Play Ball

    It’s time to play ball on Capitol Hill. Seriously, time to play ball. It’s the time of year when Democrats and Republicans get to wear a uniform that makes it really easy to decipher who’s team they’re on; blue for Democrats and red for Republicans. Some of us wish they would wear those every day. It might also be instructive if there were patches on their sleeves denoting corporate sponsors. In some cases, those who have blank sleeves might actually be seen in a more positive light by their constituents.

    I have heard it said that both sides really want to win this annual baseball game. Really want it. Just like in grade school, the best players for each team begin early in the year to let it be known who their favorites are. And who they would rather not have on the team. Generally, both sides have concluded that a certain age and mobility status would disqualify a person from being on the roster. Years ago, that caused problems. Neither side could field a whole team. So, both sides agreed to allow up to three staffers per player, one of whom had to know CPR. Practice times were announced and locations secured. It became obvious early on who would start and who would sit most of the game on the bench. Just like grade school. The cool kids were clearly in control.

    One day, House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi was seen wandering the halls wearing a blue Democrats uniform. Everyone was terrified. No one wanted to approach the Speaker and tell her that she could not play (that unwritten age-and-mobility rule). So, her staff got together and decided that the youngest staffer would have to tell her. A kid from farm country was picked for the task. He was a kid much like those I grew up with – quiet, shy, unassuming. I grew up in farm country where there were lots of Norwegian bachelor farmers, Germans, and Swedes. If any of them spoke ten words in a day, they were exhausted and had to lie down.

    This kid approached the Speaker. She could tell by his anguished face that something was wrong. She’s good at reading people. She knew what he was going to say, even before he said it. But she let him say it anyway. That’s what she does. Well, he used almost all of his ten words and felt faint. He was blunt and direct.

    “Madam Speaker, you can’t play ball with us.”

    She smiled at him with her lovely smile. “I know,” she soothed, “I don’t want to play ball. I want to sit in the dugout and cheer for my team. That’s what I do.”

    Classy. Truly classy. What a sweet thing to say. And, if I could just add, the pearls were a nice touch. She’s so classy.

    Now there are some people who are actually very good ball players. Steve Scalise comes to mind. I’m told that in his younger years, he was signed by the New York Yankees. Quite a thrill for any young man who loves baseball. However, when the time came for him to report to camp, he realized that he was going to have to tell people that he was headed north to become a Yankee. He couldn’t do it. So he quit baseball and decided to run for Congress. And, in an odd twist of fate, it’s still time for him to play ball.

    Like I said, I grew up in farm country. Small town. To say that there was nothing to do is to overstate the situation. It’s more accurate to say that our choices were very limited. We could shoot our BB guns at tin cans, light bulbs, flower pots…each other. We could go swimming in the lake. We could go fishing. We could check out as many books in the library once a week, as many as we could carry. And, by the way, I loved that little stamp with the gears on it that changed the date. You would stamp the ink pad, line up the stamp on the library card and the book, stamp it, put the card in the little box on the librarian’s desk. Then, try to stamp your friend’s head or your own. And we would play baseball.

    It usually was not too hard to get enough people together to field two teams. Lots of kids were hanging around shooting each other with BB guns or stamping their heads with library date stamps. They were looking for something to do. If we couldn’t get two full teams, we would play 500. If there were only two or three of us, we would play catch. We would pretend to be famous pitchers, Tom Seaver, Whitey Ford, Sandy Kofax. We’d try to drill grounders past each other. We’d toss fly balls as high and as far as we could. We’d short-hop the ball between someone’s legs. We thought that was funny, if they missed it.

    Now when I play catch, I’m mindful of having to do so while wearing bifocals. When the ball is in the thrower’s hand, about to be released, I can see it. When the ball gets to within a yard or so from me, I can see it. But there’s a “no-man’s land” a few yards out where I have trouble focusing. I have to rely on muscle memory, cat-like reflexes, or luck to catch it safely. That’s why I ask my grandson to aim for center-mass. Trust me, that’s a huge target. But, if I miss the ball, I can bounce it off my chest and bend over to get it. And that’s precisely why he aims for my face. He thinks that’s funny, if I miss it.

    I would remind the Capitol players out there on the field, to make sure they’re aiming for center-mass. I bet there are some out there who are wearing bifocals. Be careful. Of course, if they’re throwing to Adam Kinsinger and he misses, it will go halfway back to the person who threw the ball. They might need a back-up plan.

