WASHINGTON — They put pastime ahead of partisan politics for a night, trading floor votes and filibusters for ball caps and cleats.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers occupied opposing dugouts Thursday at Nationals Park for a showdown that provides an annual respite from the day-to-day rancor of Capitol Hill. But this year's Congressional Baseball Game for Charity took on unprecedented themes of unity, coming a day after a lone gunman opened fire on the Republican squad as it practiced across the Potomac River.
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The attack wounded four people, including U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Metairie. Scalise, the House majority whip, had been playing second base at Eugene Simpson Stadium Park, in Alexandria, Va., when a single rifle shot struck him in the hip.
Congressional officials insisted that Thursday's charity game proceed as planned, an act of defiance intended to condemn the shooting and show bipartisan support for Scalise, who remained in critical condition at MedStar Washington Hospital Center as the game unfolded.
"One thing we thought was important was to not let terror win," said U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, who has been to the hospital here three times to support Scalise since the shooting. "To the extent people think this is just a game, they're wrong."
Richmond said he looks forward to the game each year as an opportunity to further his friendly rivalry with Scalise, or, as he put it, "a chance to really go after each other on the field." The shooting, however, "really put a different spotlight on the game," Richmond said, boosting ticket sales and raising more than $1 million for Congressional Sports for Charity.
"I love it, and I know it's what Steve wants," U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, said in a telephone interview. "The lagniappe is the fact that so many people are calling asking for purple-and-gold garb and wanting to honor Steve and LSU."
While he remains under heavy sedation, Scalise was present in spirit Thursday night, as players donned LSU hats the university sent to the capital in the wake of the shooting. Scalise graduated from LSU in 1989 with a computer science degree and a minor in political science.
The Democratic and Republican teams met near second base before the game — Scalise's usual position — where they embraced and knelt in prayer for the victims of the shooting. Moments before, the crowd broke into a chant of "USA." A mention of Scalise also drew a lengthy and emotional ovation before the game.
"We would not be here if it weren't for the incident," said Bill Hirzy, a retired EPA official who lives on Capitol Hill. "We're here to show solidarity."
The game attracted a who's who of elected officials, including several from Louisiana. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu wore an LSU jersey to the game to support Scalise.
"The message for the nation is that an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us," Landrieu said in an interview inside Nationals Park. "It's a time for us to step back and get focused on the things that unite us like faith, family and country. It's important to reflect."
The congressional baseball game was first played in 1909 — organized by John Tener, a Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania who had also played professional baseball — but it did not become an annual affair until 1962, having been interrupted during the Great Depression and World War II. It has consistently drawn big crowds over the years and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity.
The game has long been touted as one of the last remaining bipartisan traditions in an increasingly divided Washington.
"It's a good way to meet colleagues in a short period of time,” Scalise said shortly after he was elected to Congress, in 2008. "You see guys on the floor and you really know them rather than just walking by them."
Richmond told reporters at the Democratic National Committee that he had recently spent the better portion of an overseas trip with Scalise talking about Thursday's baseball game. A former pitcher for Morehouse College, Richmond has repeatedly led the Democrats to victory, except for last year, when the GOP eked out an 8-7 victory.
"Out of everything that we've bantered back and forth about, the baseball game is probably the biggest," Richmond said.
Richmond also said he was heartened by Scalise's outlook, saying his surgeries so far have been "successful."
"Steve has a long fight ahead of him," he added. "I know that he is a fighter and whether that fight is for the next two weeks, two months or two years, he will fight all the way til the end."