Caruso: Softball Socialist or People’s Hero?
Posted at 12:01 a.m. on May 24, 2012
Gary Caruso has spent the past 30-plus years moving in and out of Congressional offices and committees, agency appointments, private-sector positions and stints in the White House. He’s a Washington insider in every sense of the word — but he’d probably prefer the term “infielder.”
Caruso has served as commissioner of the Congressional Softball League for almost 30 years. In a career spanning four decades, 15 Congresses and five presidents, Caruso has been a constant presence from May to September in downtown Washington, D.C.
The CSL was founded in 1971 as Capitol Hill’s casual league, or “B” division. “B” in this case stood for beer-drinking, which is tolerated during games more than anywhere this side of the Red Sox clubhouse. Originally a friendly alternative to the more structured, competitive balls-and-strikes league, it ultimately absorbed those teams upon the latter league’s folding during the 1980s.
After earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s from the University of Pittsburgh, Caruso began his Hill career in the late 1970s, working for former Rep. Austin Murphy (D-Pa.) — and, of course, playing softball. He took over operation of the CSL in the early ’80s after a few years of successfully running its popular end-of-season tournament.
Caruso left the Hill after Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, but the rise of the Internet has allowed him to continue running the league effectively.
“Originally, organizing a league meant you had to send a ‘Dear Colleague’ letter, and people had to fill out all the stuff and send it back,” Caruso said. “It was really a labor of love. … When technology broke in, it became a lot easier and a lot more routine.”
For the most part, the biggest headaches of Caruso’s job today come from administrative hiccups — accidental double-
registrations, payment problems and the like. However, Caruso entered the spotlight in 2006 when a group of mostly Republican teams broke off from the CSL to form their own league.
The heart of the schism lay in Caruso’s controversial playoff system. The CSL seeds teams based on record but breaks them into groups such that the No. 1 seed plays the No. 16 seed, the No. 17 the No. 35 and so on, rather than simply pitting the top teams against the lowest. Caruso believes the system promotes competitive playoff games, while critics saw it as “softball welfare,” according to emails obtained by the Wall Street Journal at the time. (Read more about the league split in Roll Call’s archives.)
“We made the competition a little more even in the first two rounds. … What that meant was that some of the more competitive teams got knocked out that, in a true ‘best-plays-the-worst’ system, would’ve survived,” Caruso said. “Some of the more competitive teams decided they didn’t like that.”
The seceding teams established their new home, the House Softball League, with stricter rules, power rankings and a traditional playoff system. The Congressional League endures, and Caruso stands by the system.
“We have always been casual. We’ve always been a big, open, umbrella-type organization,” Caruso said.
Caruso, 61, now works in communications at the Homeland Security Department and still plays softball with his team, the Yellow Journalists. The CSL has recovered from the schism, and Caruso has served more than his due time as commissioner. So why not hang up the cleats?
“You see these Capitol Hill staffers who, at 6:20, make every effort to get the hell off the Hill and go down to play ball one night a week — it’s because it’s in our blood, that’s what we like to do,” Caruso said. “You have to be a softball player to understand that.”