Republicans and Democrats joined in a spirited, friendly rivalry Thursday at their annual Congressional Baseball game, many fresh from the penetrating horror of the ballfield shooting rampage a day earlier and all playing in honor of their grievously wounded colleague.
The game at Nationals Park carried on a century-old bipartisan ritual, this one tinged with worry about Rep. Steve Scalise (R) of Louisiana and the players' determination to answer the attack by coming together in sport. Democrats won in an 11-2 blowout.
In a final flourish of bipartisan camaraderie for the night, Rep. Mike Doyle (D) of Pennsylvania, his team's manager, accepted the trophy, then gave it to his GOP counterpart, Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, to put in Representative Scalise's office on behalf of the Democrats. After accepting it gracefully, Representative Barton cracked, "Next year we won't be so nice."
A huge ovation came from the crowd, which swelled to a record 24,959, when Special Agent David Bailey, one of the Capitol Police officers injured in the attack on Republicans at their ball practice in Virginia, threw out the first pitch. "ONE FAMILY," proclaimed a sign in the crowd. The announcer's mention of Scalise, the House majority whip who was critically wounded in the attack Wednesday, brought the masses to their feet.
Scalise remained listed in critical condition Thursday night after multiple surgeries, though word came from the hospital during the game that he had improved.
"By playing tonight we are showing the world that we will not be intimidated by threats, acts of violence or assaults on our democracy," said President Trump, appearing on the park's giant screen but not attending. "The game will go on."
When the president intoned three words he said have brought Americans together for generations – "Let's play ball" – cheers rang out. But despite the unifying nature of the event, there were boos for the president, too, from the section for Democratic fans on the third base side.
Before the event, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters, "Tonight we will go to the game, play our hardest, but we will all be Team Scalise."
Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R) of Tennessee scored in the first inning, enjoying a different sort of adrenaline than the one he experienced Wednesday when he passed by the shooter over bloodied ground to take shelter in a dugout – confessing later that "the fear factor was horrific."
On that day, a man later identified as the attacker approached Rep. Jeff Duncan (R) of South Carolina in the parking lot of the Alexandria, Va., ballfield, asking him, "Excuse me, sir, who's practicing today, Democrats or Republicans?" as Representative Duncan recalls the encounter. He said Republicans were on the field, shortly before the gunman began shooting at them.
Duncan found that memory hard to shake Thursday night as he stood in for Scalise at second base.
"That was tough for me," Duncan said. "That was humbling in a way. It was never off my mind when I ran out there ... the reason I was going to second base was Steve Scalise, my colleague, was fighting for his life in the hospital right now."
Rep. Roger Williams (R) of Texas, taken away in a stretcher with an injured ankle from the chaos in Virginia, hobbled around the third-base box Thursday night, coaching the GOP team as planned, with his crutches set aside. He wore a purple boot. His aide, Zack Barth, who was shot by the Virginia assailant, walked across the field on crutches. Both had appeared on the House floor earlier Thursday.
There was plenty of amateur-hour baseball in the event, but also some breakout play.
As in the past several years, Rep. Cedric Richmond (D) of Louisiana, a close friend of his wounded Republican colleague and a player in his college days, dominated much of the night, from the mound and the plate. Democrats opened an 11-2 lead in the fifth inning on the strength of his pitching, and by then he had scored every time he was up. That lasted until the end of the seven-inning game.
Despite the bipartisan motivation behind the game, especially this year, partisanship was hardly abandoned as Democrats and Republicans faced off, each side seriously itching for a win. Republicans and Democrats sat in different parts of the park – fans could state their party preference when buying tickets. Baseball cards handed out as fans entered the park identified the players' partisan voting percentages.
And even as the fans rose as one to cheer Scalise's name and the Capitol Police, there was no mistaking the lusty cheers for their own side as the game progressed. Still, the divide was good-natured, for once.
From the stands, Vince Wetzel, a resident of Sacramento, Calif., who is visiting Washington and decided to take in the game, said, "It's just a good call to put aside political differences and just play some baseball."
Lucee Laursen of La Crosse, Wisc., interning in the capital for a nonprofit, said, "It's showing that we might have differences in political spheres but we come together for a good cause."
Scalise was fielding balls at second base during the practice Wednesday when he was shot in the hip, and sustained serious injuries as the bullet traveled through his pelvis and injured internal organs.
The congressional game, which dates to 1909 and is a summertime tradition on Capitol Hill, is a rare example of bipartisanship in an increasingly polarized Washington. Long-ago Little Leaguers now in Congress don their spikes and dust off their gloves in a game played for claiming top dog status and to benefit several charities.
The charities are the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Washington, Washington Literacy Center, the Washington Nationals Dream Foundation and, after Wednesday's shooting, the Capitol Police Memorial Fund.
Once a relatively cozy affair, played at a minor league ballpark in Maryland, the game has gone big time in recent years and has been played at Nationals Park, just a few blocks from the Capitol.
Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred offered his thoughts and prayers after the shooting and endorsed the decision to play ball. He said he hoped the game would help heal emotional wounds.
With Thursday's game, Democrats have won 40 of the contests over the years. Republicans have won 39, and they tied once.
Democrats bounced back from a loss last year, when the game was played the night after they held an all-night session on the House floor to protest Republican inaction on gun legislation.