In a time when the country is deeply divided, baseball unites

They were playing ball at Nationals Park—a game that would matter for a nation whose soul seems cracked.

Marty Russo believes this.

The former Democratic congressman from Illinois was elected to Congress in 1974, fresh on the heels of Watergate and President Nixon’s resignation. It was a moment that left the country deeply divided.

But for all the contentiousness dividing Congress then, he recalled, stepping across the chalk line that spring and taking his position at third base in the annual Congressional Baseball Game at Memorial Stadium — then home of the Baltimore Orioles — changed everything. In that moment, he was 12 again — when holding a baseball felt like the entire world was within his grasp.

“I got goosebumps. I looked around. I looked down to the ground and realized I was standing in the exact same spot where Brooks Robinson stood,” Russo said, referring to the Orioles’ Hall of Fame third baseman.

He saw the other players — congressional aides, representatives, senators — standing in spots anchored by the baseball gods of their youth. This was the magic of baseball. Within the chalk foul lines, the outside world was held at bay.

Until Wednesday morning.

The world, in all of its messiness, crashed over those lines and onto the diamond. There was Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, a second baseman, crawling on the field and leaving a trail of blood after a gunman opened fire on Republicans practicing for this year’s Congressional Baseball Game. Three others also were shot, including a Capitol Police officer trying to stop the madness. Terrified players dived for cover in the dugout as bullets flew.

Rep. Pete Aguilar, a California Democrat from Redlands, said it never occurred to him that the baseball field could be so violated. A ballpark is supposed to be a place where dreams flourish. A place not of despair or divisiveness. A place of joy. A respite from the troubles of the real world.

For more than a century, Americans have found not just diversion, but unity and certainty in baseball — a sense that this American invention will go on and on. And so will we.

“We saw it happen after 9/11 when President Bush threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium,” Aguilar said. “That was a powerful moment for me and a powerful message of hope sent to everyone.”

Secret Service agents, in an ESPN documentary, said they weren’t thrilled about Bush going to Yankee Stadium after the terrorist attacks. He went anyway. President Franklin D. Roosevelt threw out a first pitch in the World Series of 1933 during the Depression. During World War II, hundreds of major leaguers served overseas, including some of the game’s stars. Baseball didn’t stop.

And this week, the congressional contest went on as scheduled. Russo thinks that’s a good thing and perhaps could help bind a country riven by partisanship. “You have to bridge that gap, and we haven't bridged it yet,” he said. “Baseball helps, and I hope some good can come out of the tragedy."

The great Bob Feller summed up baseball’s enduring properties this way: “You can build on yesterday’s success or put its failures behind and start over again. That’s the way life is, with a new game every day, and that’s the way baseball is.”

As for Aguilar, he took his place in the outfield Thursday night in his third Congressional Baseball Game. A lifelong Dodgers fan, he was 11 when the team won the World Series in 1988. Kirk Gibson’s home run — one of the most memorable moments in World Series history — stuck with him forever. Then there was Orel Hershiser’s dominance on the mound. Mickey Hatcher rising to the occasion in the postseason at the plate.

Aguilar said baseball was everything to him as a kid. Even before this week’s game, he said, his mom posted pictures on social media of him as a child posing with his baseball trophies.

“When I take the field now, I know the 11-year-old me would be so jealous,” he said. “Even now, standing out there, the field looks so big to me.”

Nathaniel Rakich, who has written about and tracked the history of the Congressional Baseball Game, noted that baseball has been around for well over a century. It was the only major sport over the decades that provided common touchstones for Americans.

He said the stories passed down have raised the game’s influence. Books, movies and essays by great writers stitched baseball into the nation’s fabric.

“America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time,” Terrance Mann, played by James Earl Jones, said in the famous “Field of Dreams” monologue. “It reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again.”

There was Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier years before schools were desegregated. There was Curt Flood arguing under the 13th Amendment that he had a right to play for whomever he wanted — paving the way for modern free agency. It’s endured labor disputes and strikes, but the main thing is it has endured.

Every April through September, there are always games being played. It’s constant and comforting. Each major league team plays 162 games.

“Other sports might be more popular now, but baseball has been there the longest,” Rakich said. “It is firmly in America’s consciousness because it’s also our game.”

It’s also unique in that it reflects the nation’s diversity amid a common set of observed rules, as if it were bound by a common constitution but observed the latitude of states’ rights.

Ballparks are signatures, no one exactly like the other. Fenway Park and its Green Monster, which requires a different hitting approach. Wrigley Field, where a ball can get lost in the ivy. Houston had its sloping outfield. Oakland has its huge area of foul territory. The configurations celebrate independence.

But the rules at all of them are the same, just like they are at the College World Series, which starts in Omaha this weekend. Just like they are on high school fields across the country, where bleachers rise beyond chain-link fences. It’s 60 feet, 6 inches from the pitcher’s mound to home plate. It’s 90 feet between the bases. There are three strikes. Three outs. Four balls for a walk. A baseball weighs just a shade over 5 ounces.

The game between the Republicans and Democrats was recognizable to anyone who has ever slipped on a glove, clutched a bat or sat and watched a game.

The Democrats relied on the big arm of Cedric Richmond, hoping to coax a complete game out of the starting pitcher who has dominated in recent years. The Louisiana congressman played college baseball and still has a solid fastball that has mowed down the opposition for years.

The Republicans leaned on Rep. Ron DeSantis of Florida — a power hitter who also played college baseball, at Yale. He’ll step into the batter’s box and look to get the bat around on Richmond’s heater. He’ll be 12 again, thinking about his favorite players growing up — Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds. But also thinking about his colleague, Scalise.

Because the real world exists here now.

Behind him, the foul poles will still extend high, scraping the sky. But their tips don’t mark the limit of how high a ball can go. An invisible line extends beyond those tips, continuing onward and upward. Forever.

david.montero@latimes.com

Twitter: @davemontero

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