'Tragedy brought us here': After shooting, bipartisan baseball offers a night for political healing

How a tragic shooting and a game of friendly congressional baseball might affect long-term relations on the Capitol is uncertain. But for one night under stadium lights partisanship was put aside, and thousands of Americans gathered to lend their support.

‘I’m rooting for the Americans,’ Republican Ben Carson says before U.S. congressional ballgame

Brad Donnelly was among thousands who turned out for the Congressional Baseball Game to show his support following Wednesday's violence. (Jason Burles/CBC)

From his stadium seat near the first-base dugout, Brad Donnelly closed his eyes under a cobalt-blue sky — a day after an explosive act of violence cast a gloom over one of Washington's last bipartisan traditions — and prayed.

Wearing a red Donald Trump shirt, the 57-year-old retiree prayed for a feel-good day of baseball between Democratic and Republican lawmakers. He prayed for the memory of his father, a Korean War veteran. For national unity. And for the five victims wounded during a Wednesday shooting attack that targeted Republican players practising for the annual congressional charity ball game

"I didn't vote for president Trump," he said on Thursday night, despite his T-shirt celebrating the 45th president. "But I put this on and I rode my motorcycle three hours from Philadelphia because I wanted to come out here and hit a knee and say a prayer for those harmed yesterday."

Zach Barth and Representative Roger Williams, both on crutches after being injured by a gunman, walk before the Democrats and Republicans face off in the annual Congressional Baseball Game at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., on Thursday night. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

In Washington politics, few rites of summer are as cherished as the annual Congressional Baseball Game. Rivalries are historically fierce in the friendly match-up of elected officials vying for the Roll Call Trophy.

But Wednesday's shooting of Republican congressman Steve Scalise and four others turned a spotlight on deep political divisions that legislators on Capitol Hill feared could now be intensifying to a deadly degree.

The gunman in Wednesday's attack, James Hodgkinson, was a volunteer for 2016 Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, and was known for posting anti-Trump diatribes on social media.

A win for the Democrats

Democrats, who won Thursday night's coveted Roll Call Trophy in an 11-2 rout, said they'd never played before such a large crowd. In a gesture of goodwill, Democratic team manager Michael Doyle offered to rival manager Joe Barton to place the award in Scalise's office until the Louisiana Republican's recovery.

Speaker Paul Ryan, left, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi gather before the game. (Jason Burles/CBC)

Scores of spectators like Diane Willard and her husband, Patrick, bought last-minute tickets to support the spirit of bipartisanship.

"Yesterday's tragedy brought us here," Willard said, cracking peanuts into a discarded beer cup as roars came from the Democratic section for a ball that sputtered toward third base. "We wanted to come because it's a chance to pull together and show we're not going to put up with violence."

"Go! Go! Go!" Patrick suddenly broke out, as the Democratic team whacked another ball, following up with a single. "All right. Good hit. Gooood hit."

Willard and her husband lived in Washington in the '80s, and recently returned to the capital. Her husband worked for a Tennessee congressman.

"But politics back then was working together, and it was so much better than it is now," Willard said. "People would go out for beers or coffee. That doesn't happen anymore."

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan speaks with Senator Jeff Flake before the game. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

A row ahead, Molly Ahearn, a 33-year-old lifelong Washingtonian who worked eight years on Capitol Hill, danced in her seat to Bruno Mars, waving a homemade sign. "Two Parties, One Team: USA," it read.

Trump's Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson told CBC News he wasn't backing a particular team.

"I'm rooting for the Americans," he said, walking across the field before the game began. "I'm very much hoping that as tragic as the incident was, that it will help people start realizing we're not each other's enemies."
U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, wearing a Louisiana State University ballcap in honour of wounded Louisiana congressman Steve Scalise, says the congressional ballgame is a chance for Americans to remember 'we’re not each other’s enemies.' (Jason Burles/CBC)

Marty Russo, a former Illinois congressman and Congressional Baseball Hall of Famer who announced the congressional games for 15 years, still remembers the friendships he made across the aisle as a star infielder for the Democratic team during the '70s.

"I stole second, third, stole home, and broke the catcher's collarbone sliding into home plate for the winning run," he recalled. 

That catcher, the late Republican congressman Bill Frenzel of Minnesota, became a lifelong friend, despite their ideological differences.

"Bill and I served on the House ways and means committee, and we'd have a chuckle about how we initially ran into each other."
Lynn Legas, right, wearing a Trump 'Make America Great Again' ball cap, says she was at the game to demonstrate that 'patriots are better than what happened during that horrific incident.' (Jason Burles/CBC)

Surrounded by aides and staffers in the Republican "red" fan zone, Georgia Representative Doug Collins said the turnout bore a strong message: "That this country is bigger than one crazy fool."

"We're all Americans. So those who want to be preachers of hate, this is a statement saying we're going to have traditions like this that mean a lot," Collins said.

'It's just a good time'

How a tragic shooting and a game of friendly congressional baseball might affect long-term relations on the Capitol is uncertain. 

Although Lynn Legas, wearing a Trump "Make America Great Again" ball cap, said she was there to demonstrate that "patriots are better than what happened during that horrific incident," her husband seemed certain who was to blame for the partisan vitriol dividing America.

Steve Scalise, Republican congressman, has undergone multiple procedures since his gunshot wound suffered in the attack. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)

"It's primarily coming from the left," he said. "A lot of those people are anarchists."

Back in his seat, Donnelly, the biker who rode three hours from Philly, was having none of it. 

"It's just a good time," he said. 

Indeed, before the evening's game even began, he joined the crowd in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, with the words of that oath seeming to take on new meaning in the context of a tragedy failing to spoil America's pastime.

"One nation, under God, indivisible…"

About the Author

Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong