Imagine this as a scenario for bonding and team-building among members of Congress: a night at a baseball game. In its most extreme iteration, the full House would convene at Nationals Park, be immediately adjourned, and then kick back to eat hot dogs and peanuts, sip beer or lemonade, watch the game, and, most of all, get to know one another better. Maybe even get along better. Maybe even shed the label of “dysfunctional.”
A smaller, first attempt at that larger dream occurred Wednesday evening, when 40 members of Congress and another 400 or more staffers found time between votes for the Nationals-Mets game. The event was called “bipartisan baseball,” the result of an innovative collaboration between David McKinley, a Republican representative of West Virginia’s First District, and Diana DeGette, a Democratic representative of Colorado’s First District. As DeGette tells it, McKinley approached her to ask for her help in making it happen.
Now, to understand what’s involved in getting members of Congress to do anything—including head to Nats Park for a game—we have to recall that Congressional and White House sage Howard Baker once compared the process to “trying to push a wet noodle.” Herding cats is another option. But that did not daunt McKinley or DeGette, because they had a vision: their fellow members getting out of the office to bond over convivial downtime at the ballpark.
As we sat side by side in section 135, with McKinley one seat over, DeGette confessed that though she’s been in Congress for 16 years she still can’t identify every member. She said she and her husband, when they lived with their children in Bethesda, tried to entertain, but with her colleagues being working moms and working dads and the additional demands of school schedules, there was never time. Now an empty-nester with an apartment on the Hill, she has colleagues over for casual dinners. “No speakers, no agenda, we just hang out.” The baseball game idea was to take that model and make it bigger.
When lanky representative Jeff Denham inched by to his seat, and DeGette and I stood to let him get by, she leaned up and whispered in his ear, “You can loosen your tie.” He never did, but within a minute of taking his seat, he was engaged in deep conversation with McKinley and DeGette, discussing the upcoming vote on an appropriations bill. Occasionally there would be the crack of a bat and they’d turn their attention to the game, then back to one another. They sipped beers, waters, and sodas, and munched ballpark grub—just like any other fans.
They were an interesting trio: Denham in his suit and tie, McKinley in a polo shirt and a white hat that both had the WV logo, and DeGette in a red Nationals shirt. She’s a Colorado Rockies fan, but considers the Nats her “away from home team.” She said that if a vote got called during the game she would keep the shirt on when she went to the House floor. Other members were seated behind them or in other parts of the stadium. Some came with staff, some came with families. Each member bought his or her own ticket for $34 to $37 apiece. Altogether, 500 tickets were sold to the group.
If the “bipartisan” game was a dream come true for DeGette and McKinley, it was the same for Bob Tanenbaum, whose family owns the Nationals. With a small mixed bag of Nationals front office executives, MLB executives, and congressional aides and volunteers, he waited at the main gate entrance for the Capitol Police bus to arrive with the congressional delegation. He said making his stadium available to members of Congress “as a bastion of civility” has been his dream for seven years. He stepped up to shake hands with each of the members as they got off the bus. One of them joked, “You know this is straining the bonds of bipartisanship almost to the breaking point.”
Tanenbaum and team VP Gregory McCarthy led them to the steps for a brief photo shoot and then up into the stadium to the Roosevelt Room (which, coincidentally, is next to the Eisenhower Room), where a buffet and a cash bar had been set up. There were standing tables with red cloths, and a whole wall of hot dogs, buns, chips and dip, vegetables, and other ballpark fare. Waiting for them at the door was team general manager Mike Rizzo, who greeted everyone with a handshake. Tanenbaum was joined by his wife, Marla Lerner Tanenbaum. The atmosphere was relaxed and happy and even amusing as certain members introduced themselves to other members. Clearly, the premise of the event worked.
We hung out with Rizzo for a little while, which was a delight. (Full disclosure: I’m a Nats fan). Has he ever been to Congress? No, he said. We suggested that since they came to the ballpark maybe he should in turn visit the House chamber. “I’d like that,” he said. Tanenbaum said he went for the first time to the recent State of the Union address with his children, and was duly impressed by the experience. We asked whether Congress or the Nationals team was the more dysfunctional. Tanenbaum got very serious. “The Nats aren’t dysfunctional at all,” he said. “Not the way Mike runs this place.” In that case, maybe Rizzo should manage Congress during the offseason.
Nationals staff passed around a base for each of the House members to sign. That would be theirs to keep or to auction off for a cause. DeGette and McKinley were escorted down to the field for a brief opening ceremony moment with manager Davey Johnson, who presented them with a bat. (To be used on the leadership? Kidding. Just kidding).
We sat in the stands for three innings and then as a group were escorted to the President’s Club, which is behind home plate, so McKinley, DeGette, and Denham could meet with the wounded warriors seated there as guests of the team, a regular feature at every home game. At the bottom of the third inning, the whole group got highlighted on the Jumbotron, waving their red curly W hats in the air.
DeGette, enjoying the moment, said she gets tired of hearing people talk about how it “used to be” in Washington, when members lived here and got to know each other better at weekend social events. “Back then all the members of Congress were men with stay-at-home wives, and the wives organized the dinners.” But now women work, she said, including in Congress, and that model is out of date. “It’s never going to be the way it was again,” she said. “We have to find new ways to get together, and this is one of those ways. We want to grow this, do it annually, and eventually get the whole House here.”
Later, leaving the stadium, I asked McKinley and DeGette if the evening was a success. Both nodded.“Yes,” he said. “A resounding success,” DeGette added. Except, that is, for the game itself—the Nats lost to the Mets 10 to 1.