June 29 was the day that Wisconsin was to be no more. The streets were going to be deluged with sewage. Children would begin pouring bleach into their cereal, as they would cease to learn otherwise in school. The state would devolve into a fiery Mad Max–style wasteland, where people feast on squirrels and barter their pelts. For it was the day that Governor Scott Walker’s plan to scale back public union collective bargaining took effect.
Yet there was no apocalypse on display at Madison’s Henry Vilas Park on Wednesday night, as the Republican members of the Wisconsin assembly gathered for the annual staff-versus-legislator softball game. Warm weather, sun, and high skies greeted the staffers and legislators as they sought to escape the tumult of the marble capitol walls. Since the collective-bargaining bill was introduced in February, this group has endured intense pressure — screaming, profanity, death threats, endless drums, property damage, picketing at their homes — and they appeared ready to exorcise those ghosts with some alcohol-soaked recreation.
In a sign of Wisconsin’s fractured state of affairs, it was the first year in memory that Democrats declined to play in the game. In previous years, it was a chance for legislators and staff to engage in some bipartisan socializing. But no more.
In fact, assembly Republicans had to keep news of the affair as quiet as possible, to avoid drawing protesters to the game. Traditionally the game had been held right down the road from the capitol at Olin Park, but it was secretly moved to avoid attention. “We told people to keep details of the game off Facebook,” said one of the staffers that organized the event.
As the game begins, it is clear that many of the participants have been enjoying the beer and weather in equal amounts well in advance of the 5:30 start time. Pink noses, ribald jokes, and slurred speech are already in abundance as the first pitch is thrown.
For the non-players gathered around the keg, the conversation naturally steers toward politics. There is much discussion of “Chokegate,” in which state supreme court justice David Prosser is alleged to have been involved in a physical confrontation with fellow justice Ann Walsh Bradley. Before the incident, organizers had wanted to ask Prosser to serve as umpire for the game — he is an avid baseball fan — but for obvious reasons, he has recently been preoccupied. At one point in the game, someone tells a female staffer to “choke up” on the bat, to make it easier to swing. “I want a police investigation,” yells someone in the crowd, leading to muffled laughter.
The nine recalls of state senators brought on by the union controversy is also a common topic. 2011 has unexpectedly become an election year in Wisconsin, as six Republicans and three Democrats risk being yanked from the Senate over the union imbroglio. “I hope nobody dies running the bases today,” says assembly staffer Kristy Curry. “We already have enough special elections around here these days.”
At one point, Representative John Murtha sends a foul ball through the crowd of onlookers. “I’m paying for my health care now, might as well use it,” cracks one staffer.
As the game continues, the usual japery ensues. Someone gets hit with a slow pitch, and mockingly charges the mound. A runner is incorrectly called out and epic histrionics follow. Two staffers wear t-shirts emblazoned with “Escape to Fitzwalkerstan” — a sobriquet given the state by Democrat assemblyman Mark Pocan, referring to the reign of Governor Walker and legislative leaders Scott and Jeff Fitzgerald.
The legislators pump line drive after line drive into the outfield, scoring at a rate that would impress even Anthony Weiner. They chug their ample beer bellies around the bases as if they were being chased by picketers. Left-handed-hitting freshman Representative Paul Farrow launches a bomb into the fenceless expanse of right field, and as he rounds third base, he is taunted with chants of “Come on, Governor!” (A recent magazine article on the legislature’s up-and-comers said Farrow had the charisma to be governor one day, and his colleagues have ribbed him mercilessly about it ever since.)
By the end of the game, the staffers have taken to employing 17 fielders to thwart the legislators’ scoring onslaught. Staff, who are easily an average of 15 years younger than their bosses, concede that the legislator team is better than in past years, as they now have 59 members from which draw. It turns out that the 2010 election was the best softball recruitment tool possible.
On the day that all knowledge in Wisconsin was supposed to end, something at Vilas Park was abundantly clear: As long as the state has summer nights, softball, and beer, everything will be just fine.
And the final score? Legislators 40, staffers 13. Perhaps the staffers should flee to Illinois before next year’s rematch.
— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.