Party feud strikes out political softball

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The Independent US

When the political in-fighting is over, Washington's political aides and congressional staffers have always known how to blow off steam by confronting each other in the capital's softball league. Or at least they did, until an ugly Republican-Democrat split rent the league asunder.

The commissioner of the amateur league is a Democrat who has so alienated the Republican teams that two-thirds of them have walked out to set up a rival organisation. The Republicans accuse the Democrats of rigging the end-of-season championship rounds to give a boost to weaker teams. The Democrats, meanwhile, say the Republicans cannot stand to be part of any show they do not run themselves.

With mid-term elections looming and Republicans and Democrats losing no opportunity to vilify each other, the fighthighlights a deep political polarisation that many veteran observers say is worse than anything in their memory.

"It used to be that softball was one of the few things in Washington that both parties agreed on," the league commissioner, Gary Caruso, told The Wall Street Journal. "Now that is coming to an end, too."

Softball is similar to baseball, only it is played with a larger ball. The Washington league is particularly relaxed since the batter is allowed to wait for a delivery he or she feels able to whack.

Usually, American sports organise elimination rounds after the regular league season by matching the best teams against the worst - thus virtually guaranteeing that the top-ranked league teams will meet each other in the semi-finals. Commissioner Caruso, though, decided last year to pit teams of similar ability against each other. His team of press secretaries, the Yellow Journalists, has won the title twice.

Republicans have complained that the system was tantamount to "softball welfare - aiding the weak by punishing the strong", according to an e-mail quoted by the Journal.

The rebellion has been led by an aide to Dennis Hastert, the House Speaker. He has persuaded 110 of the league's 190 teams to break away.

"Republicans come here and want to bash your head in," Mr Caruso said. "And if they don't get their way, they pick up the ball and go home." Intriguingly, though, some Democrats have also joined the rebellion.

The Westminster party whip system has never translated well on the other side of the Atlantic, and softball is clearly no exception.

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