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Nearly a year after shooting, GOP baseball team returns to the field

Apr 25, 2018
In The News

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — On a drizzly, gray morning after a trying year, the Republican congressional baseball team kicked off its season Wednesday.

Last June, a lone gunman opened fire on the unsuspecting lawmakers at practice, one day before their annual charity game against Democrats, wounding House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and several others before being shot by police.

For many of these players, it wasn't easy showing up to the same suburban Virginia ball field this week, where bullet holes can still be seen in the dugouts and memories of the ambush remain fresh. But for all of them, they said, returning to the field showed resiliency.

“This baseball field, I think it epitomizes what makes America great,” said Ennis Rep. Joe Barton, who over the past three decades has played for, coached and now manages the GOP team. “All the players ... they don’t get extra credit to do this. It doesn’t help them move up the leadership ladder or get to be a chairman. They do it because they love the game and want to give something back to the community.”

He narrated, as many lawmakers did, how the violence unfolded on June 14 last summer, when 66-year-old James Hodgkinson emerged near the third-base dugout and opened fire at Mississippi Rep. Trent Kelly on the infield — missing him, the bullet ricocheting off a chain-link fence.

As lawmakers, aides and Barton’s two sons ran — some diving into dugouts or under cars — Hodgkinson, of Illinois, kept firing. He hit Scalise, who was left gravely wounded on the field, as well as congressional aide Zack Barth, a Texan, and lobbyist Matt Mika, who was shot in the chest and arm. 

The man who reportedly had a history of anti-GOP activity was only stopped after exchanging fire with two of Scalise's security officers, who were also wounded, and Alexandria police. Hodgkinson was shot and later died of his injuries.

Coming together — temporarily

The violence spawned an outpouring of praise for law enforcement, something lawmakers reiterated on Wednesday. It also sparked calls for unity from political leaders, chatter that dissipated almost as soon as the season ended, though some lawmakers say a bond remains between the GOP and Democratic teams.

Scalise, whose fate remained uncertain for days, has endured multiple surgeries. He couldn’t attend on Wednesday, having just undergone his latest procedure. Barth and Mika joined the members on the field, as heavily armed police monitored the grounds. Barton said all teams will follow the beefed-up protocol and will rotate practice locations.

Still, some players didn’t try to hide their mixed feelings over being back.

Austin Rep. Roger Williams, a former Texas Christian University baseball star who coaches the GOP team, said ahead of Wednesday’s practice that while he was eager to resume the season and the nearly 110-year-old tradition, he didn’t want to return to the scene of the shooting.

“The idea of going back to where all this happened ... affects a lot of us,” he said. “None of us are afraid, but we’re aware.”

Lingering effects

Williams, who injured his ankle while rushing to take cover in the dugout, has been candid about suffering residual effects of the violence. For months, he had nightmares, and is easily rattled by sharp sounds.

He’s also said the incident only fortified his views on gun rights. This week, he credited law enforcement with saving lives, but said that if the players had carried that day — something he quickly added isn’t practical given the circumstances — perhaps the violence could have ended even sooner.

“On the team, we had some of the best shooters in the world,” he said. “But you can’t play with a gun in your pocket.”

Congressman Barry Loudermilk of Georgia said that he had flashbacks for several months following the shooting. But what also stuck with him was that the team didn’t finish the practice they had begun that June morning.

On Wednesday, he wore the same uniform, save for the tattered ballcap that the FBI retained as evidence.

“It was important to come out here and show the world that we’re not going to be deterred from doing what we do and raising money for these children,” Loudermilk said during the team’s news  conference after a short practice.

Pointing to his teammates and the injured men who retook the field, he added: “This is victory. This is victory for all of us, regardless of the outcome of the game last year.”

A day after the shooting, the Republicans were walloped by the Democrats, who pulled off their eighth win in nine years with an 11-2 victory.

“I don’t think you can count last year,” Williams said ahead of practice, noting that Republicans won the game a year prior.

But that year, an exhausted Democratic team took the field after holding a day-long sit-in to urge Republican leaders to hold votes on gun control measures.

End of an era

In ways, the GOP team is approaching an end of an era, as some Republican members are leaving Congress after this term.

Barton, who announced his decision to retire after scandalous photos emerged online last fall, is among them. Other outgoing baseball members include Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who said he's played on the team for 18 years, and Pennsylvania Rep. Ryan Costello. 

Pennsylvania Rep. Pat Meehan, who announced plans to retire after word broke that he used taxpayer money to settle a sexual harassment claim lodged by a former aide, isn't expected to play this year.

Aside from the retirements, the conference also knows it faces a tough November election, when Democrats hope to take back both chambers. 

“You don’t know who’s coming back,” Williams said. “When I’d see somebody is going to retire, I thought 'oh my gosh, there goes my shortstop.'”

Barton acknowledged that the Democrats, led by star pitcher Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, may have the competitive edge over an aging GOP team, though Republicans have added new players, such as Lubbock Rep. Jodey Arrington.

“We’d almost have to play a perfect game and make no mistakes” to win, Barton said, adding: “It would be good to go out on a victory, wouldn’t it?