“It’s a little early for fireworks.”
That’s what Bill Sells, VP for government relations at SFIA, literally said at 7:15 a.m. last Wednesday after hearing the first “pop” from a gunmen’s rifle at a baseball practice session of Republican lawmakers preparing for the next day’s Congressional Baseball Game.
“That’s a gunshot,” he heard in a drawl from a nearby southern Congressman. Standing next to the batting cage on the first base side, Sells looked over to see the gunman squeezing out three quick shots in a deliberate fashion, and “suddenly you’re hearing ‘He’s got a gun’ and everyone just scattered.”
Along with Alabama congressman, Mo Brooks, and another individual he didn’t know, Sells dropped to the ground behind the skirt of the batting cage as another – he estimates – 15 rounds rang out. With a “lull” in the onslaught, the three scrambled to hide inside the first base dugout, joining about nine others. Bullets pecked into the side of the dugout as the gunman started creeping around the fence on the third base side to get a better angle into the dugout.
Viewing the landings of shell casings in a visit back to the field the following day, Sells estimated the gunman came as close to 15 feet from the group and he fully credits the Capitol Police, who were there to protect Rep. Steve Scalise, for saving those huddling in the dugout.
“The police were returning fire and keeping the shooter over on the third base side but they were challenged fighting him off with only handguns when he had an assault rifle,” stated Sells. “Just as the sirens of the Alexandria Police were being heard, the Capitol Police shot the gunman. The dozen of us in there had nowhere to go if he had gotten there.”
In the aftermath, Scalise, the House GOP Whip from Louisiana, and a lobbyist for Tyson Foods were critically injured. Two Capitol Police officers who exchanged gunfire with the 66-year-old James Hodgkinson were also injured.
The Congressional Baseball Game, which pits Republican legislators against Democrats, has been going on since 1909. SFIA first became involved in 2004 when Sells went to one of the legislators’ practices and found the lawmakers using a catcher’s chest protector held together by duct tape, shin guards with “rivets popping out,” ancient catcher’s masks and other gear in woeful condition. Sells began working with members such and was able to significantly upgrade their equipment.
“I’ll never forget the day I brought out the new catchers’ gear for the first time. J. Gresham Barrett, a Republican from South Carolina, dropped to his knees and said, ‘Will you marry me?,’” Sells said with a laugh.
Mizuno, Easton, Rawlings, Reebok, Wilson/DeMarini, Franklin, Diamond Sports, Louisville Slugger, New Balance, Under Armour, Battle, Russell, Molten and Nike are among the vendors contributing equipment to the Congressional games over the years.
The vendors essentially loan the equipment to the legislators to prepare for and play the game and the whole arrangement had to pass the muster of the House Ethics Committee. After the game, the equipment is donated to local Boys & Girls Clubs, schools, Indian reservations or other organizations that can best use it at the time. Said Sells, “We typically ask around and find a good opportunity.”
Sells said SFIA supports the game largely because it’s directly in line with its mission of supporting and promoting sports.
“Our association exists because of sports,” said Sells. “These guys are getting up at 6:30 a.m. and practicing for a baseball game and we’re there supporting their participation and love of sports. That’s really why we do it. We try to make them feel better about preparing and participating by providing better equipment and game-matching helmets and things like that so at least they don’t look like they’re playing sandlot ball.”
The game also serves as a fundraiser for Washington, DC area charities, including The Washington Literacy Center, The Boys and Girls Club of Greater Washington and the Washington Nationals Dream Foundation. Starting in 2017, funds also benefit the United States Capitol Police Memorial Fund and the Fraternal Order of Police to honor the bravery shown by the Capitol Police on Wednesday.
For SFIA, a side-benefit of its involvement in the baseball game, as well as well other match-ups it supports such as ones around football and a golf tournament, is being able to build camaraderie with some congressman and senators that could help in lobbying efforts while earning the organization a bit of name recognition.
In the same vein, the game equally helps legislators get to know each other better and often opens up the path to collaborate in the halls of Congress.
“That’s the power of sports,” said Sells. “A lot of guys on the team join together and do bills together because they made the relationship on the fields in a way that would never get to know each other otherwise. The games bring people together. Sports is a uniter.”
SFIA also supports an annual football game that pits Republican and Democratic legislators on the same team against members of the Capitol Police force. The SFIA brings in some former professional football players to drum up some excitement and level the playing field.
At the Congressional Baseball Game, Steve Garvey, the former Los Angeles Dodgers player who came on the behalf of SFIA, led a prayer for the Republican team before the game. He was planning on attending ever before the incident to support the organization’s efforts, such as the PHIT bill.
Other matchups include an annual softball game between legislators on both sides against the press while an annual basketball game features Republican and Democrats joining together against lobbyists. Besides the baseball game, the annual golf tournament is the only other match up that features Republicans against Democrats.
Indeed, Sells said his one take on the incident was how sports brings people together, even Congress.
“I think the game wound up being a release for those that played and attended but it was also a show a unity to support of those that were hurt in the spirt of Congressional sportsmanship,” said Sells. “And with the money raised, it was about Congress coming together to do something good.”
Photos courtesy SFIA, photo credits: Joseph Maher, Casie Ammerman