Bryan Cutler, the House speaker of Pennsylvania, is hugging tight to second base with the home team down by two, runners on second and third, and right-handed hitter Craig Williams, a fellow House Republican, at the plate. With the pitch count at 1-1, the stage is set for a marquee moment—and Williams delivers, lofting a pitch from Democratic Rep. Robert Matzie to shallow center field. Cutler tears around third base, determined to score the tying run.
The ball soars. The second baseman, Republican Rep. Clint Owlett, scampers backward with his arm outstretched, intent on making a majestic, game-ending catch. But the ball has other ideas. It drifts just over his glove, sure to drop for a clutch RBI single. But wait: Who’s that behind Owlett? It’s Mark Rozzi, a Democrat representing Berks County, smartly playing backup. Rozzi races in, sliding on one knee, glove extended almost to the ground. And there it is: the satisfying thwack of ball meeting leather, a dramatic, game-saving, last-out, are-you-kidding-me web gem of a catch.
And there it is: the satisfying thwack of ball meeting leather, a dramatic, game-saving, last-out, are-you-kidding-me web gem of a catch.
And now, the moment game organizer Corinna Wilson has hoped for: Owlett sprints over to Rozzi, embracing his across-the-aisle teammate with a fantastic grin on his face. Others pile on: Greg Rothman, a Republican from Cumberland County, leaps into the spontaneous scrum, landing on the back of fellow GOP-er Ryan Warner. Rep. Mike Schlossberg, the Democratic Caucus administrator from Allentown, jumps up, arms outstretched, onto his Republican teammates. Shortstop Meghan Schroeder, a Republican from Buckingham, executes a hands-in-the-air victory dance, then runs from the infield to join the joyous bipartisan hug.
Right now, political allegiances, gender and regional disparities matter not. What matters is Rozzi has made the catch, the Youse have won the game and the party is on.
Facing off in this legislative softball showdown, with their distinctly Pennsylvania team names, were the Yinz and the Youse, each boasting bipartisan lineups and co-captains representing both political parties. Since 2013, the Legislature’s Capitol All-Stars game has been the almost-annual (COVID-19 notwithstanding) event that unites sometimes-fractious politicians in a charity-enriching contest Wilson believes has impact beyond the respective dugouts.
Wilson, whose Wilson500 public affairs agency provides lobbying and media relations support, organizes the All-Stars game with friend Lynn Deary, a longtime Pennsylvania political figure who is the founder and former president of a legislative information and reporting service.
Neither has illusions of saving democracy by staging an act of slow-pitch softball.
But they figure it won’t hurt.
“We miss the old days when things were much more collegial,” Wilson says. “But this is the one thing they do that brings everyone together.”
Others feel the same way. Cutler describes the game as a “rare and welcome moment of unity.” Rep. Jesse Topper, a Republican who played baseball for Bedford High School in the 1980s, says the game accomplishes in the space of two hours what weeks and months of legislative machinations don’t always produce: camaraderie, friendships and an understanding that behind the political squabbling there are people trying to do right.
“When you get out of this building and you get around your colleagues in different environments, you find out about their lives, their hobbies, their families,” Topper says. “What that translates to is relationships, and that eventually can translate to things on the floor.”
In the Capitol All-Stars game, Deary and Wilson think they may have a blueprint for bringing together political figures from across the aisle. They’re hopeful the formula could translate to other states facing many of the same political divides now roiling Pennsylvania.
Attention to Detail
But copycats should be forewarned: It’s hard work. The two backers devote months to the game’s organization, with an insistence on doing it up right. Everything is high end: The ballfield itself, FNB Field on City Island in the capital of Harrisburg, is on loan from the minor league Harrisburg Senators, giving the event a professional luster complete with plentiful spectator seating, bright lights and the same dugouts the pros use. Beer and beverages are on hand to keep the vibe loose, courtesy of the Pennsylvania brewer Yuengling and a local distributor. The donated uniforms are pro-worthy, stitched with surnames and numbers by the sports uniform maker Fanatics. Even the bats are contributed by a sponsor, BWP Bats of Jefferson County, Penn. The entire thing gets first-class media treatment, with multicamera production, slo-mo instant replays and witty commentary from a trio of volunteer broadcasters who bring some good-natured snark to the moment: “If you’re looking for the pinnacle of human athletic achievement,” says color announcer Bob Caton during the prelude, “you’re in the wrong place.”
If you’re looking for the pinnacle of human athletic achievement, you’re in the wrong place.
The game is broadcast live and archived for on-demand viewing via the cable television and streaming service Pennsylvania Cable Network.
The attention to detail is important, Wilson believes. So is the insistence on mixing up the rosters. One of the byproducts of having majority and minority leaders serve as team co-captains is that they’re tasked with reconciling demands for playing time, position assignments and attention from members of both parties. “Everybody thinks they should bat third and play shortstop,” says Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D), who co-managed the Yinz team alongside Cutler.
Mixing up rosters may sound like a smallish detail, but Wilson and Deary are convinced it matters. The alternative approach—and the one adopted by organizers of the annual U.S. congressional softball game—is to divide teams by party affiliation. But that means the same people who consort on the House floor are simply consorting again in the dugout. In Harrisburg, the idea is to mix things up: men with women, Democrats with Republicans, big-city legislators with rural colleagues.
It seems to work. One indicator of popularity is that Wilson and Deary typically fill the rosters—a maximum of 70 players—within two days of emailing invitations to play.
‘A Happy Hit’
Not to be overlooked, Costa says, is the amount of money the game raises, and the cause it supports. This year, contributions from close to two-dozen sponsors—the likes of Capitol Blue Cross and Wegmans Food Markets—delivered close to $100,000, which goes to two statewide food-security groups. Since 2013, the total raised for the food providers is close to $300,000. Here again, there’s some savvy organizing going on: The recipients are organizations that work throughout the state, spanning multiple legislative districts. That means just about everybody who plays gets a chance to shine on the community service front. “The members who play get kind of a happy hit with their constituents,” Deary says.
While the game is mostly about fun, which is evident from the dugout body language and lots of smiling going on, now and then a bit of politicking can break out along the basepaths. As this year’s game progressed, Costa, playing first base for the Yinz, had a chance to banter with Sen. James Brewster, a fellow Democrat whose district abuts Pittsburgh. With Brewster, playing for the Youse, on first base, Costa introduced his party accomplice to the Yinz co-captain, Cutler, who was coaching first. The three of them talked briefly about Brewster’s Senate Bill 241, a measure to relax fishing license restrictions to provide therapeutic rehabilitation for military veterans.
Although the measure had passed the Senate, Cutler hadn’t given the bill much thought. But under the lights at FNB Field, waiting for a teammate to introduce bat to ball, Cutler was intrigued enough to ask Brewster to follow up with details. As of this writing, a vote hasn’t yet taken place in the House. But thanks to a friendly meeting on a softball field, the bill now has the same thing the Youse team had with one out and runners at second and third: a chance.
Stewart Schley is a Denver-based freelance writer.