It was true last year, when Democrats staged a 25-hour, 39-minute sit-in over gun control that almost postponed the game and led to increased tensions on the diamond. It was true in 1975, when the Democratic baseball team walked off to break an 11-year Republican winning streak thanks to a flood of young talent elected in the wake of the Watergate scandal. It was true in 1945, when the first interparty ballgame in 12 years served as a patriotic celebration of Allied victory in Europe. And it was true at the very first Congressional baseball game in 1909, when former Chicago White Stockings pitcher John Tener organized the contest as a salubrious remedy for his Republican Party’s infighting over a tentacular tariff bill.
But it was especially true this year, when a gunman opened fire at a Republican practice in Alexandria, Va., last Wednesday morning at 7 a.m. Four people were hurt, including Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, and lives were probably saved by the quick actions of the Capitol Police. Two officers who watching over the practice wound up trading shots with the would-be assassin for a full 10 minutes before he was overcome; they themselves were injured. The attack—the first attempt on a congressperson’s life since the 2011 shooting of Gabrielle Giffords—catapulted the annual congressional baseball tradition into the national spotlight. For the first time in its history, the Congressional baseball game did not merely reflect the news of its day—it became the news itself.
Rain, last-minute floor votes, and wet blankets in congressional leadership have all threatened to cancel the Congressional Baseball Game in the past, but this was, obviously, an unprecedented test. Yet mere hours after the shooting, the game’s organizers made it clear: yes, the ballgame would be played as scheduled, at 7:05 p.m. on Thursday night and not a minute later. The Republican-hating gunman, an avatar of polarized politics taken to the extreme, may have been trying to bring a violent end to one of the last true instances of interparty fraternization left on Capitol Hill, but his onslaught was foiled in more ways than one. A game universally hailed for its ability to forge unlikely friendships was given a fresh infusion of its primary fuel: unity.
Across town at the time of the shooting, the Democratic players halted their own practice to say a prayer.
— Rep. Ruben J. Kihuen (@RepKihuen) June 14, 2017
When the House of Representatives was gaveled into session, Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi joined Republican Speaker Paul Ryan in wishing the injured well, and the entire chamber responded with a standing ovation. Mike Doyle, the manager of the Democratic baseball team, invited the Republican team to dinner at the Democratic Club. At a time when bipartisanship had appeared to be in short supply, the tragedy in fact made playing the Congressional baseball game more appropriate than ever.
And so, 36 hours after the cracks of gunfire pierced the morning air, thousands of people hopped out of their cars and streamed out of the Metro toward Nationals Park in Southeast Washington, under a perfect 82-degree Chesapeake blue sky. It was the 83rd time that spectators had gathered to take in a Congressional Baseball Game. Each of those times, the game could be said to confirm that cliché that “sports brings people together,” but this year’s game did more. It was the first opportunity for people—politicians, staffers, and simply concerned Washingtonians—who already felt a bond of solidarity to physically come together and, simultaneously, ache over their pain and celebrate their triumph. Like that first baseball game at Fenway Park after the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, it was less a sporting event than a church service for thousands of people who unexpectedly yet inevitably felt the need to connect with their community.
Indeed, it started off with another prayer—after finishing their warmup tosses in the outfield, both teams knelt on the infield dirt to the right of second base—the position Scalise had been expected to play for the Republicans—to pray for their missing member, who at the time was in critical condition at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. (He has since been upgraded to “serious” condition and is awake and speaking.) The crowd revved up chants of “USA, USA,” before falling silent, joining in the solemn moment.
The sudden national interest in the game meant it was being livestreamed on Facebook and MLB.com as well as broadcast on C-SPAN, and so, perhaps for the benefit of the TV audience, the players were then introduced one by one, All-Star Game–style (after all, what is the Congressional Baseball Game if not an incredibly wonkish All-Star Game?). When Scalise was introduced in absentia and his face flashed across the center-field scoreboard, both sides of the stadium—Democrats to the left of home plate, Republicans to the right—rose to applaud.
— Alex Gangitano (@AlexGangitano) June 15, 2017
Then, yet again, stillness descended upon the banks of the Anacostia for a moment of silence.
From Barack Obama to “The Kid,” Ken Griffey Jr., the Congressional Baseball Game has never been a stranger to dignitaries, but this year they came from all sides of the aisle and all walks of life to pay their respects. MLB Chief Baseball Officer Joe Torre—also the owner of 2,342 hits as a player and 2,326 wins as a manager—walked out to the pitcher’s mound with the game ball. Roberto Clemente Jr. crouched behind home plate. Together, they waited for a man on crutches to make his way to the bump.
