A year after shooting, Congressional Baseball Game makes a statement

Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, capped his return from last year’s shooting by taking the field Thursday and recording the first out for the GOP. (Photo by Bryan Pietsch/Cronkite News)

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, playing in his 18th game, called it bittersweet. He is not seeking re-election, so was playing for the last time Thursday. (Photo by Bryan Pietsch/Cronkite News)

Rep. David Schweikert, R-Fountain Hills, was one of three Arizona lawmakers to play, along with Sen. Jeff Flake and Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix. (Photo by Bryan Pietsch/Cronkite News)

Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, was one of four wounded when a gunman opened fire on a GOP practice before last year’s Congressional Baseball Game. (Photo by Bryan Pietsch/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – A year to the day after he was severely wounded in a gunman’s politically motivated attack, Rep. Steve Scalise took the field Thursday and recorded the first out for Republicans in the annual Congressional Baseball Game.

It was the perfect statement to open the game, a Washington tradition where Democrats and Republicans preach sportsmanship and bipartisanship as they put aside their differences for a night to play a game.

“It’s been one of the best things about Congress,” said Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, one of three Arizona lawmakers in the game. Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, and Rep. David Schweikert, R-Fountain Hills, also played.

“We play against each other, but it’s very much a bipartisan event,” Flake said before the game. “It’s the best feeling you can get.”

The game, first held in 1909, was played on and off before becoming an annual event in the 1960s. Besides giving members of Congress time together away from the Capitol, the game raises money for Washington-area charities, including youth sports and literacy.

And this year, it was raising money for the U.S. Capitol Police Memorial Fund, a bow to the department’s quick response to the shooting last year that wounded Scalise, R-Louisiana, and three others.

Republicans were on the field for one of their last practices before last year’s game when James Hodgkinson opened fire on the players at Eugene Simpson Stadium Park in Alexandria, Va. Capitol Police at the scene returned fire and hit Hodgkinson, but not before he wounded Scalise, congressional aide Zachary Barth, former aide Matt Mika and Capitol Police Special Agent Crystal Griner.

It was later learned that Hodgkinson, who died of his wounds at a nearby hospital, was targeting Republicans in the attack.

Before the game, Scalise, the House majority whip, who still is recovering from his wounds, said it would “be really neat to come full circle and walk out there on the field tonight and play second base.”

He said the bipartisan nature of the event is what makes it so special – and that the game could serve as a model for politicians in Washington to “build better relationships” to “get this country back on track together.”

“We truly make great friendships out here,” Scalise said. “We should do more things like this to show the country that even when we disagree on some of the important policies, we can get along with each other.”

That doesn’t mean the two sides don’t play hard on the field. The series is almost evenly divided, with Democrats holding a one-game lead over the Republicans, 39-38-1, before Thursday’s game at Nationals Park.

Democrats increased their margin Thursday with a 21-5 pounding of the Republicans, one of the most lopsided wins in the history of the game. They scored first and never looked back.

The high point for Republicans may have been Scalise’s play at second base. He grabbed the first batted ball of the game, a grounder by Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-California, and threw him out at first. The crowd erupted as Scalise took a moment to soak it all in.

The seven-inning game ended almost three hours later, when Schweikert was thrown out at home.

This year’s game was the 18th for Flake, who played as both a House member and senator, and it was his last, as he is not seeking re-election this November.

“I’m going to miss it, this is one of the things I’ll miss a lot,” he said before the game. “I’ve had a good run. A lot of wins, a lot of losses, and hopefully end on a win.”

That was not to be. But Kelly Heilman, a 20-year-old who attended Thursday’s game, said the important thing is that the game was played, particularly after last year’s attack.

“America is the place where we’re known for moving forward,” Heilman said. “It’s really special that we live in a country where we can have an event like this and show that incidents like that don’t define us.”