Perspective

It was their safe space. Instead, there was heartbreak on the baseball field

This was their safe space. For all of the rancor in Washington, the baseball field has been where members of Congress can shed their partisanship along with their suits, ties and heels.

Speaker Paul D. Ryan sounded this theme soon after a gunman opened fire on Republicans practicing in Alexandria, Va., for the Congressional Baseball Game. “An attack on one of us,” Ryan said, “is an attack on all of us.”

The annual contest has deep Washington roots and a rich history. This year’s game is scheduled to be played at Nationals Park in Washington on Thursday night — despite Wednesday’s attack in which House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and three others were shot and wounded.

Republican and Democratic members of Congress play seven innings in a game that raises money for charity. Few of them have ever played professional sports. They spend months practicing, helped by their younger, fitter aides and some lobbyists.

They play a respectable game, boosted by thousands of cheering Capitol Hill staffers in the stands, and gather to drink and celebrate an evening of bipartisanship when it’s over.

Bipartisanship isn’t even the right word for it. Politics somehow disappears from the field.

“You play in the game and everybody goes and drinks beer after and actually hangs out with each other. For this to happen a day before that, it’s just terrible,” Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) told me Wednesday morning.

Ryan and other Democratic players were holding their own practice at Gallaudet University in northeastern Washington when they were suddenly ordered to leave the field and hide in the dugout as a precaution after the shooting in Alexandria.

"We didn't know a whole lot other than a handful of people were hit," Ryan said.

This year’s event is billed as the 56th annual game in the series. But, in a nod to the fact that disagreement is second nature in Washington, no one can agree on exactly how many times the game has been played.

It was first played in 1909, and unofficial records have the Democrats and Republicans tied with 39 wins apiece.

The game took a hiatus in 1958 after too many lawmakers returned to the Capitol with injuries. Sid Yudain, founder of the Capitol Hill publication Roll Call, revived the tradition in 1962, working with newly installed House Speaker John McCormack, who took over after former Speaker Sam Rayburn’s death.

For years, the game was played on recreational or school fields and continued to attract more fans to watch. In 2008, it moved from RFK Stadium to Nationals Park, home of the Washington Nationals, in southeast Washington. In 2015, President Obama made an appearance.

As the former editor in chief of Roll Call, I am more familiar with the game than many journalists because the newspaper has been the game’s sponsor and publisher of its official program for decades. Someone from the paper awards the trophy to the winning team.

When you ask congressional observers or longtime lawmakers what’s changed as Washington has become more divided, the answer is always the same — no one spends time together anymore. Lawmakers’ families don’t move to Washington. Members blow out of town like it’s the last day of school each Thursday afternoon. They don’t return until late Monday.

The baseball game is one of the Washington rituals that help moderate partisan antagonism.

The 2012 game was played on the same day the House voted to hold then-Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt of Congress, noted Jason Dick, Roll Call’s leadership and enterprise editor. But, the partisanship from the floor didn’t make its way to the ballpark, he said: “Politics stop at the center field gate.”

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“It may be a little corny, but they think of the Congressional Baseball Game as sacred ground,” Dick said Wednesday.

“People really do look forward to this thing, they practice for months, they brag about it all year long, and it means a lot,” Dick said.

Democratic members of California’s delegation were shaken as they shared their feelings about the game.

Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Whittier), one of just two female players, called the game a “nice respite from the really politicized atmosphere up here.”

Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Redlands) said that as the game nears, players trade good-natured ribbing as they go about their day jobs. Aguilar said he teased Scalise about the game Tuesday as they walked into the House chamber to vote.

“This is the time when we can put politics aside,” Aguilar said. “For one night we set it aside and raise some money for charity.”

Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Palm Desert) has found the game can actually lead to political productivity.

“We get to play in a bipartisan fashion, and we get to know the Republican players differently on the field,” he said. “It opens the door to other friendly conversations.”

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin) missed practice Wednesday to make a television appearance.

“The game for me has always been a refuge from the battles within the Capitol. It’s something you would never imagine would have its players come under attack like this,” Swalwell said.

Times staff writer Sarah D. Wire in Washington contributed to this report.

christina.bellantoni@latimes.com

@cbellantoni

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UPDATES:

7:05 p.m.: This article was updated with more information about where the game used to be played and with details about the trophy for the winning team.

This article was originally published at 5:10 p.m.

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