That man was David Bailey, one of the Capitol police officers who had been protecting the Republican team the previous morning. Favoring his left foot—he had not been shot, but suffered a minor injury in the scramble—Bailey tossed out the first pitch. No sooner had he sat down than a two-minute video message began to air on the scoreboard from the nation’s highest-ranking ex-prospect. “By playing tonight, you are showing the world that we will not be intimidated by threats, acts of violence, or assaults on our democracy,” President Donald Trump declared. “The game will go on.” In person, the four highest-ranking members of Congress—Ryan, Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer—convened at a microphone behind home plate to collectively, if a bit awkwardly, shout, “Play ball!”
— Nathaniel Rakich (@baseballot) June 15, 2017
The game itself was almost an afterthought. The Republican team burst out of the gate with two runs in the top of the first inning, the emotion clearly written on Ryan Costello’s and Chuck Fleischmann’s faces as they crossed home plate. But, as it would turn out, those were the only two runs the GOP would get off of former Morehouse College baseball player and Democratic pitcher Cedric Richmond. Richmond, a close friend of Scalise who had visited his fellow Louisianan in the hospital, turned in his best performance in four years: a seven-inning complete game, five hits, two runs (one earned), and eight strikeouts.
Democrats struck back quickly with a three-run first and never let up. In the bottom of the third, California Democrat Pete Aguilar doubled with the bases loaded to cap a four-run frame. In the fifth, Richmond boomed a triple to left field (a few yards shy of the first Congressional home run in 20 years), kicking off another four-run inning that also saw a walk and a single by Linda Sánchez and Nanette Barragán, respectively, the only two women on either roster.
In the majors, such a drubbing can lead to tensions even between two teams without the history that these two rival squads have, but the mood remained upbeat throughout the evening. Republican catcher Rodney Davis warmly greeted almost every Democrat who strode to the plate; the crowd refrained from chanting taunts or waving snarky signs (the few placards on display this year all read some variant of “Scalise Strong”). Perhaps it was because of the new, mixed-party seating arrangement, inspired by Pennsylvania representatives Dwight Evans (no, not that Dwight Evans), a Democrat, and Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican, who took in the game side by side.
— Dwight Evans (@RepDwightEvans) June 16, 2017
Perhaps it was because the teams (partly) wore the same uniforms, with most players donning bright yellow Louisiana State University hats, a tribute to proud Tiger Scalise.
With a trickle to the base of the mound and a final toss of the rawhide by Richmond, the game ended in an 11–2 Democratic victory. But, in keeping with the spirit of the night, when Democratic manager Doyle accepted the three-foot Congressional baseball game trophy in the post-game ceremony, he called his Republican opposite number up to the microphone with him. Passing the trophy into Joe Barton’s hands, Doyle expressed the Democrats’ wish that it be given a place of honor in Scalise’s office until he returns to work. In a league and in a profession where winning is everything, it was the ultimate gesture.
The seating bowl roared its approval—most of the announced crowd of 24,959 had stuck around. It was more than double the previous record attendance for a Congressional game—not to mention the tens of thousands of people who watched the game on TV or online. The cruel spotlight that had been shined on the game had at least given it a new audience, and with them came an equally staggering sum of money: over $1 million raised for charity, another record.
Partisanship is supposedly the driving factor behind most everything that our politicians say or do. But the Congressional baseball game has always shown us that charitable giving has the power to unite. A childlike love of our national pastime can break down personal barriers. And, as we somberly learned on June 14, the rejection of violence is an issue that transcends party. Those are three forces more powerful than partisanship. Maybe there’s hope for us yet.
LP: Mark Walker (0–2)
References & Resources
- Nathaniel Rakich, The Hardball Times, “This Year, the Elephant Remembered to Practice”
- Mary Craig, The Hardball Times, “A Comedy of Errors: The First Congressional Baseball Game”
- Peter Hermann, The Washington Post, “Lawmaker Steve Scalise Is Critically Injured in GOP baseball shooting; gunman James T. Hodgkinson is killed by police”
- Jose Pagliery, CNN, “Suspect in congressional shooting was Bernie Sanders supporter, strongly anti-Trump”
- Leigh Ann Caldwell, NBC News, “Paul Ryan: ‘An Attack on One of Us is An Attack On All of Us’”
- Tara Fowler, ABC News, “Rep. Steve Scalise’s condition upgraded to serious: He ‘is speaking with his loved ones'”
- Nathaniel Rakich, The New Yorker, “Rand Paul At Bat”
- Pete Grieve, CNN, “Injured Capitol Police officer throws out first pitch in emotional moment”
- Nathaniel Rakich, The Hardball Times, “Our Would-Be Fans-in-Chief”
- Rep. Rodney Davis & David A. Banks, Roll Call, “Watch Exclusive Behind-the-Plate Video from the Congressional Baseball Game”
- New Hope Free Press, “Reps. Evans And Fitzpatrick Urge Bipartisan Showing At Congressional Baseball Game”