Members of Congress played baseball at Nationals Park on Thursday with their minds on a wounded colleague and the hope that a few innings, played by Republicans and Democrats who usually revel in bare-knuckle politics, could possibly play even a small part in healing a bitterly divided nation.
Democrats won easily 11 to 2. But the players were vying for something bigger. Maybe, ventured Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, the Republican team’s third base coach, Americans will "look back in history and say that day as bad as it was, we began to build our country back and people are talking like people, finally."
Williams, sporting a purple cast that matched his Texas Christian University baseball jersey, was back on the field hitting grounders to his Republican teammates a day after a gunman opened fire on a field of Republican lawmakers shagging fly balls during an early morning practice in Alexandria, Virginia.
Thursday, they and fellow lawmakers vowed the game, played for charity, would go on.
"This baseball game is one of the few bipartisan events that still exists and I don’t know of one Republican or one Democrat who isn’t anxious to get out there and compete," said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who was uninjured after diving into the home dugout for cover under a hail of gunfire on Wednesday. "People need to know that Congress is not always the fighting you see on cable."
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La, remained in critical condition with a gunshot wound to the hip. Some members of Congress said they had mixed feelings about the country’s ability to mourn and move on, a reaction borne out of repeated acts of gun violence. Hours after the shooting in Virginia, three people and a gunman were killed at a shooting at a UPS facility in San Francisco.
"I’m glad we are showing resiliency after the shooting, but I also wonder what it says about us that we’re able to move on from a mass shooting like this so easily," said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who plays on the Democratic team and who championed gun control legislation in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting. "We’ve become normalized to it."
The scene at Nationals Park was reminiscent of a typical midweek Nationals game, save for Flake and others doing interviews among the dozens of Capitol Police officers stationed outside the gate with bomb-sniffing dogs. And more significantly, the applause and lengthy standing ovation for Scalise.
Otherwise, it was baseball. There was even a major league-sized crowd – 24,959, a congressional game record.
After a back-and-forth first inning where the Republicans and Democrats combined for five runs, the Democrats pulled away with two four run innings behind the stellar hitting and sharp pitching of Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., who hurled a complete game.
Richmond smacked a triple to left field and struck out a number of Republicans with his fastball-curveball combination. Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., blooped a three run single in the third inning off of Republican starting pitcher Mark Walker, R-N.C., to turn the game into a rout. The Democrats went wild when Rep. Nanette Barragan, D-Calif., one of two women who suited up for the Democrats, legged out an RBI infield single.
Both teams had their share of bloopers, as Richmond knocked over Rep. Ron DeSantis, F-Fla., while sliding into third base and Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., was knocked over when a throw sailed by the Republican first baseman.
The fabled congressional baseball game has been held on and off since 1909 when Rep. John Tenner of Pennsylvania, a former professional baseball player, got it started. It took a hiatus in 1958 when former House Speaker Sam Rayburn declared it too physical, but returned in 1962.
The bragging rights for tonight’s game were already considerable: The series is tied 39-39-1 after Republicans broke a seven-year losing streak with a walk-off hit in 2016.
Organizers estimated they were on track to raise more than $1 million this year, nearly twice as much as last year, with ticket sales spiking Thursday.
That money will benefit the Washington Nationals Dream Foundation, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington and the Washington Literary Center.
It will also benefit the Capitol Police Memorial Fund, which was added after the shooting amid lawmakers crediting the swift action by Scalise’s Capitol Police detail with preventing further carnage.
Among those attending for the first time were Carol Boulden and her husband, Patrick, of Alexandria, Va., who were hoping for some cheer.
“We thought it would be nice to experience people coming together for something positive for a change,” Boulden said. “There’s so much negative, heated rhetoric all the time and we’re so sick of it. It feels good to be here.”
Patrick, whose bike route to work runs past the field where the shooting occurred, was more skeptical.
“The real question is how long is this going to last?” he said. “Next week will this even be remembered?”
But members said they welcome the camaraderie and the chance to compete on the baseball diamond against colleagues they are more likely to debate on hot-button issues like immigration and health care.
"We are intense on the field," said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, the Republican team’s manager. "I haven't played the game in a long time but when I did I was pitcher for our team and I did brush back some of my Democratic colleagues and they brushed me back."
His Democratic colleague Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., who manages the Democratic team, playfully interjected.
"But he couldn't throw hard enough to hurt us so it wasn't that bad."
Richmond, who visited Scalise twice on Wednesday, planned to make the hospital his last stop before he reached the ballpark Thursday. His thoughts will be on his colleague when he takes the mound, he said.
"He’s very persistent and strong which is why I characterize him like a little Chihuahua," Richmond said of Scalise, his Louisiana counterpart. "I would expect him to use all that strength and courage to get through this."
Though Richmond said he expects he’ll find another Republican "I can go pick a fight with," he said he’d miss the friendly banter he and Scalise have perfected.
At every event they do in Louisiana, he said, "we poke each other about the baseball games."
Up until 2016 when Republicans won the game, Richmond said he did all the prodding.
"Last year he got a chance to brag about it, and he did. Every day, all day," Richmond said.
Williams, the third base coach for the Republican team, played professionally in the Atlanta Braves farm system after a college baseball career at Texas Christian University.
He stood on crutches in the House Thursday, his bare toes peeking out of a cast on his foot and by his side, also on crutches, his staffer Zack Barth who was shot in the leg by the gunman.
Williams said he consulted with Speaker Paul Ryan about the need to play ball.
"These people who want to destroy our lives, our livelihood, here in America, they win if we give in," Williams said. "If we don't play this baseball game and we go home, they win."