One of the first lawmakers to try to visit Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) in the hospital Wednesday was Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, the fiery Democrat from a neighboring Louisiana district.
Old friends from the Louisiana legislature, these two political polar opposites sometimes appear at local business events together around New Orleans, often turning to the annual Congressional Baseball Game in their friendly but competitive banter. So when Richmond arrived at MedStar Washington Hospital Center after Scalise was among those shot at Wednesday’s Republican baseball practice, the GOP whip’s staff delivered a message about the annual Republican-vs.-Democratic game Thursday.
“Oh, he absolutely would want the game to continue,” Richmond, the star pitcher for the Democrats and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, recalled Wednesday afternoon.
So Richmond applauded the decision announced by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), during an all-member meeting in the Capitol, that Thursday night’s game would go on as scheduled.
It may seem trivial in such serious times of war abroad, mass shootings at home and a political culture gripped by a widening investigation into alleged ties between Russia and associates of President Trump.
However, this annual baseball game, along with a more recently formed annual softball game, has taken on a far greater significance than just a bunch of aging congressmen having fun on a Major League Baseball field. It is one of the few events that force the two sides to come together, in a bipartisan manner that raises money for important charities.
The games have become one of the last vestiges of congressional friendship and bonding. For one evening, Republicans will forget that some Democrats are circulating draft articles to impeach the president. And Democrats will forget that Republicans have spent more than $10 million trying to trash the image of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to win a special election in Georgia next week.
“These games are one of the few things that we do in a bipartisan way, they help us build and strengthen our relationships. They help us ensure that we can do our jobs for the people that we represent, in a way that reduces partisan rancor,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said Wednesday.
Wasserman Schultz helped found the annual softball game, which will be played next week at an elementary school on Capitol Hill. The two baseball managers, Reps. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) and Joe Barton (R-Tex.), announced that the teams would gather at a club not far from the Capitol Wednesday evening to talk about Scalise, the game and its significance.
Even Republicans who dodged bullets at a practice field in Alexandria Wednesday morning agreed that playing the game would send the right signal.
“We don’t give in to this kind of stuff,” said Rep. K. Michael Conaway (R-Tex.), whose day job requires him to oversee the House’s investigation into the 2016 election.
On Wednesday, as the first shot was fired, Conaway thought it might be an explosion, and only after the second shot did he realize what was happening. He ran for cover, behind a Capitol Police vehicle that was there for Scalise’s security detail. He saw Scalise crumble to the ground.
Still, despite that trauma, Conaway wants to play. The teams have raised $600,000 for charities, and he loves the feeling the game provides. “It’s a look-forward-to event every year, and you hate when it’s over,” he said.
The first game took place in 1909, and Thursday is slated to be the 80th meeting: 39 wins for Democrats, 39 for Republicans and one tie.
Lawmakers wear the baseball uniform of a professional or collegiate team from their district back home. Still in his practice jersey more than five hours after the shooting, Rep. Charles J. “Chuck” Fleischmann (R-Tenn.) described how he slightly injured himself diving into the dugout trying to avoid the gunfire.
“I kept saying, ‘When are they going to get this guy, when are they going to get this guy?’,” Fleischmann, an outfielder, said Wednesday afternoon.
The fourth-term Republican is going to wear the cap of the Howard School, a predominantly African American high school in Chattanooga that went 40 years without a baseball team.
He worked with local leaders to raise money, and this spring Howard fielded its first baseball team in decades. The team lost every game, but Fleischmann said it just loved being able to play ball.
“I told those kids that I would wear their hat tomorrow. And I will wear their hat tomorrow,” he said, fighting back tears.
After the 2006 wave brought a Democratic majority, along with dozens of younger players, Doyle’s Democratic team began to dominate. Then came the November 2010 midterms, when the Democrats were washed out to shore, losing the majority and 63 seats — including more than a dozen of Doyle’s best players.
Then, in a dejected caucus meeting, Doyle saw a 30-something he didn’t recognize and introduced himself. It was Richmond, who explained that he won a heavily Democratic seat that people were not paying attention to, and, yes, he played baseball.
He was a pitcher at Morehouse College. Doyle’s eyes lit up.
Richmond’s fastball allowed Democrats to continue to dominate, as he racked up 45 strikeouts in 27 innings over his first five starts. Barton told Roll Call last year that Richmond is the best player in the history of the congressional game.
One of Richmond’s favorite opponents has always been Scalise, who regularly brings some of the rowdiest supporters to the game each year. They wear “Geaux Scalise” shirts, with chants and cheers planned out.
Last year, Richmond wilted on the mound, and the Republicans won 8-7, their first victory since 2008. The night before the game, Richmond, now 43, had spent all night with dozens of other Democrats staging a sit-in on the House floor.
They were protesting gun violence after the Orlando nightclub shooting, and how Republicans did not allow Democrats to offer any gun control legislation for consideration. It was the most intensely partisan showdown between the two sides in a generation.
Despite that clash, the sit-in ended and the teams headed to Nationals Park for the game. Richmond acknowledged Wednesday that his “very long night,” with no sleep, led to his terrible performance.
Doyle had been expecting a rested Richmond to deliver a dominant performance Thursday. But now Richmond is not so sure.
“I think we’re going to have a very long night tonight,” he said Wednesday.
It won’t be a sit-in this time. He plans to return to the hospital to sit vigil with his recovering friend.