Congressional softball season returns

Beginning in April, staffers from both houses of Congress will switch out their work clothes for cleats and carry forward a 43-year-old tradition of playing softball on the National Mall. 

“It’s the last great way to meet people on the Hill,” said Anthony Reed, the founder of the House Softball League. 

After stricter ethics guidelines in 2006 put an end to many Capitol Hill social functions, congressional softball, for many, is the rare opportunity to kick back with co-workers and get acquainted with fresh faces in the scene. 

John Richter, a 27-year-old staffer for Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), has played on the lawmaker’s softball team for more than six years, beginning when he was an intern. Staffers and interns in the upper chamber alike can play for the teams in the Senate Softball League, and though some interns might find the idea of being at the bat with a future boss to be intimidating, Richter felt it built a sense of camaraderie. 

“There was this idea that we were interns, and we didn’t want to mess up. But it allowed us to get to know staff on a one-on-one basis,” said Richter. 

The added benefit of staffers inviting friends and family, as well as “softball moms” who would bring cookies to games, made playing for his senator’s softball team a more social activity, rather than a nerve-wracking competition. One of Richter’s favorite memories was when Casey’s team played against the team of then fellow Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, who died last year after a long battle with cancer. Specter would come over to Casey’s side of the field and chat with the staffers. “He would tell the funniest jokes,” said Richter. 

Over on the House side there are two separate leagues: the Congressional Softball League and the House Softball League. But unlike the Senate Softball League, you don’t have to work on Capitol Hill to play. Teams are also made up of employees from federal agencies, nonprofits and think tanks. 

Some notables include the Czardinals, which represent the Office of National Drug Policy, and “Too Big to Fail,” whose players work at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. 

Reed, who stepped down as the House Softball League’s president last year, founded the league in 2006 because he and other coaches were frustrated over how Congressional Softball League commissioner Gary Caruso was managing the league. Almost two-thirds of the CSL’s 190 teams switched over to HSL in the resulting faction. 

Seven years after the split, Reed and his Denny’s Grand Slams — in honor of former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) — won’t be hitting foul balls over the Washington Monument this season. When Denny’s Grand Slam, or DGS, played its 14th and concluding season last year, it still had 9 of its original 15 players from 2000, making it one of the longest-standing teams in the House Softball League. But as years went by, the added responsibilities of children and family life began to crop up, and team members began moving away from the District for new jobs. Such factors cemented the team’s decision to make 2012 their last season. 

“I couldn’t envision myself playing on another team,” said Reed, who starting playing for DGS when he began work as Hastert’s communications director in 1999. He eventually became the team’s coach. The father of two said he worked to set an institutional structure in the House Softball League that would withstand the inevitable transient nature of the city and team members’ shifting priorities.

“My dream is that when my children are all grown, they can play softball for the House Softball League,” said Reed.

Caruso, the commissioner of the Congressional Softball League, doesn’t want to dwell on the past, and dismisses the separation as the teams in the House Softball League wanting to play “a more serious, competitive, type of game.” He feels the sport should equally serve those who want a heightened sense of competition as well as a casual good time. 

“With the pressure and pace of Congress, it’s important to have a little recreation time,” said Caruso. Both Reed and Caruso say their leagues have some teams that are laid-back, and some that are very competitive.

“You have very Type A, competitive people who come out to work here. It doesn’t matter for which president or senator, you have very ambitious people here. You might get a former varsity baseball player playing for your softball team,” said Caruso. 

In fact, the most heated rivalry is not between the two congressional softball leagues, but between softball and kickball — the latest major addition to the sports social scene in D.C. “I have a lot of bitterness towards kickball,” said Reed, pointing to the sport’s use of precious Mall space as the main source of his contempt. 

“Disdain is a nice word for it,” said Caruso of the proliferation of kickball leagues over the last few years. “All of a sudden, you have this space that becomes even more limited. 

Caruso, who is now a political consultant, traces Washington’s affinity for softball to former President Carter’s love of the game, and recalls days when Amy Carter, the president’s daughter, came out to play ball. 

“With the president being a softball player, it brought a lot more notoriety to the sport. Softball teams began to flourish,” said Caruso.

Pre-registration for the softball leagues is under way, and teams will begin playing in early April.