Any Little League baseball coach knows the challenge. On an amateur team where skill level varies, it's tough to find the balance between trying to win games and getting everyone playing time. But for the Republican congressional baseball club, a dispute over playing time had members calling for the manager's head earlier this year.
A "significant" number of the 31 Republican players quietly sought the resignation of Rep. Joe Barton, the 64-year-old Texas Congressman who coaches the team, according to Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.). The players were unhappy with Barton's philosophy that everyone who has the courage to sign up should get to play under the lights. They are also miffed about Barton's unusual strategy of employing separate lineups for fielding, batting and pinch running.
“For those of us that never missed practice, and are supposedly the starters, to play one inning?" said one GOP member. “I busted my ass for the last two months. The whole 'everybody gets a trophy' model just pissed people off."
The movement to fire the manager first gained steam after an embarrassing 22-0 loss to Democrats last summer at Nationals Park, which despite the lopsided score raised $300,000 for three Washington, D.C. charities. Many Republicans concede they are doomed in this year's June 25 rematch. Democratic star Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), a former college outfielder, is a dominant force on the Congressional mound, with an arsenal that includes a curveball, a change-up and a fastball that can touch the low 80s.
The loss—the GOP’s fifth in a row and their worst in over 85 years—proved so frustrating that some members asked Speaker of the House John Boehner to fire Barton, who has been a part of the game for 28 years. "Where has there been a shortstop that didn’t bat?” asks Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-N.C.), who plays the position. “We had a fielding team, and a batting team, and a running team.”
"Just like they do in the bigs," he joked.
Barton refused to step down, according to Republican members, but has made a new accommodation this year. He will remain general manager, but Rep. Roger Williams (R-Texas), a former professional baseball player and Texas Christian University coach, would coach. Barton, as tradition dictates, is the one who gets to choose the next manager.
“[Boehner] is the speaker of the House and the Republican leader, but he’s not the owner of the Republican congressional baseball team,” says Barton, who declined to say whether or not the Speaker asked him to resign. “Nor does he consider himself to be,” Barton added. Boehner, through spokesman Michael Steel, declined to comment for this story.
Barton says he understands the frustration felt by his team and he’s making major changes. This year, he has not promised that everyone will have the chance to play, so that “at least on paper” they will have the best chance of winning.
Williams, the new coach, has brought in a few assistants to help him set up the hour and a half practices, which begin at 6:30 a.m. and include batting practice, a bunting station and taking fungoes. The new regime has eased some of the tensions. "I think people knew I was frustrated—hence my absence from some of the practices—but I’m back and happy with things have come about so far,” says Shimkus, who now drives his roommates, Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) and Steve Scalise (R-La.) in his tan, early-aughts Mazda 626 to the morning practices.
Democrats have watched the spectacle on the GOP with amusement. “I know what [Barton] is trying to do because he’s trying to play everybody,” says Richmond. “But our coach [Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Doyle] is not interested in the social aspect of the game and being fair. He just wants to win."
As for Barton, he dismisses any talk of resignation. “Oh, I’m asked to step down every week,” he jokes. “As is always the case when you are in a losing streak, there are people that want to change managers. That’s just part of the game.”