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Pitchers and Catchers Report

The muscles atrophied. We've all lost a step. Curveballs aren't breaking like they should. Our timing is off.

These are the laments of Major League Baseball players in mid-February when pitchers and catchers report for spring training.

And these are similar refrains from members of the Capitol Hill press corps as Congress prepares to come back to Washington on November 14.

Much like the ballplayers, our verbs in our copy aren't as strapping as they were when Congress was meeting. We're not as quick to hustle down the corridor in pursuit of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) or Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Our curveball questions aren't as sharp. And our timing in knowing when to ask just the right question at just the precise moment needs some improvement.

That's right. Congress left town in early August. It was out of session the rest of the month. Back for just a couple of weeks in September. The House was even expected to be in session for a few days in early October, but cancelled that plan.

So, those of us who cover Congress are a little out of shape.

It's time for journalistic pitchers and catchers to report because the lame duck session of Congress promises to be quite a season.

There's no Grapefruit or Cactus League for reporters, though. We can't head to venues like Tucson, AZ or Port St. Lucie, FL - respectively the spring training venues for the Chicago White Sox and New York Mets. But Congressional scribes can certainly start now in preparation for Congress to return.

For starters, many news organizations deployed their Capitol Hill reporting teams to the campaign trail. They've dispatched journalists to cover competitive Senate races in Montana or Nevada or trace interesting House races in Iowa and New Hampshire. Other news outlets drafted their Congressional teams to follow President Obama and Mitt Romney. Newspapers and TV networks conscripted Congressional reporting regulars to follow the Republican convention in Tampa or the Democratic convention in Charlotte.

If you're a member of the institutional press, there's been lots of other Congressional news to cover - besides the nip-and-tuck House and Senate contests of the past few months. There was Romney's selection of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) as his running mate. A scandal erupted involving Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-TN). Word broke that the pro-life Tennessee physician counseled his former mistress to have an abortion 12 years ago. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL) remains largely out of the public eye after suffering from a "mood disorder." He was receiving treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and was later released. Jackson then put his home in Washington, DC's Dupont Circle neighborhood up for sale and took it off. Jackson's now back in Minnesota receiving treatment. His father, Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., told me at the Democratic convention that he "couldn't say" if his son would ever return to Congress.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) banged up his ribs after a fender-bender in Las Vegas. Police later cited a U.S. Capitol Police officer who is part of Reid's security detail in the accident.

Rumors flew that Nancy Pelosi was considering retirement or stepping aside from her leadership post this fall after she scheduled leadership elections for late November. Pelosi's office and other Democratic sources deny any suggestion that the California Democrat may hang it up.

Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) fueled a political firestorm after he described how the female reproductive system had ways to terminate pregnancies in incidents of "legitimate rape."

In the past few days, the news out of Capitol Hill focuses on what if any Congressional assistance may be necessary to help the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) get aid to those in need after Hurricane Sandy. Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ) have been at the forefront of this effort.

Multiple Republican lawmakers, led by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsay Graham (R-SC), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) are relentless in their pursuit of information about the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. They've collectively written dozens of letters to Mr. Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other administration officials demanding answers. They suspect the White House may be engaged in a cover up.

So, there's been plenty to focus on here on Capitol Hill. But by phone and email. These are important skills in a journalist's repertoire. But it's just not the same without the lawmakers here every day. Those of us who cover Congress are a little rusty. And that means it's time for pitchers and catchers to report.

Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench once remarked that the late-Cincinnati Reds Manager Sparky Anderson ran such a strict, arduous training camp that he christened it "Stalag 17." Getting back in shape for Congress won't entail suicide sprints and jackknife stomach crunches. Save those for the late skipper of the Big Red Machine. But I've concocted a few drills which may help limber Congressional reporters for when lawmakers return.

Drill #1:

Go down to the hallway outside the Speaker's office between the Capitol Rotunda and Statuary Hall. Just stand around for a few hours until your lower back hurts and your sciatic nerve throbs in your leg. Reporters sometimes spend hours on end hanging out in that hallway when big stories percolate. And if that doesn't work for you, here are some other alternatives. Head down to the Capitol basement near room HC-5 and wait down there. House Republicans often hold their conference meetings there. You could also stand around for an hour or two in the Ohio Clock Corridor outside the Senate chamber. Reporters always stake out senators there on Tuesdays. Democrats huddle in the Mike Mansfield Room and Republicans meet in the LBJ Room for their weekly caucus luncheons.

And you don't have to necessarily restrict this drill to Tuesdays.

See, there's not just one way to amp up for the Congressional return. This is just like a yoga class that provides students a chance to engage in a variation of each pose based on their level of flexibility.

Drill #2:

Grab a couple of extra reporters and head down to the House Radio/TV Gallery studio in the Capitol Visitor's Center. Have one reporter stand at the lectern and fire questions at him or her. If the reporter at the dais is portraying House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), make sure they only recognize reporters when they raise their hands. In recent months Boehner instituted a policy of refusing to call on reporters who don't raise their hands. This exercise will serve as good reminder.

Drill #3:

Take a piece of paper and cut it up into little squares. Write a bunch of names of House members on the squares. Don't forget that some members like Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) always want a topic written on the card. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) and others respectfully decline cards. This is practice for the Speaker's Lobby. Reporters always rubber into the Speaker's Lobby behind the House chamber when votes are called. They try to buttonhole lawmakers as they walk to the floor. The chamber security staff provides a service where reporters can fill out cards for lawmakers they want to interview during vote sequences.

Drill #4:

Go over to any corridor in the Rayburn House Office Building and sprint down the hall. Pretend you're chasing former General Services Administration official Jeff Neely. He was at the center of the scandal where the GSA threw a lavish conference in Las Vegas. Neely might not return to a Capitol Hill hearing any time soon. But it's inevitable that some other figure will descend on a Congressional hearing room in the near future and merit a pursuit. Nobody wants to rupture an Achilles tendon or tear a hamstring during one of these scrambles. So make sure you've limbered up.

These are just a few suggestions. After all, Major League ballplayers wouldn't just return to the diamond on opening day and start firing 95 mph fastballs. They need some spring training. And reporters do, too.

Many decades ago, baseball legend Rogers Hornsby spoke about what he did during the winter to pass the time without baseball.

"I'll tell you what I do," Hornsby said. "I stare out the window and wait for spring."

Winter may be approaching on the calendar. But winter is just done in Congress. The Congressional crocuses are starting to push their heads out of the ground. The birds are heading back north again. It's practically springtime at the Capitol. And time for pitchers and catchers to report.