Under the bright glare of the national spotlight, the congressional baseball game was transformed on Thursday a day after the shooting of majority whip Steve Scalise and three others at a practice session for the Republican team.
Long an institution in Washington, the charity game is traditionally played in front of a crowd of staffers, lobbyists and reporters. It combines the competitiveness of beer league softball with the unique celebrity culture of a White House correspondents’ dinner.
But after the shooting on Wednesday morning, the atmosphere resembled an actual Major League Baseball game rather than the traditional amateur matchup.
Television crews broadcast live from Nationals Park on Thursday night, the game was aired on C-Span and the line to get into the stadium kept attendees waiting for much of the first inning.
The lower deck was packed full of attendees, though, in Washington fashion, fans were more focused on their smartphones and beers than the actual game.
The tragedy hung over the game. Scalise, who is still listed in critical condition at the hospital, was introduced onto the field with his team-mates as his name and picture were displayed on the Jumbotron. Capitol police officer David Bailey, who was wounded in the attack, threw out the first pitch on crutches. Donald Trump gave a video message paying tribute to Scalise, and the crowd audibly murmured early in the game when an update went out that the House majority whip’s condition was improving.
Congressman Rodney Davis of Illinois talked to reporters before the game, his elbow still badly scraped from when he dived for cover from the gunman. Davis expressed his hope the game could promote civility in American politics. “This game should show that we all come together in America’s pastime. We have fun, we compete and at the end we shake hands.”
Unable to sleep on Wednesday night, Congressman Roger Williams, who was also injured running for cover during the attack, said he found solace watching baseball on the MLB channel.
“Every time I turned the channel it was everything I just lived through,” Williams told reporters on Thursday. “I had to find the Major League Baseball channel and turn that on.”
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Williams said the congressional baseball game was important for helping lawmakers move on from the shooting – but also for settling the score.
“This is the rubber game,” Williams said. “The series is tied: 39-39. So this is it. It’s important we win.”
He added: “Baseball is the American game and that’s why we have to play this game tonight. We can’t not play this game and let people who want to take away our freedom and liberty.”
On Thursday night, the Texas congressman said to look for him along the third-base line, doing his best to coach Republicans to a tie-breaking victory.
“I’ll be the only third-base coach in America tonight on crutches,” he said with a wide grin.
Cedric Richmond, the Democrats’ star pitcher, a congressman from Louisiana, said his last stop before arriving at the stadium on Thursday would be a visit to MedStar Washington, where Scalise is being treated.
He said the Republican whip spent much of the last year ribbing him about the Democrats’ loss the previous year, and he was looking forward to the chance to turn the tables.
“I’ll miss the banter with him, back and forth,” Richmond said. “It’ll be a different game without him there … but I know he would want the game to be played.”
However, Congressman Ryan Costello, a Republican from Pennsylvania, noted that the game itself was not meaningful. “In the grand scheme of things the game does absolutely nothing it never has.” He did point out what the game “represents or is intended to symbolize is that Republicans and Democrats may disagree on some things but we all love baseball … but we can be friends and at the end of the we are all human beings that like to compete and respect one another.”