It is just before 7 a.m. on a Tuesday morning on a deserted field in Northwest Washington. Nearby homes have iron bars on their windows, trash swirls around an empty, overgrown parking lot - an unlikely venue for a congressional power powwow.
But, one by one, clad in T-shirts and sweat pants, sleepy Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives gather. The goal: Figure out how to beat the Republicans.
Not in a coming floor vote or election, but in the annual congressional baseball game.
You'd think, though, that the stakes were just as high - and maybe they are. On Thursday night, Democrats play Republicans in a game that is often, if jokingly, considered a bellwether of how each party will fare in the coming election. With the White House on the line this fall, neither party is taking any chances this summer.
So for the past month, both teams have been practicing at 7 a.m., three days a week. The Republicans staked out a field in a leafy Virginia suburb, the Democrats one in the District.
"The only thing we want more than to win this game is to win back the House - and sometimes that gets blurred," says Rep. Mike Doyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat.
At the Democrats' practice, Anthony Weiner of New York, so young and scrappy that he gets called "Congressboy" behind his back, stood on the field with his baseball glove on his head and listened to his coach's strategy.
"We're going to beat them like a rented mule," he declares.
But, in recent years the opposite has been true, on the field and in elections: After losing the majority in the House of Representatives to the Republicans in 1994, Democrats went on to lose seven of the nine subsequent baseball games. And much of their legislative agenda has been either stalled or co-opted by the other side, too.
So bragging rights - about something - would be a nice change. But the Republicans don't want to yield an inch.
"The day of the game, people are pretty intense," says Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "Each side wants to win."
Take a group of naturally competitive people (men and women), some of whom have spent too much time lately behind desks or attending receptions and fund-raisers, and stick them on a baseball field, things can get rough during seven innings of fast-pitch.
Famously, in the 1950s, House Speaker Sam Rayburn halted the games by edict after two representatives collided at home plate and one member dislocated his shoulder, says Kenneth Kato, a historian at the House of Representatives.
Injuries are still a concern. In the past few games, congressmen have lost teeth, broken bones and otherwise bashed themselves up. But they keep playing.
"We can't accept that we're over the hill," says Rep. William Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat.
Maryland's Steny Hoyer, a Democrat, does accept reality: After tearing a muscle playing softball years ago, he limits his participation in the congressional game to occasionally throwing out the first ball.
Still, Hoyer, who was responsible for moving the game to Maryland in 1995, understands the passion behind the match.
"There is a little Walter Mitty in every one of our ballplayers," he says.
Thursday's game - at Prince George's Stadium, normally home to the Baltimore Orioles' AA affiliate, the Bowie Baysox - indulges that. The contest has all the trappings of professional ball. Members autograph, trade and collect baseball cards of themselves. They wear uniforms from teams in their home districts, and an announcer calls the plays.
These players are still politicians, though, and wherever they go, lobbyists follow - some of them spending $5,000 for a stadium skybox on game day. This year's skybox denizens include members of businesses and organizations that similarly spend a lot of money lobbying on the Hill - Microsoft, ESPN/Disney, the Business Software Alliance, the National Cable Telecommunications Association and the New York Stock Exchange.
The game draws a crowd of 3,000 to 4,000 - mostly Capitol Hill geeks, more lobbyists and a few curious locals. Seats cost $8 and proceeds from the game go to charity.
The game - like just about everything else on the Hill - has a long tradition. The first documented game was in 1909, but a New York Times article from that year suggests there could have been an earlier match that escaped the record keepers.
After the gameless years after the Rayburn ban, Roll Call, a newspaper that covers the Capitol, revived the match in 1962. At first, the paper sponsored it as a three-inning warm-up act before a Washington Senators game.
Since then, the Democrats and Republicans have played out their differences on the baseball field - some years more heatedly than others. "The level of partisanship in the House has changed," Kato says. "In times when there is partisanship, the game is one thing, and in other times, the game means something else. Clearly, this is a more partisan period on the Hill."
Still, it's a way for members of Congress, who battle each other over legislation, to see each other in a different light - across a baseball diamond instead of on opposite sides of a committee room.
"It is a healthy reminder that the other side are made up of people just like them," Kato says. "It is a source of stories afterward about great plays, great performances and really horrible plays."
Do the Democrats have a chance to finally win this year? Or will the Republicans continue to dominate? We scouted each of their practices.
