The smell of freshly grilled hot dogs wafted throughout Nationals Park on Thursday night, hanging in the soft Washington, D.C. air like a heavy fog on a summer night. Vendors screamed over the pumped-in music, hawking cold beers, peanuts, and cotton candy to an all-too-eager crowd that crammed the lower bowl of the stadium in support of their respective teams. Had it not been for the scattering of different jerseys around the diamond, this would look no different than any other summer baseball game in our nation’s capital, complete with the Presidents Race on the warning track.
And maybe that was the point.
Democrats and Republicans joined together on this night for the 82nd time at the annual Congressional Baseball Game, a matchup pitting America’s two major political parties in a sporting event viewed by thousands in the stands and on television. This one, though, was much different.
Just one day before, a gunman opened fire on Republican members of Congress as they practiced for this very game at a baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia. Shot were Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana and three others, a toll that would have skyrocketed without the brave actions of Capitol Police, who took the gunman down. One of those heroes, Special Agent David Bailey, walked out to the pitcher’s mound on crutches to a standing ovation to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.
His presence let everyone know that this was no ordinary sporting event.
And maybe that, too, was the point.
Sports have a way of overlooking our impurities, bridging divides, and allowing us to escape the daily doldrums. It’s the great equalizer. The things you do on a diamond, field, or court don’t change no matter who you are or what you do. Money can’t buy you a touchdown catch, and power doesn’t lower the height of the basketball goal so you can dunk. That hard truth was certainly on display on Thursday, to the laughter and joy of an electrified crowd of 24, 959.
So, too, does sports give us a pause button on life. With Republicans and Democrats battling it out between the white lines, there was little thought of danger or distress despite the heavy police presence around the stadium. Playing baseball didn’t fix anything, but it gave everyone inside Nationals Park a respite from just how terrible life can be, as evidenced Wednesday morning in Alexandria.
The beer flowed. The peanut shells cracked. The first base umpire still got booed for close calls.
People came for different reasons. A girl in a blue tank top and bandana showed up to support the party she volunteered for on a semi-regular basis. A man in an LSU polo shirt came to support Scalise as he battled back from surgery, a victim of the horrific attack that set the stage for this poignant night. A college-aged guy with a tall beer can in his hand looked like he just wanted to have some fun on a Thursday night.
A mom and her son stood on the edge of the left field wall as “The Star-Spangled Banner” hit its crescendo. The boy, who looked no older than 10, had a seemingly permanent grin plastered on his face as he cradled a baseball in his right hand. His mom looked at the field solemnly. He didn’t understand the nuance of this particular game, the meaning behind it as Americans again rallied in the face of tragedy. It was simply a night out at the ballpark for him. His mom, on the other hand, seemed to grasp the overarching themes being represented at this sports event.
A breeze whipped periodically through the stadium, with Republicans and Democrats joking, hugging, and actually talking to each other — actions that seem as unlikely as a politician hitting a baseball. Tomorrow, these same people will go back to work in an intrinsic battle on the Hill. They’ll fight. They’ll scream. They’ll challenge each other’s core beliefs. History will judge the winners and losers, but for one night, baseball was all that mattered. It’s proof that sporting events don’t solve any of our problems … they just remind us that there’s more to life than problems.
To some, like the child, sports are simply a game. To others, like his mother, they’re decidedly more.
And maybe that’s the point.