Ileana Ros-Lehtinen had her shot to one-up the Fourth Estate on the softball field Wednesday night, as she suited up against Washington reporters decades her junior who spend their days needling members of Congress about Donald Trump’s latest tweet or trying to snag a quote for their story.
But just after Ros-Lehtinen took her place in right field in the first inning of the ninth annual Congressional Women’s Softball Game, NPR reporter Tamara Keith blooped a single that scooted underneath the glove of the longtime Miami Republican.
“Sorry!” Ros-Lehtinen yelled as she ran after the ball.
Sprinting after her was Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the ultra-competitive second baseman for congressional team, ready to field Ros-Lehtinen’s cutoff throw.
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But their combined efforts couldn’t stop two runs from scoring, and the play turned out to be the decisive blow in a close 2-1 game won by the reporters.
“We come out here to practice two or three mornings a week and for an old lady like me it feels really good,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
Wednesday’s game was more than just an opportunity for reporters and politicians to take out their frustrations on one another, it was also a fundraiser for breast cancer awareness.
The annual game was started by Wasserman Schultz and former Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., in 2009 to build bipartisanship and raise funds for a charity dedicated to helping young women identify and treat breast cancer.
Wasserman Schultz was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007 and when she decided to go public in 2009, Emerson approached her about starting the game.
“The idea was the baseball game was played by men but we didn’t really have a sport the women played,” Wasserman Schultz said.
The first game in 2009 pitted members of Congress against their staffers, but “they were much younger so we didn’t do very well,” Waserman Schultz said. Ever since, members of Congress have played the press.
Wednesday’s game raised $292,097.59 for the Young Survival Coalition and the game has raised more than $1.1 million for charity since 2009.
“It’s so personal for me and all these women on the press team,” Wasserman Schultz said. “The softball field is a politics-free zone.”
But it’s not a competition-free zone.
Wasserman Schultz, a team captain along with Ros-Lehtinen, was involved in numerous collisions at second base and pumped her fist when Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida made an accurate throw to her to nail a runner.
“I’m a little competitive,” Wasserman Schultz said.
The beginning of the game was marked by tribute, first for Ros-Lehtinen, who is set to retire from Congress in 2018. The congressional team’s loudest cheerleader wasn’t introduced with the rest of the congressional lineup by announcers Dana Bash and Andrea Mitchell, prompting Wasserman Schultz to run over to home plate to correct the omission.
“No, no, no we didn’t forget her,” Bash said on a hot mic.
Seconds later, Ros-Lehtinen was given a special ovation for her bipartisan work on Capitol Hill and relentless optimism toward her colleagues.
“We want to thank and honor the congresswoman for her commitment to this game from day one,” Bash said.
After the lineups were introduced, Capitol Police officer Crystal Griner, who was wounded in last week’s shooting at the Republican baseball team’s early morning practice, threw out the first pitch from her wheelchair. Griner left the hospital a few days ago.
Wednesday’s game, which was attended by party heavyweights like Paul Ryan, Nancy Pelosi and Kellyanne Conway, was overrun with security and officers stationed on nearby roofs after last week’s shooting, much different than previous editions that featured little to no security.
“I think the focus of the game remains the same...but there’s a particular poignancy with what happened last week,” Wasserman Schultz said.
Despite her upcoming retirement, Ros-Lehtinen said she’s not going anywhere in 2018, and plans to spend the next year getting in shape with her husband Dexter for her final game.
Ros-Lehtinen has appeared in every edition of the softball game and used to play in the annual baseball game typically dominated by male members of Congress. She recalled on Wednesday how she made it to first base without swinging the bat in the men’s game many years ago.
“I had this big Florida Marlins jersey on and the pitch kind of touched my shirt so I ran down to first base,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “I brought my bat skills to the men’s team.”
As Ros-Lehtinen answered questions from a reporter after the game, politicians from both parties continuously walked up to the retiring Republican and offered their heartfelt congratulations, prompting a wide smile from the Miami lawmaker.
“It’s one of the aspects of Congress I’ll miss the most,” she said. “This team is very special to me.”