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Republicans in Congress return to baseball field nearly a year after shooter opened fire

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., at the Capitol on Jan. 7, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)
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As a light rain trickled down Wednesday, Republican members of Congress returned to a baseball field where a [shooter] critically wounded teammate Rep. Steve Scalise and shattered their sense of security nearly a year ago.

“Today is an emotional day,” said Texas Rep. Joe Barton, manager of the Republican congressional baseball team. “But it’s also a rebirth, a renewal. I’m proud of the team.”

On June 14, Republican lawmakers practicing for their annual charity baseball game against Democrats found themselves scrambling to dodge gunfire from a man behind a chain-link fence.

One of those bullets hit Scalise, the House majority whip from Louisiana and the 3rd ranking Republican leader, in the hip. Scalise, who was playing second base, was near death when he arrived at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

The [shooter] James Hodgkinson from Belleville, Ill., was shot and killed by Scalise’s bodyguards — Capitol Police special agents Crystal Griner and David Bailey. They were also injured, along with congressional aide Zachary Barth and lobbyist Matt Mika.

Wednesday was the first time the team returned to Simpson Field since the shooting. Security was tight. Armed Capitol Police officers stood guard outside the fence.

The players, many who recalled the chaos and fear of last year, fanned out across the field.

Some wore Capitol Police baseball caps as a salute to the officers, who they credited with saving their lives in a shootout with Hodgkinson. They also praised the local law enforcement officers and the first responders.

Barton said it was important to show continuity and to show the team would not be intimidated.

He said returning to the field “epitomizes what makes America great.”

Texas Rep. Roger Williams, the team coach, called last year’s shooting a “total life changer.”

“It just reminded us how precious life is, how short life is. You’re really not in control,” said Williams, who along with his staffer Zack Barth were injured during the shooting. “So I’m glad we’re here. I’m glad we’re starting again, but it’s an event… It will stay in my heart.’’

Williams said players prayed individually before hitting the field.

Lawmakers called for extra security in the wake of the shooting. Barton said the team will rotate practice locations as an extra security measure.

“We’re not going to quit playing baseball,” Williams said. “If it means a little more security to keep everybody safe and feel better that’s fine.”

Scalise, whose slow recovery for a time involved him wheeling around the Capitol in a motorized scooter souped up with Louisiana State University gear, underwent another procedure last week and could not attend the practice. He mostly uses canes now to get around.

Barton read a statement from Scalise praising his teammates for returning to the field.

“It is so important that we continue to maintain this annual tradition,” Scalise said in the statement. “Most years we compete for starting positions and rekindle old relationships. But this year is different. The whole country is watching with pride as we come together and prove that one act of madness will not deter the spirit of camaraderie and philanthropy that has made this such a strong tradition in Congress. Play ball!”

When Scalise returned to Congress last fall, he was greeted by a standing ovation from Democrats and Republicans in the House chamber.

“There’s a lot of reasons why I shouldn’t be here, but I am,’’ Scalise told USA TODAY in an interview last October. “I think it’s through direct miracles from God. I saw my faith reaffirmed in so many ways.’’

Scalise, who arrived at the hospital near death, has undergone multiple surgeries and months of rehabilitation.

The day after the shooting, Democratic and Republican players gathered at Nationals Park a short distance from the Capitol to play the charity baseball game, dedicating the game to Scalise and others injured in the shooting.

Thousands showed up, many sporting LSU gear, breaking attendance records for the charity game.

In the weeks after the shooting, there was an outpouring of support for Scalise and others, including blood drives in Capitol office buildings.

Rep. Mo Brooks, a Republican from Alabama, introduced a bill that would allow members of Congress to carry concealed weapons to better protect themselves. Brooks was on the field during the shooting.

The bill did not advance, but lawmakers did relax rules for using official office budgets to allow more spending on security.

“You’re a sitting duck in Washington D.C. to a lone-wolf shooter or a terrorist,’’ he said then. “You have no protection except for when you’re on the U.S. Capitol and congressional office building grounds.”

Even Democrats and Republicans vowed to work together. That was short lived.

“After the shooting, everybody kind of came together, but that didn’t last too long from a political standpoint,” Williams said. “Politically it didn’t change much, but it changed a lot of our mindsets and where our heart was.”

One by one Wednesday, players recalled the trauma of the day.

Alexandria Mayor Allison Silberberg welcomed the team back to the field.

“It’s the right thing to do,” she said. “It’s important to be resilient…We can’t let an act of violence define who we are.”

During the course of the year, Griner and Bailey of the Capitol Police have been praised and awarded medals. Local law enforcement officials and first responders were also honored recently.

Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., said the team never got to finish that practice a year ago. He said he wore the same yellow uniform he had on then.

“This is victory,” he said. “This is victory for all of us.”

As for being ready for the next showdown against the Democrats this June 14, Williams said it will take some work. Democrats won last year, 11-2.

“They look pretty good, but they got some rust on them,’’ he said. “I’m going to have to do a heck of a coaching job this year.’’

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© 2018 USA Today

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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