Monday 19 March 2018

Rivals 'all Team Scalise' as political baseball clash honours shot Republican

House of Representatives chaplain the Rev Patrick Conroy leads a prayer as both teams kneel before the congressional baseball game (AP)
House of Representatives chaplain the Rev Patrick Conroy leads a prayer as both teams kneel before the congressional baseball game (AP)

Republicans and Democrats have swapped political insults for friendly rivalry at their annual congressional baseball game in honour of House of Representatives politician Steve Scalise, critically injured in a shooting rampage.

The game at Nationals Park, Washington DC, carried on a century-old bipartisan ritual, this one tinged with worry about Louisiana Republican Mr Scalise, 51, and their determination to answer the attack by coming together in sport.

Democrats eventually won the game 11-2.

In a final flourish of bipartisan camaraderie for the night, Democrat Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania, his team's manager, accepted the trophy, then gave it to his Republican counterpart Joe Barton of Texas, to put in Mr Scalise's office on behalf of the Democrats.

After accepting it gracefully, Mr 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 practice in Virginia on Wednesday, threw out the first pitch.

A sign in the crowd proclaimed "ONE FAMILY" and the announcer's mention of Scalise, the House majority whip who was critically wounded in the attack Wednesday, brought the masses to their feet.

Mr Scalise remains in a critical condition after undergoing several operations, though word came from the hospital during the game that he had improved.

He was fielding at second base while practising for the event when he was shot in the hip and sustained serious injuries as the bullet travelled through his pelvis and injured internal organs.

Gunman James Hodgkinson, from Belleville, Illinois, a home inspector, died after officers in Mr Scalise's security detail fired back at him.

It emerged Hodgkinson had a social media page filled with criticism of Republicans and the Trump administration.

"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 US president Donald 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 said: "Tonight we will go to the game, play our hardest, but we will all be Team Scalise."

Republican Chuck Fleischmann of Tennessee scored in the first innings, enjoying a different sort of adrenaline than the one he experienced on Wednesday when he passed the gunmen over bloodied ground to take shelter in a dugout.

He confessed later that "the fear factor was horrific".

Roger Williams of Texas, taken away in a stretcher with an injured ankle from the chaos in Virginia, hobbled around the third-base box on Thursday night, coaching the Republican team as planned.

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.

Despite the united 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 Mr 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, California, said: "It's just a good call to put aside political differences and just play some baseball."

Lucee Laursen of La Crosse, Wisconsin, an intern in the capital, said: "It's showing that we might have differences in political spheres but we come together for a good cause."

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 help several charities.

The charities are the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Washington, Washington Literacy Centre, the Washington Nationals Dream Foundation and, after Wednesday's shooting, the Capitol Police Memorial Fund.

Once a relatively cosy 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 streets from the Capitol.

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred offered his thoughts and prayers after the shooting and endorsed the decision to play, saying he hoped the game would help heal emotional wounds.

In the history of the contest, Republicans and Democrats each have won 39 games, with one tie.


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