Congressional Game: The Hill, the chills

Exhibition offers Democrats and Republicans an outlet to heal from trauma

June 16th, 2017

WASHINGTON -- The night started with 60 members of Congress, from both sides of the aisle, gathering at second base to kneel in prayer.

It ended with the Democrats winning, 11-2, and handing the Congressional baseball trophy to the Republicans, with instructions to place it in House Majority Whip Steve Scalise's office as he recovers from bullet wounds he sustained one day earlier.

Parties undivided at Congressional Game

"On behalf of the Republicans, we congratulate our friends on the Democratic side," Republican team manager Joe Barton said, after accepting the trophy from Democrat manager Mike Doyle. "We will put this in his office until he's back."

That's the kind of night it was at Nationals Park on Thursday in the nation's capital -- one of bipartisanship and camaraderie, with a message of unity that served as an overlying theme for the two-hour affair.

It was an event where four of the country's most high-profile politicians -- Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as well as Democratic Leader of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer -- gathered on the field to yell to the crowd, together, "Play Ball!"

The opening prayer was for the four people wounded during a shooting that took place during the Republicans' final tune-up for the 57th Congressional baseball game. Republicans and Democrats kneeled together, as a hush fell over the 24,959 fans in attendance, a record for the yearly baseball game.

"U-S-A! U-S-A!" the crowd chanted when the prayer was complete.

It was the first unifying moment of many throughout Thursday's Congressional Baseball Game, a tradition designed to bring both parties together for a few hours of baseball and goodwill, all the while raising funds for charities throughout the D.C. region.

This year's game, however, carried a more somber tone. In the aftermath of the shooting, participating representatives made clear their intentions to put politics aside and just play ball.

"All of us that were involved in the actual practice when the tragedy took place, it was scary," said U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, (R-Minn.), Scalise's D.C. roommate. "Tonight, you're seeing so many people come out for the game, excited for it, for two reasons. One, they want to send a message for Steve that as a family, we're all supportive. And secondly, it's that natural rivalry of the game that's been going on for decades and decades."

The game ball was delivered by MLB chief baseball officer Joe Torre, with special agent David Bailey, who was hit in the ankle as he charged the suspect, throwing out the ceremonial first pitch. Both Bailey and fellow special agents Crystal Griner have been hailed for their heroic efforts. Both teams wore Capitol Police hats to show their support, along with plenty of Louisiana State garb to honor Scalise, an alumnus of LSU.

Baseball has served as a healer often during difficult times throughout the country's history. Torre vividly recalled the role baseball and both New York teams played in starting the healing process after the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001.

"Baseball came back, and it just seemed to bring everybody together," said Torre, the former manager of the Yankees. "Even people with differing opinions all basically went arm in arm. That's what our country's about. I'm glad we're here."

Paulsen, who described himself as a pinch-runner with all of the baseball skills one would expect from a hockey player from Minnesota, recalled discussing a game plan with Scalise and two others the night before the shooting.

"We were sitting around talking about who's in the starting lineup, who we expect to pitch, and they're walking through every scenario for all seven innings. This is well planned and thought out. Both sides want to win pretty bad."

But in this case, winning was wasn't the most important thing.

"It's going to be fun, too," Paulsen said.

Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) had the same idea. He sunk over to the Republican dugout to grab some spare police hats, joking that he wasn't "switching sides."

"Who's going to win?" someone yelled out.

"Obviously, we are," Crowley replied.

The Congressional Baseball Game, which was first played in 1909, supports Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington, the Washington Literacy Center and the Nationals Dream Foundation, which supports academic, arts, nutrition and sports initiatives for Washington area youth. This year's game, which broke an all-time tie -- the Democrats are now 40-39-1; the Republicans, 39-40-1 -- pushed the total of funds raised to more than $1 million.

It also served as a break from politics as usual.

"Today, Republicans and Democrats come together for American's pastime, and we can show that world that we can work together," Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) said. "We can govern. And I hope to show everybody watching tonight that we actually like each other. We get along."