NCAA Football

This California Democrat will be the only woman on the field when Congress plays baseball on Thursday

June 22, 2016

Rep. Linda Sanchez gladly shows off her baseball bruises.

“I got pegged with a baseball when I was running to third and they were trying to throw me out,” she says, pointing to a purple lump near her knee during an interview in her Capitol Hill office. She doesn’t recall getting the baseball-size bruise on her inner wrist.

The Whittier Democrat is the only congresswoman on the roster to play in the annual congressional baseball game, which takes place Thursday at Nationals Stadium. Women first played in the game in 1993, but Sanchez has been the lone female for the last few years. (She does not play in the annual Congressional Women’s Softball Game.)

“Except for the occasional bruise or injury, there is no downside to it,” she said. “It’s the closest I will ever come to living my dream of being a professional baseball player. It’s really amazing to look up and see the crowd in the stands and see your face on the Jumbotron. It’s almost breathtaking.”

A Sanchez fanA Sanchez fan (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The pinch hitter and occasional second-basewoman relishes her role. She played fast pitch softball in high school and joined the team when she got to Congress in 2003. She’s missed one game since, shortly after she gave birth to her son, who is now 7.

A few thousand Hill staffers, lobbyists and other members of Congress — including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — traditionally fill about a third of the major league stadium, waving red foam fingers and homemade signs for their favorite players. In 2015, President Obama made a surprise appearance to stump for a package of trade bills, shaking hands, holding the trophy and posing with the Nationals mascots — caricatures of former presidents who run the bases when the major league team plays.

Sanchez is known as a formidable pinch hitter, and the crowd chants her name when it’s her turn at bat. In 2015, fans waved signs that said “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend,” and “Linda Sanchez has the biggest pelotas.”

The crowd roared when she hit a single, driving the ball along the right field line in the 6th inning. She was one of three Democrats named most valuable players that year.

“I like the idea of being able to show young girls and female staff on the Hill that anything the men can do we can do just the same,” Sanchez said. “Women can compete with men, and we can show that we are just as good as they are, even better.”

A few years ago, Sanchez heard a distinct voice from the crowd as she stepped to the plate.

“I heard this heckler yell from the stands, ‘She can’t hit it, she’s a girl.’ I hit the ball, but I got out, and I was really mad at myself because more than anything I wanted to prove this [person] wrong,” Sanchez said.

The next year, the same voice called out when Sanchez got to the plate.

“I hit a shot into center field and scored two runs. After that I never heard the heckler again,” she said.

Some of Linda Sanchez's jerseys hang on her office wall.Some of Linda Sanchez’s jerseys hang on her office wall. (Sarah D. Wire / Los Angeles Times)

Lawmakers who play wear jerseys from high schools or colleges in their district on the field. Three of Sanchez’s are framed and hang in her Capitol Hill office, including the jersey she wore to represent her beloved Los Angeles Dodgers.

This year, Sanchez will be sporting a Montebello High School Oilers jersey, with her signature number IX, for the Title IX section of U.S. education law that guarantees women equal access to educational opportunities and opened the door for women to play high school and collegiate sports. 

“I get a real thrill wearing that number and stepping out on the field,” she said.

Played off and on since 1909, and pitting Democrats against Republicans, the game is sponsored by the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call and raises money for three Washington-area charities. Democrats won 5-2 in 2015 after the surprise visit from Obama.

President Obama shakes hands with Rep. Linda Sanchez as Rep. Eric Swalwell looks on during the 2015 Congressional Baseball Game.President Obama shakes hands with Rep. Linda Sanchez as Rep. Eric Swalwell looks on during the 2015 Congressional Baseball Game. (Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call)

Roll Call’s video about the 2015 game

Sanchez and Rep. Raul Ruiz switch off playing second base. He was the Democrats’ most valuable player for his hitting and catching in 2014, and caught the final Republican out in 2015.

“I grew up playing ball as a kid, and this is a good way to get out with my colleagues and enjoy the weather and take some swings at the ball,” Ruiz told The Times.

The Palm Desert Democrat plans to wear an emerald Palo Verde High School jersey and will have embroidered on his hat the name of his friend Rodolfo Piñon, who has advanced liver cancer.

“My goal is not to get injured and to have plenty of laughs, plenty of memories,” Ruiz said.

Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Palm Desert) waits for a late throw as Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.) slides safely at second base during the 54th Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game.Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Palm Desert) waits for a late throw as Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.) slides safely at second base during the 54th Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game. (Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call)

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He credits his mother’s insistence that he play baseball and attend church for keeping him on the right path as a child. Ruiz played third base for years and didn’t hang up his cleats until he got to college and needed to focus on getting into medical school.

The game forces members to work together, Ruiz said. He and Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) have a wager this year that the loser has to throw an ice cream party for both of their staffs.

“Being able to find common ground in our personal lives is a very important start in being able to find common ground on the House floor,” Ruiz said. “We need more of these type of collegial events where we’re actually on the same team so Republicans and Democrats learn how to work together.”

Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) congratulates Rep. Linda Sanchez after she got a hit at the 45th Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball game at RFK Stadium.Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) congratulates Rep. Linda Sanchez after she got a hit at the 45th Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball game at RFK Stadium. (CQ Roll Call)

Other Californians on the Democratic team are Reps. Pete Aguilar of Redlands, Tony Cardenas of Los Angeles. Jared Huffman of San Rafael and Eric Swalwell from Dublin.

Swalwell said the game helps him get to know members on both sides of the aisle. He plays in the outfield and is a pinch runner. As of Monday he hadn’t picked which jersey to wear this year.

“Each and every one of us that was probably our first choice of a profession, being a professional baseball player,” Swalwell said. “Things here can be dysfunctional and serious, but for a couple of hours a year we get to have that kid spirit again.”

Still, they take the game seriously: Practices have gone on for two months and take place every morning when lawmakers are in Washington.

“It’s very hard,” Swalwell said. “You are talking to one of the truants when it comes to practice.”

Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale) is listed on the Republican roster, but he said that with the three-hour time change between California and Washington, he hasn’t made it to many practices.

He’s been on the team for years, and plans to suit up in Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s colors Thursday, but since he hasn’t gone to practice, he isn’t sure he’ll get to play.

“I’ll have my cool Cal Poly jersey on though and get to hang in the dugout,” he said. “It’s camaraderie. Another chance to beat the Democrats at something, which we haven’t been doing. It’s a cool thing, just being on a major league field, hanging out with your legislative comrades.”

LaMalfa played in the outfield in Little League and high school. He and his kids are more likely to play basketball than baseball together at home, but they do like to watch when the San Fransisco Giants play “the hated Los Angeles franchise,” LaMalfa said.

The game starts at 7:05 p.m., and Republicans are looking for a win. Democrats have won the last seven games in a row and are one game up on the Republicans in the event’s 78-game history.

Follow @sarahdwire on Twitter

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