published Friday, June 14th, 2013

Baseball forges bonds in Washington


by Chris Carroll

WASHINGTON — By his own admission, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann is a stay-at-home guy. Unlike some lawmakers, the Ooltewah Republican refuses late nights on Capitol Hill, steering clear of bourbon and trouble after hours.

"My wife likes it that way," he joked Thursday.

But early into his first term, he found that lifestyle to be lacking in a Type A city where people socialize and bartenders pour long past happy hour.

"I wasn't making any enemies," he recalled, "but I wasn't making a lot of friends either."

He discovered a different way to bond in 2011, when he went out for the congressional Republican baseball team and found camaraderie. On Thursday at Nationals Park, Fleischmann was the only Tennessean on either team in the annual Dems-versus-GOP showdown -- a distinction he's held for three consecutive years.

"I wanted to be a major league ballplayer growing up," he said, "so it's amazing to have fun with everybody -- even those on the other side -- and play at a big-league park."

The congressman had some help representing Tennessee and its 3rd District. Before the game, Fleischmann's eight-term predecessor, former Rep. Zach Wamp, was inducted into the Congressional Baseball Hall of Fame. Heralded for his .500 career batting average and slick shortstop skills, Wamp thanked the fans and threw out the first pitch.

"Most people think Congress takes too many breaks," said Wamp, a Republican who gave up his seat to run for governor in 2010. "But this is actually a healthy break from the rigors of Capitol Hill to come out and play baseball in an awesome venue, especially with the divisions we're dealing with right now."

Despite the Chattanooga connection, Wamp and Fleischmann aren't tight. Wamp's 26-year-old son Weston unsuccessfully challenged Fleischmann in last year's Republican primary.

They differ on baseball, too. Wamp is a Braves fan while Fleischmann, a childhood New Yorker, loves the Mets. (Common ground exists, however: Both men said their Tennessee-bred sons cheer for the Braves.)

Fleischmann entered the game as a 5th-inning defensive replacement with the Democrats up 12-0. While he didn't crack the starting lineup, his teammates remarked on his hustle.

They said he set himself apart as a southpaw infielder.

"To be a left-hander and play second base," Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said, "you gotta be a scrapper."

"Chuck's a grinder in Congress and a grinder on the baseball field," added House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa.

Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at ccarroll@timesfreepress.com or 423-280-2025.

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