A Washington baseball tradition in peril

from 2005 game Image copyright Getty Images

Congressman Joe Barton of Texas and Chuck Fleischmann of Tennessee walked down the road near a baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia, in stunned silence. Mr Barton's two sons were alongside, the younger still carrying his glove and staring intently at the ground in front of him.

Less than an hour earlier, they had been part of the chaotic scene when a gunman opened fire on Republican politicians, staff and friends who were practising baseball. Congressman Steve Scalise, the third-ranking member of the party's House of Representatives leadership team, was seriously wounded, as were several others.

"We were scared," Mr Flieschmann said, as they were ushered by armed police officers toward a nearby bus.

He would later tell a television interviewer that he wasn't sure he'd ever feel safe playing baseball again.

That would be a small but poignant tragedy in an already dark day.

Image copyright Anthony Zurcher
Image caption Joe Barton (left) and Chuck Fleischmann (centre) walk with Mr Barton's sons after the shooting in Alexandria

Baseball - and, in particular, the annual congressional baseball game for which the Republicans were practising - has long been a refuge for many in the nation's capital. The contest is one of the last vestiges of old Washington, where politicians on both sides of the ideological divide can put aside their partisan differences and socialise together.

It harkens back to a time when Republicans and Democrats would fight in the halls of Congress, then go out drinking in the evening. As Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill once famously told Republican President Ronald Reagan, "After 6 o'clock we can be friends; but before 6, it's politics."

Once a year the politicians in Washington take a break from the turmoil for an evening to play baseball.

Well, that's not exactly right. Partisanship is still on full display during the annual game. Democrats face off against Republicans on the field - all the players are current members of Congress - before cheering congressional staff, lobbyists and various Washington political junkies. And like everything else in this town, both sides really, really want to come out on top.

The game, although it raises funds for charity, is not a low-key, "everybody is a winner" kind of event. It's not a celebrity softball contest, where players ham it up and laugh when they botch a catch. Both sides play hard. In recent years the game has been held in the same stadium as the Washington Nationals professional baseball team, and the rules are rigorously enforced by umpires.

The players wear real baseball garb - often from local minor league or college teams. Mr Scalise opted for the colours of the Louisiana State University Tigers, for instance. Mel Watt, a long-time Democratic pitcher, wore the uniform of a Negro League team.

Both sides field the best athletes they can muster. For years Jim Bunning, a former major league player who once threw a perfect game for the Philadelphia Phillies, used to dominate for the Republicans, as did Hall of Fame NFL player Steve Largent. Gerald Ford, the University of Michigan running back turned congressman who would later become president, hit a bases-loaded home run in 1957.

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Image caption President Barack Obama made an appearance at the 2015 baseball game, but he never played when he was a US senator

Anthony Weiner - yes, that Anthony Weiner - was once one of the Democratic stars. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, who played ball at Morehouse College, has been the mainstay pitcher for the party for years.

President Barack Obama attended the game in 2015 - in part to lobby for his trade legislation - and sat for a while with the Democratic side. He didn't suit up, however.

The first congressional baseball game was held in 1909 -a low-key pick-up game organised by Congressman John Tener, a former pitcher for the Chicago White Stockings in the late 19th Century. Although there were a few missed years here and there - House Speaker Sam Rayburn once tried to put a stop to the contests because he thought they were getting too rough - it's been held in its current form since 1962, sponsored by a local Washington political newspaper.

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Image caption Republicans and Democrats have each won 38 congressional baseball games

Last year the Republicans broke a seven-game losing streak by beating the Democrats 8-7. Later in the year, Donald Trump would break his party's losing streak in White House contests.

After Wednesday's shooting, not a few Washingtonians thought there was no chance the game would go on as scheduled. That notion was put to rest by the early afternoon.

"The members of Congress, the staff and the volunteers who were out at practice this morning care deeply about the causes they play to benefit," congressional baseball game organisers said in a statement. "We believe the best way to honour them is to play the game as scheduled tomorrow night."

Although both parties have had their share of hot and cold streaks, overall the game has been remarkably even, with each side having won 38 games (with one tie).

One party will pull ahead on Thursday evening - and have bragging rights for the next year - but after the Alexandria shooting that seems of little importance.

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