The first practice of baseball season might as well be Opening Day for House Majority Whip Steve Scalise.
An obsessive sports fan and baseball fanatic, Scalise (R-La.) all but counted down the days each spring until he could return to the infield dirt. Since joining Congress in 2008, he has cultivated a reputation as one of the most tireless players on the GOP’s congressional baseball team.
Practice often starts before the sun rises, but he came early. He stayed late.
What he lacked in raw talent, he made up for in grit. He fielded grounders after most of the guys who showed up for batting practice had come and gone. Even after becoming the third-ranking Republican in the House, he rarely missed a practice.
Until this year.
While his teammates were warming up in the early morning mist Wednesday at Eugene Simpson Stadium Park in Alexandria, Scalise was preparing to return to the halls of Congress after what he estimates was his ninth surgery since a bullet from a 7.62mm SKS semiautomatic rifle lodged in his hip and nearly cost him his life.
Scalise’s recovery has been slow-going. In recent months, he traded a decked-out scooter for a pair of crutches.
His goal for 2018 doesn’t include line-drive catches or game-winning throws. He just wants to walk again — without the crutches.
There was no way he was going to make it to Wednesday’s first practice of the season. Besides, he said, the FBI still has his cleats.
Scalise was one of five people wounded when James T. Hodgkinson opened fire just after 7 a.m. on June 14 from a spot just behind a chain-link fence near third base.
Zack Barth, a legislative aide, was shot in the leg but managed to hobble across the field and hurl himself to safety inside the first-base dugout. Matt Mika, a Tyson Foods lobbyist, took a bullet to his chest.
Capitol Police special agents Crystal Griner and David Bailey both were hit — Griner by a bullet, Bailey by shrapnel — as they returned fire in a shootout that eventually killed Hodgkinson, a 66-year-old home inspector who had volunteered for the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
After the shooting, Scalise dragged himself from second base, where he had been fielding grounders moments before, into the grassy outfield, leaving a trail of blood in his wake.
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) said that at first, no one thought Scalise was the most seriously wounded. He wasn’t bleeding as much as Mika, whose chest wound was gushing red.
That’s because Scalise was bleeding out internally.
For days, Scalise hovered on the brink of death as he underwent several major surgeries to repair the most catastrophic damage.
As he lay unconscious during his second day in the hospital, his teammates strode onto the field at Nationals Park for the annual charity game that pits Republicans against Democrats, determined to show that Congress would not be intimidated.
He didn’t know the game had happened until he woke up, days later.
“I was still fighting for my life,” Scalise said Thursday. “When I came to and they told me they went on with it, I was really glad to know the show went on and they didn’t scrap the game because of what happened. They did a prayer at second base for me, and when they showed me that picture, it was just really touching.”
At the time, he couldn’t fathom what his future might look like, Scalise said. But he’s become optimistic.
First he’ll walk, he said. Then, maybe someday, he’ll run again.
He’s practicing fielding grounders during his three-times-a-week physical therapy sessions.
“It works really well if the ball comes right to me,” he said with a chuckle. “If it doesn’t, well, I’m not quite as fast as I used to be.”
Barton, who has served as the Republicans’ team manager for the past dozen years, said returning to the field where the shooting happened made for an unusually emotional Wednesday morning for the team.
Many of the players who were there that day retraced their steps, wandering over to the spot where they fell or were hit or dove to safety. They pointed to breaks in the fence where gunfire had pierced metal and ran their fingers along the places where bullets left nicks in the dugout walls.
“It’s emotional,” Barton said. “You look around and think, ‘That’s where I was. That’s where Steve got shot. That’s where the gunman was. That’s where the car was parked.’ It all comes back. But it’s also therapeutic. It’s a baseball field.”
Security was everywhere Wednesday for the team’s debut practice of the season. Armed officers were visible. A gaggle of reporters were searched before being allowed to enter.
At a news conference following a practice cut short because the field was still damp, players said the day also felt significant for another reason.
“To be in that dugout where there are still marks of bullet holes, there is kind of a surreal experience,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). “It’s my first time back to the field. This was important. I hope the memories we all take from it are not just of what happened that day here on the field, but what happened with the Democrats’ practice, where they gathered in prayer, and the game the next day, where everyone came together.”
Mika and Barth also returned for practice this week. Some members wore Capitol Police baseball caps in honor of the officers they credit with saving their lives.
And even though Scalise won’t be the starting second baseman this year, Barton still wants him on the team.
“[Scalise] is a special person, and he is definitely emotionally a part of our team still, and to some extent, he’s the center and the heart of our team,” Barton said. “I know he still wants to be a part of the team, so we are working with him to determine exactly how to do that.”
But before he’s ready to return to practice, Scalise said, he needs to make peace with his past.
While several of his teammates had gone back to the Alexandria field in the weeks and months after the shooting to survey the area, confront their memories and show loved ones where they managed to escape, Scalise never made the trip.
He knew it would dredge up memories of some of the most terrifying moments of his life.
“I need to just go see it on my own, to kind of see where everything happened, where the shooter came from,” Scalise said. “I want to get a different perspective from what I had that day, which was lying on the field.”
On Thursday, Scalise asked Bailey, the agent who defended him against a hail of bullets, to accompany him on a short trip to Alexandria.
Scalise walked out onto the grass and into the sun.
Where he once lay, fighting for his life, he now stood, surveying the diamond, the bleachers, the packed earth.