Never has a baseball practice been so terrifying.
It started as normal Wednesday morning, with more than two dozen members of Congress running drills on the baseball field in anticipation of their favorite game of the year — the Congressional Baseball Game on Thursday night.
Then shots rang out.
As a man started firing, the 25 members of Congress and about 15 staffers began running for shelter, dugouts, trees, even vehicles.
In the end, a locked fence — and the quick response of peace officers — may be what saved their lives.
“He was trying to get into the dugout where he could kill us all,” said U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, of the man who shot at the Republican team during their last early-morning practice of the year.
In the end, at least four people were shot: U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, who was in critical condition late Wednesday, a Williams staffer, Zack Barth, and at least two Capitol Hill police officers. The alleged shooter, identified as James T. Hodgkinson of Illinois, was shot and later died at the hospital.
“This is what we live in,” said Williams, the GOP team’s coach who injured his ankle diving into the third-base dugout to avoid being shot. “We get these threats and sometimes they don’t mean anything and sometimes they do. We get threats all the time.”
Congressional leaders announced late Wednesday that the game will go on.
And that’s exactly what should happen, said Williams, a Weatherford car dealership owner and former TCU baseball player.
“We are going to play the game,” he said. “We all agree we need to play. We need to show unity. We need to show you’re not going to change our lives. Also, this is for charity. And I hope now that people will fill that ballpark.”
Early morning practice
The Republican baseball team was well into the beginning of their practice Wednesday morning, about 7 a.m., when a gunman started shooting at members gathered at the Eugene Simpson Stadium Park in Alexandria, Va.
Williams said he was on the field at the time, hitting ground balls to a player at third base.
“At the time, I had no idea this guy was 20 yards from me,” Williams said. “I decided to hit to second to Scalise. As soon as I hit the ball, this guy started firing.”
Someone yelled that gunshots were being fired and people needed to find cover. Scalise was shot in the hip at second base.
Williams said he dove into the dugout. Within moments, Williams said his staffer — University of Texas graduate Zack Barth, who was shot in the leg — made it from the outfield into the dugout as well, falling on top of Williams.
Others made it to the first- and third-base dugouts, hiding there or under vehicles or behind trees.
And for the next five to 10 minutes, the shooter fired off anywhere from 60 to “hundreds” of shots, according to witnesses.
In limbo: Twenty-five members of Congress and about 15 staffers, who were waiting for Capitol Hill police to respond to the call of shots fired.
As they waited in the dugout, Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake took off his belt to wrap around Barth’s leg, using it as a tourniquet, to try to staunch the bleeding.
“It took police three to four minutes to get there,” Williams said. “I’m sure that’s right, but it felt like forever.”
‘God was with us’
He and others praised the response of Capitol Hill police who shot the shooter.
“The Capitol Police saved 25 Congress members and about 15 staffers today,” Williams said. “We are blessed God was with us and we had the Capitol police there to help us.”
U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, echoed the sentiment.
“Luckily, no one appeared to be killed,” said Barton, who manages the GOP team. “I just want to thank security.”
Barton — whose 10-year-old son, Jack, was at the practice shagging balls for players and took cover under an SUV — said his thoughts and prayers are with Scalise and all of those who were injured.
“My gratitude goes to the brave men and women who risked their lives to bring the shooter down,” he said in a written statement.
During television interviews, he said that peace officers “attacked the shooter and that saved our lives.”
The annual Congressional Baseball Game — which pits Republicans against Democrats, all in the name of charity — has been a tradition for more than 100 years. During the generally lighthearted game, members wear jerseys from sports teams in their home state.
Both teams have been holding separate morning practices for weeks. This was supposed to be the final practice for the year for the Republican team.
Initially, members weren’t sure if the game would still be played. Later in the day, Barton and others said playing the game was the right thing to do.
“We are playing the game,” said Barton, whose district includes most of Arlington and Mansfield.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said, “We’ll go out on the field, we’ll root for our team. We’ll want everyone to do his or her very best, and we’ll use this occasion to bring us together and not separate us further.”
Williams — who played baseball at TCU from 1968 to 1971 and went on to play in the Atlanta Braves farm system — said he is ready to coach.
He will wear his TCU jersey. But his uniform will now include a boot on his right ankle and crutches.
“Our colleagues are all heroes,” he said. “We all protected each other. It just shows that everybody is open to problems right now in this country, but you can’t quit.
“That’s why we’re going to play.”