At Bat: Former college athletes learn everyone’s a winner in congressional softball league

Two outs in the final inning. Dwayne Carson’s team is trailing by six runs. Runners take their leads off first and second as Carson, a consultant to Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), steps to the plate. After watching a couple pitches sail by, he swings at the next one and connects. The ball rockets to left field, determined to be the hit that sparks the game-winning rally. But the left fielder, perhaps aided by the ball’s 12-inch circumference, makes an incredible over-the-shoulder, Willie Mays-style catch. Game over.

Carson stops midway between first and second. He takes off his visor and raises it to the left fielder. With a shrug and a grin, he congratulates his opponent on a great catch and jogs off the field toward the cooler. He picks up a Solo cup and pours himself a beer before heading out to shake hands with the other team. There are no disappointed fans, no angry boosters. The game at Eastern High School may be over, but Carson isn’t acting like a man who lost.

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This isn’t the major leagues. It isn’t college or high school ball. It isn’t even baseball. This is congressional softball, and Carson is one of a handful of former college baseball and softball players who work on Capitol Hill and participate in Washington’s famed summer softball leagues. Like many of them, he isn’t out to recapture the glory of his playing days, but is instead focused on having fun.

“I was done with my competitive juices after college and didn’t seek to play softball when I moved here; it was all about getting a job,” said Carson, who played baseball for three years at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla. “But when I got settled in and had a little free time, I played in a couple of leagues. I tell people, ‘We’re not free agents, and we don’t get paid for this.’ I just try and show up and have a good time.”

Congressional softball can be a staffer’s weekly highlight for a variety of reasons. The game appeals to those who relish the opportunity to be competitive, but it is equally important to those who enjoy the chance to hang out, relax with friends and meet new people.

That’s why the game appeals to Josh Baggett, a legislative correspondent for Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) and former all-conference outfielder at Southwest Baptist University, an NCAA Division II school in Bolivar, Mo. To Baggett, the league serves as a change of pace from the rigors of collegiate baseball.

“It’s fun to go from being ultra-competitive and basing your performances on your scholarship to basing it on how much you’re drinking and that kind of stuff,” Baggett said. “It’s definitely a nice change to go out and have fun.”

The ability to meet new people wasn’t lost on Baggett, either. Citing softball as one of the best networking forums on Capitol Hill, he joined a team composed of Illinois staffers this season.

In fact, Carson takes the networking aspect to new heights.

“I try to play for as many teams as possible,” he said. “It’s always a good time. You play in leagues where guys don’t drink a beer during the game, and that’s totally fine. But you play on other teams that, as long as you’re 21, you pay your five dollars and you have at it. At the end of the day, more people enjoy that. They enjoy the ability to come out and not feel pressure.”

But that pressure is what many athletes thrive on, and not all have adopted the same laid-back approach to softball as Carson and Baggett. According to House Softball League founder Anthony Reed, the congressional leagues are inhabited by a large number of congressional staffers who are former collegiate baseball and softball players looking for ways to stoke their competitive flame. While admitting that the experience of congressional softball “isn’t quite the same” as playing at the collegiate level, Reed says the leagues provide a valuable outlet for these staffers to get out and play ball again, no matter the level.

That’s exactly how Katie Frawley feels. As a freshman first baseman at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Ill., Frawley helped guide the Titans to a third-place finish at the 2003 Division III Softball World Series. Since arriving in Washington in 2006 for an internship in then-Rep. Jim Walsh’s (R-N.Y.) office  — she now works at the Bureau of Labor Statistics — Frawley has laced up her cleats for teams in the House Softball League.

Her killer instinct on the diamond has waned a bit, as evidenced by her newfound ability to “brush off a bad game and get up tomorrow morning not sulking over making an error or not getting a key hit.” But she still desires to play softball at a high level.

“All the teams I’ve played on [in Washington] have been top competitors,” Frawley said. “People really go at it; there are longstanding rivalries that you kind of get caught up in. I’m not sure I could go out and compete for a team that was only out there for fun.”

Adam Neylon, a former second baseman for Carroll University in Waukesha, Wis., and a current staff assistant for Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), credits this to the competitive upbringing of athletes, something he says factors into his own approach to congressional softball.

“My main goal with softball is to go out and have fun, but in the same token, once you grow up around sports you have a natural competitive spirit that makes you want to win in whatever you do,” he said.

When Chris Carino first got to Capitol Hill, he faced the same dilemma. Carino is a legislative correspondent for Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and former center fielder for Furman University in South Carolina and the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. After having played baseball competitively his whole life, Carino struggled to adjust to recreational softball.

“I wanted to turn it on every game and try and win, and I realized I was taking it way too seriously,” Carino said. “You have to be able to go out there, keep it light, and make sure everyone has a good time. You have to accept the fact that not everyone is going to live and die by the result of that game.”

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To satisfy his competitive urges, Carino joined a men’s metal-bat baseball league. He continues to play congressional ball, saying the league provides a great opportunity to connect and bond with other staffers.

While the on-field similarities between collegiate ball and congressional ball may be limited to the simple dynamics of the sport — four bases, a set number of innings, a pitcher, batter and fielders — all former collegiate players agree that the real comparison lies in the camaraderie.

“Last year the House League playoffs brought me back to my days of playing baseball,” Carson said. “You show up, you’re with the team, it’s all business, but then afterward there is that family aspect. You go out, you get a bite to eat, you reminisce, and that’s it. To me, that’s what House softball and college baseball have in common — in both cases there are people deep down who care for one another.”