign of just how seriously Congress takes this “friendly” game.

It’s that dedication, and pride, that gets these Republican players out of bed and on to the field at 6 a.m. two to three times a week.

Barth expects big things from newcomers Greg Steube of Florida and ex-NFL first round pick Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio, both elected to the House last fall. Gonzalez hasn’t played baseball since the Clinton administration, according to Barth. But the team is counting on his raw athleticism to give them a boost. And who could blame Republicans for the expectations? The former Indianapolis Colts wideout ran the 40-yard dash in 4.44 seconds at the 2007 NFL draft combine, so at the very least he can do damage on the basepaths.

“I really feel good about the preparation that we’ve had,” Barth says. “I feel good about the players that we have and the sense of community within our team. We’re all building each other up” and being “good teammates to each other.”

As always, Richmond will be a major obstacle for Republicans, despite insinuating that he was “done with this stuff” after last year’s game.

The former Morehouse College standout “is just such a great player for them,” Barth says. Richmond “throws harder than everybody else” and has “a lot of movement on his pitches.” And “he’s probably one of the only people on the other team that can hit it over our guys’ heads,” which is “pretty game changing.”

The practice atmosphere was loose and jovial in the early stages but has picked up intensity and focus as game day draws near. The teams will face off Wednesday at Nationals Park, with the first pitch at 7:05 p.m. Proceeds from the annual game go to charities such as the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington and the Capitol Police Memorial Fund.

Barth admits it’s impossible not to think of the terrifying shooting that occurred during practice two years ago. Four other people were injured that day, including House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, former staffer Matt Mika and Capitol Police officers Crystal Griner and David Bailey. Barth took a bullet to the ankle.

“The field was basically a killing field,” GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said at the time. “Had the Capitol Police not been there, [the gunman] would have walked around the field shooting everyone.”

Still, with security measures in place for both teams, Barth isn’t letting that memory overshadow the game.

“I’m not living in fear,” he told CQ Roll Call in 2017, and that’s still true today. Come Wednesday, Barth expects the GOP’s added coaching and boost from young athletic talent to put an end to the Democrats’ recent domination of the baseball game.

“We’re going to win,” he says.

From the archives: Scalise talks about his recovery and return to baseball

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.