For the second time, Heath Shuler has failed to revive a moribund team that plays in RFK Stadium.Shuler, you may recall, was once the great hope of the Washington Redskins, who drafted him with the third overall pick out of the University of Tennessee (where he had just finished as the runner-up in the Heisman Trophy balloting) in 1994, banking on the QB’s golden arm to reverse their flagging fortunes in the (first) post-Joe Gibbs era.
It didn’t quite work out. Over three seasons, Shuler went 4-15 as a Redskins starter, before losing his spot to Gus Frerotte and leaving for New Orleans. He retired shortly thereafter, the football equivalent of Walter Berry. (He also left behind legions of embittered Redskins fans.)
Now, the 35-year-old Shuler is a freshman Democratic congressman, elected in a mild upset last fall in a western North Carolina district where sports loyalties tend more toward Knoxville than Chapel Hill. His win helped Democrats reclaim the House, but Democrats in D.C. also believed the former athlete would reverse their fortunes in a mid-summer Washington tradition: The annual Congressional baseball game. “Heath Shuler’s going to be good on policy, but he’s a great athlete,” Steny Hoyer, who is now the House Majority Leader, bragged in the summer of 2006, already anticipating the former quarterback’s arrival. “He's going to be our Steve Largent.” Largent, and NFL Hall of Famer, served as a Republican congressman from Oklahoma in the mid-to-late ‘90s. But in truth, the GOP’s baseball dominance over the Democrats pre-dated Largent, and carried on after he left Congress. Last year, for instance, Republicans overcame an early 1-0 deficit to topple the Democrats….12-1. It was their 14th win in 19 years.
But last night was the beginning of a new era. For the first time since 1994, a Democratic House Speaker showed up at the game, her party’s supporters seated in the majority section of the RFK stands. And there was Shuler, suiting up and taking the field at RFK for the first time since Bob Dole was running for President. And then they played the game. And the Democrats lost. Again. In the run-up to the game, Shuler was quoted saying: “I guess the good thing is it can’t any worse from when I played there last. I’m looking forward to redeeming myself.” As a Cubs fan might say, there’s always next year.