Heard on the Hill

GOP Baseball Team Returns to Scene of Last Year’s Shooting

Huge media and security presence around field where gunman opened fire last year

Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., in red hat, hugs Matt Mika, who was critically injured in the shooting at last year’s Republican baseball practice. The GOP team held a news conference after their first practice at Eugene Simpson Stadium Park in Alexandria on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Republican congressional baseball coach Roger Williams hit infield practice Wednesday morning as Rodney Davis played catcher and Williams staffer Zack Barth backed them up around a flooded batter’s box.

In the outfield, lobbyist and former Hill aide Matt Mika fielded balls with teammates.

It seemed like a normal baseball practice at Eugene Simpson Stadium Park in Alexandria.

But it was the Republican team’s first practice since June 14, 2017, when a gunman opened fire at the same field, wounding five.

Watch the GOP Baseball Team Practice for First Time Since 2017 Shooting

The scars from a bullet wound on Barth’s leg were visible.

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise wasn’t with his teammates Wednesday, recovering from yet another procedure to repair the damage from a bullet slamming into his hip. Mika was also severely wounded, a bullet just missing his heart.

And off the field, the scene appeared very different than it did before the shooting. At least 20 uniformed Capitol Police officers, a member of the K-9 unit and his German shepherd swept TV and cargo trucks and media bags. Other non-uniformed security kept watch along the outfield fences.

“You’d like to think that you come out to a ballpark and play baseball. But the real world is this is what it is,” said Williams, who sprained his ankle while running for cover during the shooting. “We’re not going to quit playing baseball. If it means a little more security to keep everybody safe and feel better, that’s fine.”

Barth said that, in hindsight, members “always should have had more security.”

“I mean, seldom do you have 20 members of Congress [in one place] with no security,” he said. “It was unfortunate that the shooting was the wake-up call.”

Last year’s shooting took place the day before the annual Congressional Baseball Game, which pits Republican lawmakers against their Democratic counterparts. The teams decided to go ahead with the game, as scheduled, and ended up raising a record $1.5 million for charities and selling almost 25,000 tickets. This year’s game is scheduled for June 14 at Nationals Park. 

New realities

Wednesday’s huge media presence to cover the practice had to remain inside a fenced area behind third base and wait for the lawmakers to walk over.

UNITED STATES - APRIL 25: U.S. Capitol Police stand guard at the Republican baseball team's first practice of the year at Eugene Simpson Stadium Park in Alexandria, Va., on April 25, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
U.S. Capitol Police stand guard outside the field at the Republican baseball team’s first practice of the year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

“Obviously, the media is different. You’re the only one who was usually out here covering us,” Davis told a Roll Call reporter.

The Illinois Republican recalled taking security for granted before the shooting.

“I would come in every morning and roused whomever was on Steve Scalise’s detail because they’re just good people and they’d become friends,” Davis said.

Capitol Police special agents Crystal Griner and David Bailey, who were on Scalise’s security detail last year and helped take down the shooter, were not present at Wednesday’s practice. Both were injured during an intense firefight with the gunman — Griner was shot in the ankle and Bailey was hit by shrapnel.

Georgia Rep. Barry Loudermilk and three other congressmen wore hats bearing the Capitol Police insignia Wednesday.

For Loudermilk, the day was about finishing the practice that was interrupted by gunfire last June. He wore the same yellow Kennesaw State jersey he was wearing during the shooting, but not the same pants — they are at his house, he said, still covered in Mika’s blood.

“My wife didn’t think it’d be a good idea to bring those pants,” he said.

Alexandria police officers patrolled the field Wednesday, while Alexandria Mayor Allison Silberberg came to show her support. The GOP team has practiced in the D.C. suburb for at least 60 to 70 years, according to longtime team manager Joe L. Barton.

“America’s team”

The members practiced for about 30 minutes and then held a news conference to talk about returning to the field.

Scalise sent a statement that signed off with a simple “Play ball!”

Davis recently did an interview with an Illinois news outlet at the field. But for Williams, it was his first time back.

“It was a little strange to come back. I immediately went to where I was when I was hunkered down and looked at it, thought about it and moved on,” the Texas Republican said.

“You still have physical and mental scars about that day,” he said. “We’re America’s team. … This is the beginning of our season.”

Like Williams, Barton was ready to move on with practice as usual after the media event.

“After this practice, the practices will be about baseball. Today was more about resiliency and commitment and continuity,” the Texas Republican said.

UNITED STATES - APRIL 25: Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, speaks during news conference with members of the Republican baseball team after the first practice of the year at Eugene Simpson Stadium Park in Alexandria, Va., on April 25, 2018. Williams' aide Zack Barth was one of injured in last year's shooting at a team practice. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, speaks during a news conference with members of the Republican baseball team after practice. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

In the days after the shooting, lawmakers from both parties said the incident was a reminder to be more civil with one another as leaders of the nation’s political discourse. If they were less nasty to one another on the Hill and the campaign trail, then perhaps Democratic and Republican voters would respect each other’s ideological differences, too.

“When the shooting started and I dove into that dugout right there, what went through my mind was, ‘I’m not surprised,’” Williams said. “And what that meant was, ‘I’m not surprised this has happened because there’s so much division and anger up here.’”

But promises to play nice after the shooting faded quickly.

“I don’t think the shooting or the event changed anything politically,” Williams said.

This is the last game for Barton and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake. Both are retiring after this term. 

“This has been one of the best things I’ve done here, really, in terms of camaraderie,” Flake said. “I can’t say enough about it.”

Watch: Highlights from the 2017 Congressional Baseball Game

Griffin Connolly contributed to this report.

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