News & Politics

“Bipartisan Baseball” at Nats Park Takes Crossing the Aisle to a New Level (Photos)

Setting “dysfunction” aside, members of Congress took in a game together.

The organizers of “bipartisan baseball” at Nats Park: Republican congressman David McKinley of West Virginia and Democratic congresswoman Diana DeGette of Colorado. Photograph by Carol Ross Joynt.

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

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.