- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 19, 2006

These are not really ball fields — never were intended to be — but lumpy, pockmarked patches of earth where nasty, bad hops can lead to the orthodontist. They are crammed together, one running into the next, so much a part of the cityscape that the occasional tourist gets plunked by a fly ball.

But what a view. Look, it’s the Capitol and the Washington Monument, and over there the White House. Here the Lincoln Memorial provides the backdrop, there the National Gallery of Art sits in foul territory. This is softball on the Mall, where workers from Senate and House offices put on their shorts and put aside, for seven innings at least, business as usual.

In its 37th year, the Congressional Softball League is a D.C. institution. The Senate League is a bit newer, and both have provided a happy, albeit temporary, sanctuary from the buttoned-down, high-tension world of Capitol Hill. And you don’t have to work on the Hill or in politics, or even the government to play. Bars and restaurants, the Smithsonian and the Secret Service have fielded teams. Staffers in the Gerald Ford White House called the Outhouse Gang stuck together long after President Ford went home to Michigan.

No matter who played, sport took precedence over partisanship, acrimony and political jockeying.

Goodbye to all that.

A controversy erupted last spring when about 100 teams, most of them with Republican ties, left the Congressional League to form the U.S. House League. The secession was led by Anthony Reed, a legislative aide to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert who was unhappy with the playoff system. Mr. Reed and others started complaining about it last year to Congressional League commissioner Gary Caruso.

Basically, Mr. Reed and the others thought that during the Congressional League postseason tournament, good teams were not being rewarded for their regular season success. The tournament is open to all teams and the best teams don’t play the worst teams in the first round, as is customary in most seeded tournaments. Mr. Caruso said this is done so that “all teams have a chance to win at least one game.”

Overall, the House League is seen as playing a more “serious” brand of softball. It keeps season-long rankings with a version of the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), the complex formula used to rate college basketball teams. Mr. Caruso takes pride in saying the Congressional League is more “casual” although “they’re doing about 90 percent of what we’re doing when it comes to playing the game.” Still, the House League lists on its Web site the differences between itself and what it calls “The Other League.”

But there was more to it than that. Softball turned into hardball. Mr. Caruso was barraged with criticism via e-mails and published comments from defecting Republican teams. He was called a “communist” and a “dictator,” among other non-compliments, because of his league’s playoff rules and for purportedly running things with an iron fist. Mr. Caruso also happens to be a Democrat.

The e-mails, Mr. Caruso said, “came from the elite Republican staff,” meaning the offices of Mr. Hastert, Republican Majority Leader John A. Boehner and Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, among others. Such talk, as well as the mass defection of teams, reflected not so much a dissatisfaction with the Congressional League as it did partisan politics, Mr. Caruso said. Then again, some Democratic teams also left.

Mr. Caruso, a consultant who worked for 17 years on the Hill and two years in the Clinton White House, does not hold back, either.

“If you’re on Capitol Hill, it’s almost a foregone conclusion if the Speaker’s office asks for something, you’re going to follow,” said Caruso, who is in his 24th year as commissioner. “These people are accustomed to running everything, and they wanted to run playtime, too.”

Ouch.

Mr. Reed, co-commissioner of the new league, captain of a team called Denny’s Grand Slam and one of “these people,” did not respond to several messages. In the wake of the publicity generated, few Republicans, if any, seem to want to discuss the subject. Mr. Reed did insist to the Wall Street Journal in April that the new league was about competition and not about partisanship.

That was before Comedy Central’s The Daily Show last month aired a scathing segment on this political softball called “Designated Bitter.” The Republicans did not come off too well. During the piece, it was reported that an interview with a Republican team captain was abruptly terminated when he received an e-mail telling “all captains” not to talk.

The residue remains, and so apparently does a gag order. When a reporter tried to interview a player for the Huskers, a Republican team representing Sen. Chuck Hagel and Rep. Lee Terry of Nebraska, the captain, Brad Schweer, interjected and sternly said his players were off-limits to the media. Even when Mr. Schweer was told the questions were not about the controversy, he would not budge. He told Mr. Caruso he did not want to be part of a story about the divisions between the two leagues. Folks have really gotten testy over this.

The good news is that it is still playtime between the lines, even though many of the fields have no lines. The vast majority of participants have no interest in the interparty sniping. This is about camaraderie and healthy competition. It’s about a young Sudanese intern who grabs a bat and with a unique, hands-spread-apart grip and an unorthodox swing, lines a single in his first trip to the plate. Ever. He later would be caught in his first rundown and make his first sparkling, running catch in the outfield.

“It’s fun getting out here,” said Matt Mackowiak, the press secretary for Sen. Conrad Burns, Montana Republican, whose team, the Sideburns, competes in the Senate League and thus remains outside the fray. “This is a beautiful place to play.”

Among all the fields that are used, the Mall is obvious prime real estate despite the rough terrain. Fields cannot be reserved, so interns often have to go down there in midafternoon and stake a claim, sometimes waiting for hours. But the wait is worth it.

Said Mr. Mackowiak, gazing at the Capitol, “This is another reminder of how special this place is.”

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