When you call Central Casting for a GOP villain, you can't do much better than Sen. Jim Bunning, the long-serving, foul-mouthed, foaming-mouthed, motor-mouthed but—oh Bartleby! oh humanity!—soon-to-retire Kentucky Republican who also happens to be a Hall of Fame baseball player. Which is pretty cool, even if he was part of the greatest collapse in MLB history.
Bunning's latest turn as something out of an Aaron Sorkin cocaine-fueled fantasy of EVIL Republicans is his doomed stand against a spending bill that would have extended, says The Washington Post, "unemployment benefits, Medicare payments to doctors, satellite TV to rural Americans and paychecks to highway workers." Bunning's Eephus pitch was holding out for offsetting tax credits before approving the $10 billion spending package. Imagine that, insisting on something like pay-go this soon as after the president had crowed about doing the same? Bunning's argument was an irrefutable thing of simplicity (and, quite possibly, spiking blood sugar levels): We're already spending too much on everything, goddammit. Now get off my lawn! And I'm keeping this ball, you unnerstand!
Let any among us who couldn't find a measly $10 billion among $4 trillion cast the first beanball at Bunning, who still quivers at false memories of facing Stan "The Man" Musial in the batter's box and denies amphetamine use despite eyewitness testimony to the opposite. Seriously, if the '64 Phillies couldn't close out the season in first place with a six-plus game lead in late September, this latest squeeze play of fiscal restraint in a world gone mad had no shot whatsoever.
But like seeing Andy Hassler penciled in to start, Bunning's antics made his opponents happy, as he put a GOP face on a manufactured problem (come on, there wasn't enough spare change in the couch cushions of the Senate lounge to pay for this? Can't Chris Dodd personally beam satellite signals off his pearly whites to folks getting TV in the hinterlands?). Even Bunning's hometown papers gave him bad press on this one, which is akin to blaming the loss in a tight ballgame to one final, visible error, rather than all the errors we all made not just in this game but in the whole season! You, over there, Tommy, do you remember that missed signal in last week's game? And Billy, didn't you overthrow the cut-off in the first game of the season? No, no one dast blame Jim Bunning for tossing one last slurve that got away from all of us. We all lost the spending game, fer chrissakes, one mental error (are there any other kind?) at a time.
Fellow Republicans were mostly mortified, with legislative "gentlewoman" (the Post's term) as Sen. Olympia Snowe trying to talk him off the mound and even spending-hawk and evolution-denialist Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma crying for the hook already: "It's important that the American people understand that there is bipartisan support for extending these vital programs," said Inhofe. "This is not a partisan issue."
Well, we know where bipartisanship gets us. Which is, scrounging for $10 billion to pay construction workers on make-work government projects. And laughing, not without reason, at stories of Bunning telling his colleagues "tough shit" and kicking ABC News reporters out of "Senate-only" elevators.
[*] Warning: You are about to approach a zone where baseball metaphors are as overworked and tired as the Phillies pitching staff in the waning days of the '64 campaign.
But as Jim Bunning bangs the drum slowly and hits the showers of his second, far-less-interesting-than-the-first career, as he exits the mound for the final time, as he enters that good, great locker room of life and clears out his gear, to snap legislative jocks no more, when he has received his last shaving cream pie and/or hotfoot, when he has gotten the hook in the final inning of the final game of the final season, when the Margo Adamses of life and love and liberty finally stop hanging around and the Kissing Bandit, like Death on a pale horse or Tug McGraw in the Met Mobile, passes by without a second glance, I prefer to remember him as Matt Welch did a year ago: As having always been nuts.
Much as it's delicious to imagine yet another clinically insane man in the U.S. Senate, there's ample evidence to suggest that Bunning's just sorta always been this way. There was his 2004 campaign comment that Democratic challenger Daniel Mongiardo, an Italian American, looked "like one of Saddam Hussein's sons" and "even dresses like them, too." ). Bunning denied ever seeing amphetamines in the amphetamine-littered Major League clubhouses of the 1960s, despite eyewitness testimony to the contrary about the historic 1964 Phillies team that collapsed on Bunning's back. He not only thinks all baseball records set by players who used forbidden drugs should be erased from the record books, he introduced legislation to make that federal law. He has talked about "little green doctors" lying in ambush at public gatherings, ready to pound his back (no really).
So when the Kentucky senator unleashes another "goddamn" on a conference call with reporters, when he tells the New York Times that dealing with Stan Musial was much more challenging than dealing with any modern-day Republican (even though Bunning never once faced Stan the Man), when he threatens to sue his own party if they don't get behind his re-election campaign, there's an explanation even more frightening than early-onset Alzheimer's: Maybe Jim Bunning has been this crazy all along.
But if it's autumn for Jim Bunning, when all good ballplayers hang up their cleats and start thinking about selling aluminum siding or shilling for casinos in the off-season, that only means that training camp and a brand-new season is but months away. And just as Wally Pip being sidelined made room for Lou Gehrig, Bunning's retirement may well prove more historic for who follows him in representing the Bluegrass State. Take a look at the guy currently warming up in the bullpen and realize that, just like Jim Bunning the ballplayer, we won't miss Bunning the senator at all when the new season gets underway. Because this time, when the crocuses bloom and the chill April winds snap the pennants out there in center field, we got a real good prospect with a 100 mph fastball and more junk than Doc Gooden in rehab: