ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- If you've ever driven past Eugene Simpson Stadium Park in Alexandria early on a spring morning, you may have seen them. Adorned in matching red-and-white baseball gear, a group of grown men hit and field and throw, practicing America's game.
It may seem like a strange time for baseball practice, but they are here every weekday morning in the weeks leading into summertime. Every morning they are in session, that is.
This is the official Republican practice for the Congressional Baseball Game, a uniquely D.C. tradition that has intertwined politics and the National Pastime since 1909. This year's game, which starts at 7:05 p.m. Wednesday at Nationals Park, will mark the 77th game in the series, and a notable one.
The Republicans hold the slightest of edges in the all-time series, leading the Democrats with a 38-37-1 overall record. They are taking the task seriously, facing a three-game losing streak heading into this year's game.
"We have a lot of solid players," says Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, but he adds a caveat: "The best player in the game is Cedric Richmond. He's really good."
Rep. Richmond, D-Louisiana, a former pitcher at Morehouse College, twirled a three-hit, complete game shutout last year in a 22-0 thrashing by the Democrats.
"I've been involved 25 years in the game and he's the best since I've been involved," Barton says. "And that includes guys like Steve Largent, who is in the NFL Hall of Fame, and J.C. Watts, who was a quarterback at [the University of] Oklahoma."
And that's why this group, more than 20 Republican members of Congress on this day, and up to 35 on some mornings, is here practicing. The contingent even includes a pair of senators -- Jeff Flake of Arizona and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
"I give them double credit [for being here], because getting a senator to do anything is a miracle," Barton jokes. "So getting them to come out here at 6:30 in the morning is amazing."
A Republican team hat rests on a glove at official team practice. (WTOP/Noah Frank)
Sprinkled in among the members of Congress are a few younger men, including former major-college pitchers. Now staffers in various offices on the Hill, they are recruited to throw batting practice, to simulate what the Republicans can expect when Richmond toes the rubber. It may help give the Republicans an edge, but the competitive balance and equal footing is one of the game's biggest upsides.
"It's one of the few things in Washington where it's a fair fight," says Barton. "The rules are the same for both sides. The majority doesn't get to tilt the playing field."
That didn't stop him from trying at a recent luncheon with Nationals Manager Matt Williams.
"It won't hurt me if you call him up next week so he doesn't play against us," Barton told him.
Richmond said he threw a fastball, curveball and change-up last year, but his one attempt at a knuckleball resulted in one of the three hits against him. At age 40, that fastball still sits in the low 80s, just a few miles per hour slower than many professional hurlers half his age in the minor leagues.
Despite his dominance on the field -- or perhaps because of it -- Richmond has found that the game has helped him reach across the aisle.
"I think it certainly fosters relationships," he says of the game. "You get to know people outside of Congress. I've developed some pretty good friendships on the other side of the aisle based on the baseball game with a number of members and it has paid off in the legislative process."
Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Virginia, agrees.
"These are the types of opportunities where you get to know other members, and this translates beyond the baseball diamond," he says.
"You get to know somebody here, and when it's time to work on something or get something done, the relationships you build here last an entire career in Congress."
It helps that all the members can find a common bond through baseball.
"I think everybody here has grown up with some kind of connection to baseball, whether they've played it or whether they are a fan of the game," says Wittman, who worked for the Richmond Braves as a teenager, selling tickets, donning the mascot suit and reading scores on the radio broadcast.
Richmond, meanwhile, has been coaching the game since he was 16. He'll be wearing a New Orleans Youth Academy jersey in support of his hometown youth baseball program.
"Baseball teaches a bunch of important lessons," he says. "It's one of the rare sports that, although it's a team sport, it has very significant individual aspects to it, and it's a game that rewards sacrifices."
This game also offers a tangible reward -- it's a huge charity vehicle. Barton says he expects to raise more than $300,000 at this year's game. That money will benefit the Washington Literacy Center, Boys & Girls Club of Greater Washington and the Washington Nationals Dream Foundation.
Flake, who was in the House for 12 years before being elected to the Senate and has played every year, calls the game "the best [extracurricular] institution in Congress."
His favorite memory? Getting a hit off of Richmond in last year's contest.
"Whenever you can do that, it tells you you're doing all right," he laughs.
Tickets are available for $10 through first pitch at congressionalbaseball.org.
The 2014 Congressional Baseball Game will be broadcast live on WFED 1500 AM, with WTOP Sports Reporter George Wallace handling the play-by-play and WTOP Capitol Hill Correspondent Dave McConnell providing color commentary.
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