GOP lawmakers make ‘surreal’ return to field where gunman opened fire

Republican lawmakers, including Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, center, honored the first responders and the Capitol Police officers who are credited with saving lives with their quick thinking after last year’s shooting. (Photo by Shelby Lindsay/Cronkite News)

A rifle-toting U.S. Capitol Police officer was part of the highly visible security presence ringing the ballfield when Republican members of Congress returned to the site where several people were shot during a practice in June. (Photo by Kyley Schultz/Cronkite News)

Broken fence link at Eugene Simpson Stadium Park in Alexandria, Virginia, shows where a bullet passed through and struck the dugout after a gunman opened fire on congressional ball players there. Four were wounded, including Rep. Steve Scalise. (Photo by Kyley Schultz/Cronkite News)

Lawmakers did light drills on a cold and wet Washington morning as they prepared for the annual charity game against Democrats. This will be the last game for Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who is retiring this year. (Photo by Kyley Schultz/Cronkite News)

Lawmakers spoke about coming back to the field where the shooting occurred last June and read a statement from wounded Rep. Steve Scalise who said “one act of madness” could not be allowed to affect the game. (Photo by Kyley Schultz/Cronkite News)

ALEXANDRIA, Va. – Gloomy skies and a rain-soaked field did not stop Republican lawmakers from returning to practice Wednesday at the baseball field where a gunman opened fire last summer, wounding House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and three others.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, who was on the field last June when the shooting began, said it was important for lawmakers to come back – even if being back to the scene was “surreal.”

“It’s great to be back and to come and change into your cleats in the dugout where a lot of us were piled in just a year ago,” Flake said after the early morning practice. “To be in that dugout where there are still marks of the bullet holes there is a surreal experience.”

Flake and many of those at Wednesday’s practice said it was important to come out and prove that “one act of madness” cannot stop the camaraderie and fellowship of the Congressional Baseball Game. The longtime annual Washington event pits congressional Democrats and Republicans against each other to raise funds for charity.

Republicans at Eugene Simpson Stadium Park on Wednesday dedicated the practice to the U.S. Capitol Police officers and medical responders who saved lives in last June’s attack.

Scalise was not present at the practice, still recuperating from a follow-up surgery on his hip after a bullet tore through it in the shooting. That attack left him hospitalized for a month and he still walks with the aid of canes after returning to Congress in September.

But the GOP team manager, Rep.Joe Barton, R-Texas, read a statement from Scalise that said “one act of madness will not deter the spirit of camaraderie and philanthropy that has made this such a strong tradition in Congress.”

Last year’s game, which was played just days after the shooting, raised $1.5 million for charity, a record high for the game and more than twice the previous year’s $700,000.

-Cronkite News video by Shelby Lindsay

The Republican practice was winding down on June 14, when gunman James Hodgkinson unleashed roughly 70 rounds at the players, before Capitol Police at the scene could return fire and strike him. Hodgkinson later died of his wounds at a nearby hospital.

It was later learned that Hodgkinson was targeting Republicans in the attack, which also hit congressional aide Zachary Barth, former aide Matt Mika and Capitol Police Special Agent Crystal Griner. Mika was back for Wednesday’s practice, which Flake called “really gratifying.”

“Matt was shot first right in front of the dugout – I remember where we were – and then shot again after that,” Flake said. “I’ve been meeting with him and seeing his progress over the year. To see him out here hitting balls to us is really gratifying.”

Security was strengthened for Wednesday’s practice, with gun-toting Capitol police watching closely as lawmakers caught fly balls and hit grounders, and bomb-sniffing dogs were brought in to check media equipment. Reporters were told that future practices would be rotated through fields in addition to Simpson Stadium Park, where bullet holes were still visible near the first base dugout.

Despite “horrible memories” from the past, Flake said the game is a chance for both parties to come together for a great cause.

“This really has been one of the best institutions – you get to know people, trust one another, which helps with legislating and everything else you do,” he said. “It’s a great tradition where you get to pretend you are young and raise a lot of money for charity.”

This year’s game is set for June 14, the anniversary of the shooting. It will be the last game for Flake, who has played for his 18 years in Congress but who announced last year taht he will not seek re-election this fall.

“I’m going to miss being out with the guys in the morning,” he said. “For those of us who love baseball and love sports and Congress as well, it doesn’t get any better than this.”