On a softball diamond near Capitol Hill tonight, the umpire will yell “Play ball!” and a bipartisan team of Congresswomen will take on their arch-rivals, the women of the DC press corps (aka The Bad News Babes), in the seventh annual Congressional Women’s Softball Game.
“The first year, the members of Congress played against their own staffers, who completely creamed them,” says Babes pitcher/second baseman Brianna Keilar (bats right, throws right), senior political correspondent for CNN. “So the next year they figured they’d have a better shot against journalists.”
But it hasn’t quite worked out that way. To date, the Congresswomen are 2 wins, 4 losses against their opponents, although they did win last year’s game 10-5, with the winning pitcher, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY (bats right, votes left) named MVP. Sitting in the bleachers were Sonia Sotomayor, John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi, Kevin McCarthy and Steny Hoyer. Gabby Giffords threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
Keilar is one of four Cal alumnae on the Babes squad, the most from any college or university. The others:
Catcher Tamara Keith (bats right, throws left), White House reporter for National Public Radio, who got her B.A. from UC Berkeley at age 19 and is youngest person ever to attend the Graduate School of Journalism.
Right fielder Christina Bellantoni (bats right, throws right), editor-in-chief at Roll Call, who says, “I’m possibly not the worst player on the team, but I can confidently say I won’t be the MVP.”
And hard-hitting outfielder Lynn Sweet (bats left, throws left), Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times, who returned to Cal in 2013 to receive the prestigious Leadership Award from the Institute For Governmental Studies.
The game is a fundraiser for Young Survival Coalition, an organization dedicated to helping young women fight breast cancer.
“Every 40 minutes, another young woman is diagnosed with breast cancer,” says Kate Houghton, director of the Chair’s Office at the Democratic National Committee, herself a cancer survivor, who organized the event. “No other demographic has to deal with the special problems they face. Your whole life plan is completely thrown out the window, and you’re facing questions that nobody else is: Should you freeze your eggs? If the doctor advises a double mastectomy, what about your plan to have babies and be a nursing mother? Should you wear a wig? And when is the right time to reveal all this to the next guy you’re dating? Everyone else your age is in the prime of their lives, thinking about new careers, getting married, and having babies; and here you are, fighting your life.”
Every player on the team has been touched by cancer, one way or another, and every player is playing in honor of a breast cancer survivor. Sweet is playing in honor of Megan Stull; Keith in honor of Rachel Burns; Bellantoni in honor of her mother, Cassandra Bellantoni; and Keilar in honor of Stacia Deshisku, who used to be her boss at CNN.
Both teams have been training intensely for this game, practicing three times a week since April.
“We take this entirely too seriously,” says Keilar. “Someone like Tamara is juggling having a small child and covering an election campaign. This has really become a labor of love for us.”
Sweet agrees. “We get up in time to be at practice at 7 a.m. How much more commitment could there be?”
“How seriously do I take it?” says Keith. “When we lost last year, I actually started crying! It was absolutely ridiculous. There should be no crying in softball. But there it was.”
“I wasn’t able to play in 2013 because I was covering President Obama’s trip to Africa, along with two other members of our team,” says Keilar. “But people were live-tweeting from the game; so the three of us were in a bar in Senegal, following the game on Twitter. We were even talking smack a little bit.”
And the closer it gets to game time, the more smack you hear.
“There’s a ton of trash talking,” says Keith. “The Congressional team captain, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, came to NPR recently to talk to our reporters and correspondents, and when she walked in the room I yelled, ‘We’re gonna kick your ass,’ which seemed completely appropriate.”
“How often can you trash members of Congress?” Keilar says. “They trash the media all the time. This game provides us with a rare opportunity to give them some guff.”
“We trash talk them all the time,” Bellantoni agrees, “but we also get to know them better, and I’ve found they’re more likely to take my phone calls.”
The journalists have also noticed a new amity between the Democrats and Republicans on the Congressional women’s team, but not between their male counterparts.
“The male members of Congress play softball, too,” says Sweet. “But they play against each other—Republicans versus Democrats.”
“That’s different from the bi-partisanship on the women’s team,” says Keith. “They get together at 7 a.m., three times a week, they see each other in sweat pants. It actually has an effect on them, and it’s a beautiful thing. They’re often spotted standing next to each other on the House floor, and the male members look at them suspiciously.”
As for the journalists, their team is turning into a sisterhood. And that can be powerful.
“Our softball group has come to rely on each other,” says Bellantoni. “If I have personal news or career news, they’re the first people I go to. People I know I can trust. It’s been a nice addition to my life.”
“It’s also a great opportunity for women journalists to get together,” says Keilar. “When people get laid off, we let them know about opportunities to help them get their foot in the door. They’re such accomplished women, they’re really able to take that and run with it and get that gig.”
“My three Golden Bear teammates are journalistic stars,” says Sweet. “They’re smart, they’re savvy, and they know what’s going on. And they’re great softball players, too.”
Editor’s note: The final score was bad news for The Bad News Babes: the politicians beat the press team 1-0.