WASHINGTON — The annual Congressional Baseball Game is an only-in-Washington kind of event. Played at Nationals Park in front of a healthy crowd of rowdy spectators, Democrats and Republicans from the House and Senate lace up their cleats, throw on uniforms and play honest-to-goodness hardball on the big-league diamond for bragging rights and to raise money for charity.
And while the wonky cheers from the crowd may differ from your standard baseball chatter — one year, when the Affordable Care Act was being debated, a player was hurt on the field, eliciting an impromptu “Healthcare now!” chant from Democrats in the stands — one thing is always constant. When Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-California, is announced as a pinch-hitter, you’ll hear the biggest roar of the night.
The reasons for this are myriad and growing. She’s the only woman who plays in the game, and has done so all but one of her 13 years in Congress (she took one year off when the game happened a couple weeks after her son was born). She wears the Roman numeral IX as her number, representing Title IX, the landmark legislation that gave women equal opportunity in higher education and sports. And she can really, really hit.
“I don’t think I got a hit until maybe the second or third game,” she told WTOP in a recent conversation. “But I always made contact with the ball. I have a five- or six-game hitting streak now.”
Considering that they play only once a year, that streak is impressive. She had one of only four Democratic hits last year, even though they won, 5-2. But her hot run has also coincided with a seven-game winning streak for the Democrats, who now lead the series by a 39-38-1 margin.
Sanchez wears a different jersey every year, and will be sporting one from Montebello High School this year, a city of just over 60,000 residents in East L.A., on the north end of her district. But the most important part, the one that endures, right below her name, is that IX.
“I thought, ‘Oh wow; what a way to make a statement, being the only woman out there,’” she said of her decision, which has had bipartisan appeal, even in this age of gridlock politics. “I’ve had women approach me after the game, spouses of Republican members, and they’re like, ‘Oh, we cheer for you every year!’”
It’s one of the few times that members are cheered each year, a fact not lost on Sanchez. And while the parties play against one another, the game fosters a collegial atmosphere that she believes carries over to the Hill, where she’s found baseball to be a bridge to getting bipartisan work done.
“Baseball’s not partisan. If you make a good play, whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, it’s impressive,” she said. “They’re some of the people I talk with the most on my committee or interact with the most at work now, just because I’ve gotten to know them on the playing field.”
One of seven children in a family that all grew up playing either baseball or softball, Sanchez relishes the opportunity to play at Nationals Park, something few get to do.
“It’s just always my favorite time of the year,” she said. “To hear the roar of the crowd standing at home plate at a Major League stadium is unlike any other experience.”
When she steps to the plate Thursday evening, that roar will likely once again be louder for her than anyone else.
Gates open for the 2016 Congressional Baseball Game at 5:30 p.m., with the first pitch set for 7:05 p.m. Tickets are $10 at the Nationals Park box office. The game will be broadcast live on WFED 1500 AM, with WTOP Sports Director George Wallace on play-by-play and color commentary from WTOP Capitol Hill Correspondent Dave McConnell.