    Hitting is another important skill. Hard to do. In fact, the hardest thing to do in all sports is to hit a round ball with a round bat. The fact that anyone ever gets a hit is truly amazing. To do so three times out of ten would land the person in the Baseball Hall of Fame, if they could do that for a career. They would have failed seven times. Seven. Twice as many failures. Where can you fail seven out of ten times and still make the Hall of Fame?

    There’s just a dime-sized sweet spot on the ball that has to be hit by a pencil-sized sweet spot on the barrel of the bat and placed where no one is standing, so the batter doesn’t fly out or get thrown out. Given the clicking knee sounds of many of the Capitol players, I’m thinking that ground balls are a safe bet. By the time anyone got to it, the ball is probably in the outfield. Even if hit directly to the person, they would still have to bend over, scoop it up, and throw it with some accuracy to get the runner out. However, even with the ball coming in at a sluggish 50 miles per hour, the batter still needs to decide to hit the ball, rotate his hips, extend his arms, roll his wrists and make the connection of the two sweet spots. Rotating. Twisting. Rolling. An orthopedist’s dream, a chiropractor’s living.

    Now, I’m not sure if this is a true story or not. But it’s true enough. And, anyway, when has truth ever stood in the way of a good story on Capitol Hill? Apparently, Yogi Berra had a guy who struggled to hit an inside fastball. Time after time, the guy would strike out. So Yogi told the guy to get in the batting cage, set the pitching machine to throw inside fastballs, run film, take someone with him. Then, when he got back to the batter’s box, he told the guy to stick his bat out. “Who knows?” Yogi said, “he just might accidentally hit it.”

    Baseball is about progress, not perfection. People on Capitol Hill have half that equation down pat, even if they aren’t aware of it. Baseball is about showing up. Tony Oliva, the great Minnesota Twins player, tells the story of showing up. He would get to the park early. Sit in his car and imagine a kid coming in from the country to watch a game. He imagined the kid living on a dairy farm. How difficult it would be to make that trip to the Cities to watch a game! So, Tony would show up for that kid and all the other kids in the stands. He’d show up for his many fans, for his teammates, and for the game itself. And he would dig in. Dig in at the plate. Do his very best on offense. He’d show up on defense. Do his very best in the outfield. And suck less. He would not strive for perfection. That’s not possible. He would always suck in some way, at the plate, on base, or in the outfield. His goal was to suck less every game. Progress. Not perfection.

    It’s time for those on Capitol Hill to play ball. To show up. To dig in. To suck less. Not just at the annual baseball game, but tomorrow when they go back to work. Realize that they all wear the uniform of an American. We are all on the same team. Whether on the field or in the dugout, it’s time to say “atta boy, atta girl, you’ve got this” to each other. Cheer each other on, to do our very best for our constituents, for our country.

    One of the things I liked most about serving with Marines was the fact that there is no such thing as a single Marine. The smallest unit of the Marine Corps is the fire team. Four people. I matter because we matter. Even today, you can go to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego and see young Marines doing pushups. Their offense? They used a singular pronoun – I, me, my, mine. Rather than we, us, ours. Do that enough times, and it gets solidified in your brain: I matter because we matter. I am part of a larger group that is so important that I need to do whatever I can to ensure its survival so that future generations can enjoy what I do today. Choosing between “us” or “me” is simple. Maybe not always easy. But simple.

    In the Holy Book that I read, there is a guy named Paul. Paul wrote to his constituents to do everything they could to be at peace with one another. It reads, in fact: “Bear with one another charitably, in complete selflessness, gentleness, and patience. Do all you can to preserve the unity of the Spirit by the peace that binds you together.” It might make more sense if Paul wrote that in “Southern.” It would sound like this: “Cut each other some slack. Forget your meanness. Be  gentle and patient with each other. Do everything y’all can to preserve the unity of the Spirit by the peace that binds all-y’all together.”

    I would tell our Capitol Hill ball players to show up to the tasks at hand. Dig in for the American people, the farm kids, the city kids, the workers, the parents, the teachers, health-care providers; everyone. Do everything you can in your position to make life better for all Americans, not just those on your sleeve. And suck less. You can’t be perfect. We don’t expect you to be perfect. Just suck less. Over time, you’ll get better. You’ll hit more inside fastballs. Then someone will come up with a new pitch and you’ll have to work at hitting that one. It’ll be tough. Treat us right and we’ll be there for you. Cheer you on. Because that’s what we do. It’s time to play ball.  

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