The baseball coach with a shock of gray hair and Atlanta Braves’ cap calls his players around after an early morning practice for one last pep talk: hit hard, field those balls and, most of all, win.
They all laugh, join in a team hand-stack, cheer and soon go off to their day jobs — as members of the U.S. Congress.
It is, in many ways, a remarkable scene. A year after a gunman shot members of the Republican baseball team, the lawmakers are back on the field, coached by U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, was injured diving into the dugout to avoid the gunfire at the practice field in Alexandria, Va.
The Republicans will play the Democrats on Thursday evening at Nationals Park, home of the Washington Nationals, in the annual Congressional Baseball Game for Charity.
Williams, a former Texas Christian University player and manager who played three seasons in the Atlanta Braves minor league system, said he will wear a University of Texas jersey for at least part of the game Thursday night in honor of his friend Augie Garrido, the longtime Longhorns baseball coach who died in March.
A year ago, Williams hurt his ankle in that dive into the dugout and was told by a nurse he was hit by some shrapnel, landing him briefly on crutches. He reports he is fine now. His aide Zack Barth — a UT graduate who was shot in the lower leg and still managed to run into the dugout, landing in Williams’ arms — was at the practice and reports he is doing well, without any consequence but some scars.
But the most remarkable return is the lawmaker who was the most severely wounded — House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., wearing his Louisiana State University jersey, ready to play second base, with, he said, “limited mobility” that makes him still walk with a cane. He said that after last year’s shootings, “seldom can you change history. … Let’s make tomorrow the comeback story.”
And while everything seemed relaxed and routine on the National’s practice field, the heightened security was evident, from the multiple police cars to black-clad law enforcement officers carrying assault-style weapons.
“We have all been changed forever,” Williams told the American-Statesman.
Capitol Hill police — security detail for Scalise because of his leadership position — and local police returned fire and killed the shooter, a disgruntled Democrat who hated President Donald Trump, in the June 14, 2017, attack.
“It’s gone very fast,” Williams said about the year gone by. “It’s certainly changed all of our lives forever. It reminded me how God’s in charge. Life is fleeting. Life is short. Zack, my right-hand guy, we share that bond.”
Of all those on the field that day he said, “We are all blessed. We feel it, and our lives were changed forever.” Williams, 68, said he and Barth, 25, “have a lifelong bond.”
Barth, wearing his Longhorns cap, said last year he saw the shooter and “the barrel sticking over the fence.” He ran because “I figured I didn’t want him to keep shooting at me.” A year later, “it feels great” to be back, helping on the field, he said.
U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, the longtime team manager who is retiring, was with his younger son Jack, 12, at the practice, a year after he, Jack and his older son all escaped injury at the Alexandria field.
“It feels good,” Barton said. “Life goes on. “The two security people saved a bunch of lives. The shooter got his just reward. Jack’s a year older.”
Asked about the shooting’s impact on the deeply divided House, Barton said the Democrats had reached out to Republicans, especially those on the field that day. “It helps,” he said of the welcoming efforts. “It rounds off the rough edges.”
Barton and Jack went to dinner at the National Democratic Club the night of the shooting — the first time the veteran lawmaker, who was first elected in 1984, had ever been to the other party’s club.
Scalise told the Statesman, “In the aftermath, you saw tremendous unification. Members came together, they prayed together.”
They did not, however, stop being competitive. The game was played last year, as it has been, on and off, for 100 years, and the Democrats won, 11-2.
This year, said Williams, Republicans are ready to win, as long as they can beat the Democrats’ ace pitcher Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana.
“We’ve had great workouts,” Williams said. “We get out on the ball field like we were 16, 17 years old.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, was the Republican baseball team’s new coach. He has been coach since 2013 and is the team’s new manager.
Congressional Baseball Game
The annual Congressional Baseball Game for Charity starts at 6:05 p.m. Thursday at Nationals Park. It will be broadcast on C-SPAN3 and livestreamed on Facebook at facebook.com/CongressionalBaseball.