ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Not long after the break of dawn recently, U.S. Rep. Roger Williams hit baseballs on a basketball court here in suburban Washington. “Atta boy,” he cheered when his partner shagged the balls.
Williams, an Austin Republican, wasn’t talking to a kid. The comments — and grounders — were directed toward Jeff Flake, a grandfather and U.S. senator from Arizona.
The exercise was part of the final practice for Republicans ahead of the annual Congressional baseball game. Williams and U.S. Rep. Joe Barton will coach the Congressional Republican baseball team as it faces off Thursday night against its Democratic arch-rivals.
The GOP team is on brutal losing streak — seven straight losses to the Democrats — amid a storied rivalry going back to 1909.
“There’s a lot of frustration about that, as it should be,” Barton said. “We win on the floor almost all the time. You’d think we could win in the baseball game every now and then.
Baseball, among Texas Congressional members, is a decidedly Republican affair. Williams and Barton run the GOP team, which includes U.S. Reps. Kevin Brady of the Woodlands and Mike Conaway of Midland. No Texas Democrats play for the opposition.
Barton is the team manager, inheriting the reins a decade or so ago after assistant coaching since at least the 1990s.
Williams came to Congress in 2013, and brought heaps of baseball experience. In the 1960s, he was a star ballplayer on the west side of Fort Worth and later lettered at TCU. Eventually, he played minor league ball for the Atlanta Braves farm team system.
As manager, Barton is in charge, but Williams runs the practices. “It’s horrible,” Williams joked about his coaching relationship with Barton, to his teammates' laughter.
“Joe adds a lot of stability to what we’re doing," he added, in seriousness.
When Williams joined the team, Barton recognized his skill set and encouraged him to take a more drill-driven approach.
“We’re much more organized, I give Roger Williams a lot of credit because of his major league familiarity,” Barton said. “He knows how to coordinate multiple activities. In the old days, we just came out here and threw the ball around.”
They strategize the lineup together. But, Barton said, he gets the final call.
The scene here resembles high school practice, though conducted at the crack of dawn, long before congressional votes and fundraisers roll onto the schedule. And some of the mostly male players in the game are pushing into their 70s.
Each member wears some local team’s uniforms, often major league attire or local high school pinstripes. Williams dresses in an Atlanta Braves uniform, citing his time in the team’s farm system.
“I should be wearing the TCU hat, shouldn’t I?” he laughed, citing his collegiate alma mater.
Barton opts for the Texas Rangers uniform, given that the team's ballpark falls inside his 6th District lines. He told the Tribune that he’s taken advice from former manager Ron Washington, retired catcher Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez and, many moons ago, the Rangers’ all-time hero, pitcher Nolan Ryan.
Regardless, the pressure is on the two congressmen. Just as Williams brings a unique background to the Team Republican, Democrats have their own weapon: their pitcher.
His name is Cedric Richmond. Before he represented New Orleans in Congress, he was an ace at Morehouse College. Since he came to Congress in 2011, he radically changed the game. Republicans just flat struggle to hit off of him, and Democrats have never lost with the 42-year-old on the mound.
“An average pitcher in this game, his fast ball will be 55-60 miles an hour,” Barton said. “Cedric, when he was first pitching seven years ago, his fast pall was probably 80-85, which was just under major league.”
“Eighty miles an hour to a 50-year-old member of Congress — who plays baseball probably once a year — is pretty hard to hit," Barton said.
So, the Republican members brought in younger staffers and batting machines to hurl harder pitches.
“We’re now able to hit him to some degree, but his pitching is probably the single factor tilting in their favor,” he added.
Williams agreed, saying the team improved enough that Richmond is less of a factor.
“We beat him last year ... but we beat ourselves,” he said. “We had it won, but we dropped the ball in the outfield.”
The two men have high expectations Thursday for the two Texas players on the team, Brady and Conaway.
Brady is one of the best hitters, but Barton conceded his ascent to the House Ways and Means Committee chairmanship has cut into some practice time.
In the delegation and beyond, the game is meant to be fun — tickets and sponsorships go to a slew of charities. But it is dicey territory for the coaches. At a very base level, delegating playing time risks alienating some very Type-A coworkers.
“That’s the hardest part of being manager is managing the expectations and egos of all these players,” Barton said.
Williams shrugged off the concerns.
“I don’t worry about that,” Williams added. “We’re out here to win. This is a baseball game, and we’re out here to win.”