Barletta Out To His Old Ball Game

Jonathan Riskind
Wilkes-Barre Times Leader

Once a Major League hopeful, the new congressman now plays for a bigger cause.

His gait was a little stiff, courtesy of a pulled hamstring that served to remind U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta that years have passed since he was a speedy 21-year-old center fielder who tried out in 1977 for the Cincinnati Reds.

But clad in a Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees jersey, Barletta strode to the plate at Four Mile Run Park here early Wednesday morning — a few miles away from Capitol Hill where the freshman Republican would spend the rest of his day wearing a suit, attending committee hearings and casting House floor votes.

When Barletta laced a hit through the hole between the third baseman and the shortstop, a chorus of chatter went up from a group of fellow GOP lawmakers just about as happy to see him on the field as in the halls of Congress.

Sure, GOP House members were pleased when Barletta, a former Hazleton mayor, defeated veteran Democratic Rep. Paul Kanjorski last year as part of the wave of victories nationwide that helped Republicans regain a House majority.

But they became even more enamored of their new colleague when they got wind of his baseball — not just political — record and learned that he was a switch hitter at the plate, and reliable center fielder who also could take the mound as a lefty pitcher.

“We haven’t had a lot of pitching depth,” says. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, who has played for or coached the GOP team since 1987 and is in his fifth year as manager.

So Barletta is “one of the ones we’re excited about” when it comes to new lawmakers taking the field for the congressional baseball game, he said.

GOP vs. Democrats

Along with partisan politics and arguing over the budget and issues such as immigration, health care and climate change, a consuming passion on Capitol Hill is the annual congressional baseball game pitting a team of Republican lawmakers against a squad of Democratic lawmakers.

The main sponsor is Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, and a raft of corporations and trade associations also contribute money and equipment for a game that last year raised $150,000 for charity and this year could approach a $200,000 haul for the Washington Literacy Council and D.C. Boys and Girls Clubs.

This year’s game is the 50th anniversary of the modern version of the congressional baseball game — though the contest dates back to 1909 — and will be held July 14 at Nationals Park, the home to Washington’s Major League Baseball team.

But while lawmakers are proud of raising money for charity, they don’t leave their competitive instincts at the ballot box or on the House floor when they take the field.

Republicans point out that they have won a majority of the games over time — but Democrats crow that they have won two in a row and that a win this year gains them the Roll Call Trophy, which goes to the winning team in a running best-of-five game series, and is quickly paraded around the House floor following a series-winning game.

Getting in lineup

Barletta notes that though he was an outfielder in his youth at Hazleton High School and Luzerne County Community College, he’s happy to take the mound and willing to limp through 7 a.m. practices if that’s what it takes to make the starting lineup on a team with a 45-player roster.

“Making the starting lineup could be tougher than getting to Congress,” Barletta quipped while he stretched his aching muscles before Wednesday’s practice. “It’s no surprise that these guys are so competitive because they didn’t get here by not being competitive. That’s why I am going to play hurt. I have my leg all wrapped up. I don’t want to lose my position. There are too many competitive guys here waiting for me to go down.”

Barletta acknowledges a certain amount of teasing out on the House floor about expectations for what he can contribute to the GOP team’s effort.

“The only problem with that is you can’t bring your scrapbook up to home plate with you,” Barletta said. “That was a long time ago and I can see some of my skills have deteriorated over the years. Eyes aren’t as good, back’s sore, lot of aches and pains the next day. I have taken more Aleve since we started baseball practice than I have in years. The problem here is my mind is still 21, but my body is 55.”

Thinking about his days as a baseball player, Barletta admits to some regrets. He poured himself into the tryout in Tampa, Fla., with the Cincinnati Reds in February 1977, but the Reds’ major league team and entire farm system were chock-full of outfielders, and the Reds didn’t sign any of the 65 players at that tryout, Barletta recalls.

Lou’s glory days

The Reds organization, noting his speed, encouraged him to attend walk-on tryouts with what were then MLB expansion teams in Seattle and Toronto, but, “after the tryout I was disappointed and I just went home,” Barletta said, adding that he was a newlywed and decided it was time to go to work.

“I really put everything into this tryout,” Barletta said. “You know, you think you are good until you see kids from all around the country.”

After practice Wednesday, still walking gingerly despite all his stretching, Barletta seemed satisfied — yet realistic — about getting back out on the field for the congressional baseball game.

Laughing, he quoted from a popular Toby Keith country song: “I ain’t as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was.”