Investing 11-07-2024 12:27 3 Views

An Iowa baseball team needed a pitcher. A state legislator took the mound.

The Sioux City Explorers were in a bind. Three hours before the Iowa-based professional baseball team was set to take the field Saturday, manager Steve Montgomery received the news that his starting pitcher for the day was injured. The other arms on his roster were spent. Frantic, he sent a flurry of calls to local baseball players who might be able to serve as an emergency replacement.

Most of those calls went unanswered. Then J.D. Scholten, a 44-year-old Democratic representative in the Iowa House, picked up the phone.

“I said, ‘J.D., I’m desperate. I need you to start tonight’s game,’” Montgomery recalled.

“You’re kidding me,” Scholten replied.

It was a chance for a comeback that Scholten, a retired player who pitched in several independent professional leagues before entering politics, never imagined he’d see at this stage in his career. So the lawmaker raced home, grabbed his cleats, signed a contract at the ballpark and took the mound for his hometown team — where he threw 100 pitches over almost seven innings in a winning performance that brought the ballpark to its feet.

“It was pretty magical,” Scholten told The Washington Post.

Scholten’s heroics in the Explorers’ 11-2 win revived a baseball career that has stretched decades longer than the representative’s political one. Scholten grew up playing baseball in Sioux City and, when he wasn’t drafted after college, entered the network of independent professional leagues in the United States and elsewhere unassociated with the MLB or its minor league system. In the 2000s, he played four seasons for the Sioux City Explorers, who compete in the American Association of Professional Baseball with 11 other teams based mostly in the Midwest and Canada. Between stints in the United States, he joined teams in Canada, Cuba, Belgium and Germany.

Scholten’s dogged-ballplayer persona stayed with him after he retired and entered politics around six years ago. He ran ads with the tagline “If you build it, they will come” from the 1989 baseball movie “Field of Dreams” as he drew national attention with a competitive but unsuccessful bid to unseat Rep. Steve King (R) in a red congressional district in 2018. He ran for the U.S. House again in 2020 and lost before being elected to the Iowa House of Representatives in 2022, when he ran unopposed.

Scholten continued pitching in his spare time. When the legislative session ended in May 2023, he played in an amateur league and traveled overseas to briefly play for a professional team in the Netherlands. He couldn’t stay away from baseball.

“It’s partly because I want to stay in shape and all that,” Scholten said. “But it’s also a great stress relief and a great distraction from being in politics.”

Scholten, more sore after every outing in his 40s and in the midst of a reelection campaign, never imagined he’d return to his hometown team this year. He was volunteering at a music festival in Sioux City on Saturday when Montgomery, the Sioux City Explorers manager, called with his last-ditch request.

Montgomery knew that Scholten was in shape. The Explorers were reeling after two dismal losses to start the holiday weekend, when opposing batters had ripped home run after home run against their exhausted bullpen and left the pitching roster depleted. What did they have to lose?

“We were in a little desperate times,” Montgomery said.

With two hours before the game’s first pitch, Scholten began warming up. Word got around Sioux City quickly that a politician and a former hometown player was taking the mound. Scholten stepped out onto the Explorers’ field for the first time in almost two decades to a crowd bolstered by his old college teammates and family friends. Quietly, though, Montgomery and the Explorers’ staff tempered their expectations.

“I was just hoping for the best,” said Dan Vaughan, the Explorers’ broadcaster. “That he would get through the first couple of innings and give us a couple [of outs]. I mean, as much as I wanted … a more heroic story, I was just thinking, Milwaukee, this team we’re playing, is really good.”

The Milwaukee Milkmen started strong. In the first inning, the Explorers allowed a runner to score on a sacrifice fly and Scholten loaded the bases.

“I’m like, ‘Oh no,’” Vaughan said. “‘This could be a long evening.’”

But Scholten induced a double play to escape the jam. Then he cruised through Milwaukee’s lineup, striking out two batters and allowing only one run off a solo homer over the next five innings.

Scholten’s fastball touched 89 mph, Montgomery said. His sliders dipped and spun. He pitched with a veteran’s savvy, Montgomery added, inducing weak flyballs to quickly record outs and speed through his innings.

The Explorers built a comfortable lead behind Scholten’s pitching. Montgomery visited the mound after the lawmaker threw his 100th pitch in the seventh inning and — after some argument — convinced Scholten to exit the game to a raucous standing ovation. It felt like a playoff game, Montgomery said.

Even after playing baseball on several continents, it was also a first for Scholten.

“I never have gotten something like that in my life,” he said.

Scholten was named player of the game after the Explorers’ few remaining relief pitchers completed the win. His teammates doused him with a bucket of water in celebration — another first for him. In a postgame interview with Vaughan on the field, Scholten declared the win was for “all the middle-aged men who still think they can do it.”

Scholten and the Sioux City Explorers have since resumed their respective campaigns. The Explorers traveled north to Fargo, N.D., this week to begin a crucial road trip and vie for the final playoff spot in their division. Scholten said he has spent time distributing supplies for residents affected by recent flooding and door-knocking as a fundraising deadline approaches.

As Scholten campaigns, he is scheduled to pitch once more for the Explorers on Thursday in North Dakota. Scholten said that he believes he can balance his political commitments with baseball — and that he doesn’t mind if he never sheds the image of a ballplayer.

“At the end of the day,” Scholten said, “if people can think ‘baseball’ with me … I think that’s how I prefer to be remembered.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post
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