Bound together by trauma, GOP baseball team returns to practice
ALEXANDRIA Va. — A year ago, a gunman shattered the tranquility of a spring baseball practice in this leafy Washington suburb, sending members of Congress diving into dugouts and leaving House Majority Whip Steve Scalise grasping for life on a blood-soaked infield.
On Wednesday, Republicans returned to the scene of the carnage to pay homage to the police officers who saved lives that day and — in a spirit of resilience — to once again play ball.
“I thought it was important to show the world we’re not going to be deterred,” said Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.).
Scalise was absent from the GOP baseball team’s first practice of the year; he was recuperating in a hospital from the latest planned surgery on his badly damaged hip. But he was foremost on his teammates’ minds Wednesday, as they rechristened the field at Eugene Simpson Stadium Park where he and lobbyist Matt Mika nearly lost their lives on June 14.
“It is so important we that we continue this tradition,” Scalise said in a statement read aloud by Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), manager of the team, adding that “one act of madness” shouldn't interfere with their tradition.
Still there were signs of sharp differences from the previous year: Security lined the field and swept the media on the way in. Barton said practices will occur at a rotating set of fields to avoid an “automatic pattern.” Bullet marks were still visible atop the first-base dugout.
The shooting, which unfolded as much of Washington careened from one political crisis to another, became an inflection point in the national debate over gun violence as well as a moment to reflect on the intense partisan hostility that had gripped the country.
The gunman, James Hodgkinson, targeted the Republicans and allegedly had monitored the field for weeks. When he decided to strike on that June morning, he unloaded more than 70 rounds, according to police, pockmarking dugouts and blowing holes in a nearby shed where some lawmakers had taken cover. Mika was struck in the chest and Scalise in his hip. Zack Barth, an aide to Rep. Roger Williams (R-Texas), was shot in the leg.
That day was memorable not just violence but for also for moments of bravery.
Witnesses recalled that Capitol Police officers David Bailey and Crystal Griner, part of Scalise’s security detail, were injured as they slowed the shooter’s advance, likely preventing even more bloodshed. Hodgkinson was ultimately shot down by officers at the scene and died of his wounds at the hospital.
Lawmakers including Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Brad Wenstrup of Ohio, a physician, rushed toward Scalise to treat his wounds until he could be helicoptered to a hospital. Barton’s teammates hid his 10-year-old son Jack under a dugout bench in case the shooter reached them.
The political nature of the violence led to a short-lived reckoning over the increasingly hostile partisanship of Washington. And lawmakers on Wednesday sought to revive that spirit of comity that briefly emerged. They recalled that nearly a year ago, when the players decided to proceed with their annual charity game in the aftermath of the shooting, Democrats and Republicans prayed together on second base and the event sold more tickets and raised more money than any year prior.
But there was also a noticeable melancholy when they acknowledged that bitterness had returned to the public discourse and little had changed.
“We still need a lot of work in that area,” lamented Flake.
Williams, the team's coach, agreed that the brief calls to ratchet down the overheated political attacks hadn’t taken root.
“What the event did was change a lot of people’s hearts, how precious life is,” he said. “But from a political standpoint, it hasn’t changed any of the rhetoric. It’s as divided as it’s ever been.”
“News cycles are not long,” he added. “You always have a political event that takes precedence.”
Williams said he hoped returning to the field would remind people of the importance of coming together.
Still, Wednesday was a mostly upbeat return for a team bound together closely by trauma. Despite a rain-soaked field, lawmakers including Reps. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.), Kevin Brady (R-Texas) and Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) fielded ground balls before a crush of cameras eager to capture the moment. A fully recovered Barth, alongside Williams, his boss, told reporters he was eager to get “back to baseball.” Mika, too, made a return to the field.
Springtime baseball has been a congressional tradition for decades, with Republicans and Democrats fielding teams who face off in an annual charity game at Nationals Park. Last year’s game, thanks to the attention following the shooting, drew national attention. This year’s game is set for June 14.
Lawmakers expressed hope that returning to their spring pastime might also bring back that cross-aisle camaraderie.
“Republicans, Democrats, Americans,” said Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.). “Let’s get out and play ball.”