Their practice field is lumpy, but it is close to the Capitol and it is an improvement over their previous practice field on I Street. They changed venues after finding a body there.
The morning is glorious, and slightly after 7, the lawmakers gather around the mound for a baseball-fundamentals lecture and a bit of ribbing. They look like, well, a group of middle-aged office workers playing baseball. They fumble the ball just about as often as they catch it. Some are mushier than others - but almost everyone could stand to lose a few pounds.
Rep. Sherrod Brown of Ohio is a middle-aged legislator with curly hair and a friendly smile who gets a lot of grief. Last year, in the final inning, the Democrats were down by two runs but had the bases loaded. In a highly unorthodox move, Brown tried to steal third - even though a player was already standing on the base. The Republicans tried to tag him out, but Brown managed to get back safely to second. But not content, having dodged the out, Brown then insisted on taking a long lead off his base and ended up getting picked off.
There are lots of errors today, which frustrates Rep. Joe Baca of California, a leathery old-timer who played minor-league ball for 17 years.
"Too many guys out there don't know the fundamentals," he grumbles. "You should be alert at all times."
As if to illustrate his point, a player in right field misses an easy ball. Baca winces.
Toward the end of practice, Rep. Martin Sabo of Minnesota, the team's manager, notices his red-faced colleagues frequently making trips to the water cooler.
"Why don't we have the staff run the bases," he suggests, and, on cue, a few fresh-faced and eager congressional staffers hurry to the bases to take the members' place. They won't be able to do this in the real game - House members have to play for themselves.
The Democrats know they're the underdogs.
"We're the working guys, we play in T-shirts and beat-up shoes," says Rep. Christopher John of Louisiana. "[The Republicans] probably have massage therapy on the sidelines."
They are practicing on a high-school field in Alexandria, Va., - without a massage therapist. But there is a Starbucks nearby.
They have a handful more players at practice than the Democrats - enough for a full scrimmage.
Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania - in proper baseball pants and cleats - stood at home plate poised to hit a ball out of the park.
He swung at the first two throws, slicing nothing but air. A congressman standing on the sidelines whispers, "Maybe the senator didn't get a briefing memo on this."
But Santorum nails the third pitch and gets on base.
Later, the senator says he'll have to ditch practice the next day. He's appearing with President Bush at an event in Pennsylvania. His announcement draws moans from his colleagues.
"Is [the president] really nice in person? We never see him," Barton, the Texan, drawls.
Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia - in a Tom Davis for Congress T-shirt - drills a ball deep into the field each at-bat.
"You got that? That was 2 for 2," Davis says to a reporter. "My press guy isn't here; I've got to work it for him."
"Yes, that is Davis, D-A-V-I-S," Rep. Shelly Moore Capito of West Virginia says mockingly.
But the Republicans have awesomely bad practice moments as well, prompting committee chairman Barton to pipe in from the sidelines:
"It's OK to help your pitcher now and then and CATCH ONE!"
See the game
What: Congressional baseball game
When: Thursday, July 8, at 7 p.m. Rain or shine.
Where: Prince George's Stadium, Bowie
Cost: Tickets are $8. All proceeds benefit charity. Call the Bowie Baysox box office to purchase tickets, 301-464-4865
In their own words: Why they play
Here's what lawmakers say are their reasons for risking life, limb and pride just for a baseball game:
Pragmatism: "I owe it to the caucus, I don't always vote with them so I owe it to them." -- Rep. Adam Smith, Washington Democrat
Recruiting: "[It's] a way to get out and get to know some of the guys that aren't on your committee." -- Rep. Joe Barton, Texas Republican and Energy and Commerce Committee chairman
A good sound bite: "It is about family, fun and the fund-raising. Also fellowship. That's the fourth F." -- Rep. Mike McIntyre, South Carolina Democrat
Nostalgia: "These are guys that remember being all-American athletes. They get out here and think they still are." -- Rep. Kevin Bready, Texas Republican
A possible victory, for a change: "I enjoy competing against the Republicans on a field where we have a chance to win. You have to remember, for a group of people who lose votes every time, it is nice to win, for confidence." -- Rep. William Jefferson, Louisiana Democrat
Slumming it: "[It's] one of the ways I stay in touch with my friends in the House." -- Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican