Zack Barth was never supposed to be dodging bullets in the outfield.
His job was to feed fly balls back to the infield for Republican lawmakers during an early-morning baseball practice ahead of the annual Congressional Baseball Game against the Democrats.
That all changed when a man in a red shirt wielding an SKS semi-automatic rifle opened fire that June 14 morning in Alexandria, Virginia, wounding five people, including Zack and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise.
News of the shooting dominated headlines for days and then, as it always does, faded. Zack’s story is a footnote to one of the most high-profile political assassination attempts in years, and now he’s back to a life of relative anonymity.
In the Capitol Hill office of his boss, Texas Republican Rep. Roger Williams, a month and half since the incident, Zack sank into a black leather chair as he talked about what happened. The vibe in the office was casual — staffers wore blue jeans and flip-flops and the lively chatter of interns wafted into the foyer area.
Zack, who graduated magna cum laude from the University of Texas at Austin in 2015, was in his element here on a damp, early-August afternoon. A blue-and-white-striped polo shirt hung loosely from his shoulders, and the bottom flowed freely below his belt line.
As he rolled up the left cuff of his khakis to reveal his gunshot wound, the 24-year-old legislative correspondent’s tone was matter-of-fact.
“I’m very blessed that it happened the way that it happened,” Zack said, fingering a pair of skin-color bandages an inch apart on the outside of his left calf.
He was running toward the first-base dugout after the first shots rang out. A 7.62 mm bullet fired by the shooter, James Hodgkinson, punched through his leg. It missed all major arteries and bones — a flesh wound.
“I was able to get up and run. … That probably saved my life,” he said.
When he reached the dugout, someone used Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks’s belt as a makeshift tourniquet to slow the bleeding from his leg.
After Capitol police officers David Bailey and Crystal Griner fatally shot Hodgkinson, Zack was finally able to retrieve his phones from on top of the dugout.
He called and texted his colleagues in Williams’ office to let them know he and Williams, the Republican baseball team’s coach, were OK.
OK was a relative term: Williams had a sprained ankle from careening into the dugout at full speed. Zack had a hole in his leg.
Then Zack called his dad, Tim Barth. He explained what had happened. He was OK, but he’d have to go to the emergency room. And he didn’t know for how long.
As they talked, the gravity of what just happened began to hit Zack, and his dad could tell.
“Zack, do you think I need to come up?” Tim asked.
“Yeah,” he responded. “I think that’d be a good idea.”
By the time his dad arrived at Reagan National Airport later that afternoon, Zack was already out of the emergency room and back at his apartment. So Williams’ office sent a car to pick Tim up from the airport and take him there.
When Tim arrived at the apartment, the two embraced.
“It was pretty emotional,” Zack said. “We’re very similar people, and emotions don’t always get the best of us. But in that situation, it was an emotional time for both of us.”
Finding comfort in … baseball
Nearly two months after the shooting, Zack said he’s doing fine psychologically. He didn’t sleep much that first night — even with his dad in the apartment — and his nerves still quiver if there’s a loud noise.
“I’m probably not the biggest fan of fireworks right now,” he said. “But if that’s [my biggest] concern, then it hasn’t totally wrecked me. … I don’t walk around thinking there’s going to be danger at every turn.”
Zack said he feels especially safe when he’s at work because of the Capitol Police.
“They’re doing a great job of protecting us,” he said. “They create a safe environment here.”
Zack said counseling has helped him cope. Therapists have told him his response to the shooting is quite normal.
And he believes there’s got to be a reason why this happened to him.
“I’m a pretty religious guy,” said Zack, who regularly attends Grace Presbyterian Church in downtown D.C. “Realizing just again that God has a plan and that these things don’t happen by accident, it energizes me a lot in my faith and it energizes me to work harder knowing that he has something great planned for me.”
He doesn’t know what that plan is but he thinks he is on the right track.
“I’m going to continue to remain passionate about what I do, continue to remain passionate about advancing conservative ideals,” he said.
He’s still a baseball fan — despite where he was shot. The Houston native is an Astros lifer.
In March, he and his dad had flown to Palm Beach, Florida, to catch the Astros’ spring training and relax.
Two days after the shooting, at Williams’s insistence, Zack flew home to Houston for a week. Again, the Astros helped him unwind. Zack and his family went to two games at Minute Maid Park.
An ‘evil force’
Zack learned of his shooter’s life and background the same way that most of America did — from news reports that slowly trickled out in the days after the shooting. He read that Hodgkinson had asked if the players on the field were Republicans before he opened fire.
Hodgkinson’s motives don’t matter to him; the only thing that matters is what he did. It’s black and white, good versus bad, the way Zack sees it.
“He’s this evil force that affected me personally,” he said of Hodgkinson. “I don’t even think about him or his motives or anything like that. I just don’t think about it.”
Instead, Zack said the shooting has made him focus more on the things that matter most to him: his faith, his family, and his work as a conservative politico.
To harp on Hodgkinson or let any lingering anxiety from the shooting simmer would be a distraction, he said. And he doesn’t want that.
“I’m not living in fear,” Zack said. “And I think that if I was to be living in fear, then that’s kind of letting that guy win, you know?”