GOP's unfinished business on the ball diamond

Congressional Republicans had some unfinished business early Wednesday morning.

It wasn’t finally repealing and replacing Obamacare. It wasn’t passing an infrastructure bill. It wasn’t confirming CIA Director Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State.

Ten months ago, on a blistering, sunbaked June morning, Congressional Republicans discarded batting helmets, bags of balls, gloves and stacks of hats on a baseball diamond in Alexandria, Va.

Republicans deserted their gear and dashed off the field for their lives. A gunman stalked GOP members at Eugene Simpson Stadium, marching down a fence line between the left field bullpen and the third base dugout. The mayhem pierced the final GOP practice of the season as lawmakers prepared for the annual charity baseball game with Democrats at Nats Park.

And in a sodden, fog-sealed dawn worthy of the Scottish Highlands, Congressional Republicans returned to the field Wednesday to finish that abridged practice abandoned ten months before.

“This is kind of a feeling of completion,” said Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., decked out in a Kennesaw State University jersey and a U.S. Capitol Police cap.

“We’re here to rip the Band-Aid off,” said a Congressional aide involved in organizing the practices.

Rep. Mike Conaway, R- Texas, jogged from foul pole to foul pole along the outfield warning track in the stadium lights just after 6 am. Matt Mika, a former Congressional aide and a lobbyist who helps with the team, was shot in the chest last year. But Wednesday, Mika was back on the infield, navigating a rake around a thick, orange sludge which clung to cleats as players walked around the base paths.

Practice started at 6:30 a.m. But a pond submerged home plate. There would be no batting practice that morning. Instead, players played long toss in the outfield grass, stretched their hamstrings, did calisthenics and fielded ground balls.

The practice didn’t run very long though. This was more than just a baseball practice. This was a therapy session for many of the lawmakers who hadn’t returned to the field since that fateful day last June.

“Coming back gives closure,” said Loudermilk, who added that he experienced flashbacks after “seeing the bullets hit the ground to both sides of me.”

“It’s hard coming back,” said Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, who fractured his ankle diving into the first base dugout to avoid the melee. “It is an event that will not leave my mind forever. We are embedded in this event.”

Reps. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., and Rodney Davis, R-Ill., came back to the field last week for the first time since the shooting.

“There’s an immediate sense of fear,” said Davis as he strolled around the infield, a Mizuno catcher’s mitt affixed to his left hand. “Hopefully that goes away when practice begins.”

But for many of the members, all that sticks in their minds is how they were dashing for their lives.

“I made a run for the dugout,” said Fleischmann. “All I could think about was that he was going to shoot me in the back.”

We’re here to rip the Band-Aid off

- Congressional aide

The Tennessee Republican said the shooter moved from the third base line close to home plate. That’s where he had a clear shot at lawmakers piled on top of each other.

“It just kept going on and on. It was loud and people were upset and screaming,” said Fleischmann.

And then…

“I remember hearing a different caliber of weapon being fired back,” said Fleischman.

What he heard were U.S. Capitol Police Special Agents David Bailey and Crystal Griner returning fire. They were on the scene to guard House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R- La.

“There was a great sense of relief that someone was going to take him out,” said Fleischmann.

“Our officers on that day were in a fight for their lives,” said U.S. Capitol Police Chief Matt Verderosa. “It’s gut-wrenching to know I’m 15 miles away from where two of my officers were injured. Some of our principles were critically injured.”

Verderosa sped to the scene, listening on his radio and barking orders. All agree that Bailey and Griner along with Alexandria officers Nicole Battaglia, Alexander Jensen and Kevin Jobe saved dozens of lives.

“David Bailey, Crystal Griner as well as the three Alexandria officers acted with true heroism,” said Verderosa. “Had they not been there, it would have been much worse.”

That’s because people were hemmed in. Pinned down in the dugout, unable to escape the gunfire. Running and hiding behind equipment sheds like Davis. Even Scalise, who nearly died, tried to escape. The Louisiana Republican bear-crawled from the infield dirt where he was playing second base into the grass of short right field. Scalise’s body finally gave out.

Williams’s aide Zack Barth raced to safety down the first base line despite being shot.

“I decided it was time for me to get up and go. Not let this guy target practice me,” said Barth. “At that point, your self-preservation kicks in. I just decided that I should get up. I ran as fast as I could with a bullet hole through my leg.”

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, manages the GOP team. After a few minutes of practice, Barton summoned the press and spoke at a makeshift lectern along the third base line. Scalise couldn’t attend the practice, recovering from another set of pre-scheduled procedures early last week. Barton read a letter from Scalise, which concluded with the command “Play ball!”

And that’s what so many of the players want to do. Put last year’s horror behind them and get back to playing.

“When practice begins, those memories come back,” said Davis, who was at the plate when the shooting began. “I can’t wait to get back up to bat.”

“I think it’s going to be very important for me to start playing again,” added Fleischmann.

The team will practice occasionally in Alexandria. But they’ll move around to different sites due to new security measures.

A bullet hole indents one of the stanchions of the first base dugout where so many of the players ran to safety. But when the team practices in Alexandria, that bullet hole will serve as a dark reminder of the phantasms which long haunt Eugene Simpson Stadium.