Baseball After a Congressional Baseball Shooting: 'You Just Have to Keep Going'

Scenes from the safest place in the world, from one ballpark to another, as fans of America's pastime cope with another tragedy
photo of David GardnerDavid Gardner@@byDavidGardnerStaff WriterIn Washington, D.C.June 15, 2017

Andy Gonzalo always knows when the Nationals are playing. Even if he didn't have a schedule pinned in his office, the number of visitors to his parish on particular days is always a giveaway. Located less than a mile away from Nationals Park, St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church typically enjoys its busiest audience when the home team is scheduled to play. 

For the past week, Gonzalo had been reflecting on a verse in the gospel of John: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." When he heard the news on the radio Wednesday morning—that Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana and several others had been shot during a baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia—he thought of it again and began to pray for peace. And when he noticed he had a bigger crowd than usual for his noon service, he knew this wasn't just about a pregame ritual: People were looking for answers in the wake of another tragedy. So when he walked to the front and faced his flock, he offered an invocation for the victims. And then he gave his daily parishioners a message: It's OK to curse the darkness, but it's more important to continue living in the light.

Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., meets with reporters.
Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., meets with reporters.Cliff Owen/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

From the dark and cool chapel, the people poured into the bright, 86-degree day in the nation's capital. They knew by now about the lone gunman who'd fired more than 50 bullets and injured five people at a Congressional Republican baseball practice that morning. But they had made plans to see the Nationals face NL East rival Atlanta, and they weren't prepared to break them. So they walked in underneath the fire trucks with ladders hoisting an American flag 50 feet off the ground. They changed into the day's patriotic tank top giveaway and settled into their seats for a baseball game. 

Taking in the first inning from up in left field, in Section 407, Jaclyn Knight is distracted. On her lap, her 2-year-old son wears a red Dustin Pedroia T-shirt and eats a yogurt. In her hands, she holds her sister's Samsung Galaxy S7 cellphone and scrolls through a New York Times account of the shooting. "Oh God," she says, "he fired so many bullets." 

Knight and her sister, Stephanie Powell, are Braves fans from Charlottesville, Virginia, but they live now in New Market, near the West Virginia border. When the shooting started, Knight was making breakfast for her boys. She doesn't watch the news, she says, because she gets enough screaming from the two of them. So she didn't hear about America's latest mass shooting until she picked up Stephanie at her house. With more than a three-hour drive in traffic ahead of them, they had to decide: Should they cancel a trip they'd been planning for weeks? With hardly a hint of hesitation, they decided to drive toward the danger.

Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

"When stuff like this happens," Knight says, "people get scared and they wonder if they should continue going about their normal lives. There's no way to prevent it. There's nothing you can do to stop something like this from happening. So you just have to keep going."

After a three-run first inning for the Braves, the Nationals fans enjoy their only opportunity to cheer when Brian Goodwin pops a two-run home run in the second. Knight and Powell applaud anyway. "We'll just root for anyone today, I guess," Knight says. 

It's Military Appreciation Day at the ballpark in honor of Flag Day, and in the third inning, the Jumbotron displays service members in their crisp uniforms. Below them, the banner reads, "Thank you for your service and your sacrifice." Knight and Powell rise to their feet and root for the soldiers. Knight gives the phone back to her sister and turns her attention to her boys and to baseball. The Braves are up 6-2 going into the fourth.

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

At a bar above left field, where you can see the Washington Monument poking out of the skyline if you face away from the crowd, Mike Murdock and Andrew Sable are drinking beers in their new tank tops. They played high school baseball together at Mount Vernon—Sable a shortstop who went on to play for George Mason, and Murdock a right-handed pitcher—and attend a lot of Nationals games together now. When they heard about Wednesday's giveaway last week, they bought tickets immediately. 

This morning, Murdock had been listening to 106.7 The Fan on the way to his brother's house in Belle Haven, Virginia, when the broadcasters interrupted their sports talk to announce the shooting. "It's not what you expect to hear at 7 a.m. to start your day," Murdock says. Sable had seen some "Pray for Alexandria" messages on social media before he left for work, but it wasn't until he saw an image from CNN that he realized: Three weekends ago, he was coaching his under-12 travel baseball team at an adjacent Alexandria Little League field. In high school, he had played at Eugene Simpson Stadium Park, where the shooting took place. "It was so surreal seeing those images," he says.

In 2016, there had been nearly 140 mass shootings in the U.S. by about this point in the year. And it seems Americans have settled into a kind of routine: They witness the horror and mourn the losses and move on, hoping the next one won't come but knowing it will. "What choice do you have?" Murdock says. "You can't give in. People in England went to the Ariana Grande concert a week after the [explosion in Manchester]. You can't let them spoil this. They win if you do."

Near a concession stand at the Nats game selling $5 water bottles in the 200 section, Terrance Jones leans against a railing and watches the scoreless sixth inning wearing a Matt Boyd Detroit Tigers jersey. He flew in this morning from Michigan to visit his girlfriend, Kristen, who works for Missouri Rep. Sam Graves. When his plane took off, it was a peaceful morning, but by the time he reached the Capitol, he could tell something was wrong: Security screenings were taking extra time, and police seemed to have their hands near their hip-holstered guns. 

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., walks toward media.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., walks toward media.Kevin S. Vineys/Associated Press/Associated Press

Earlier in the week, he and Kristen had discussed going to the Congressional Baseball Game, after he'd seen it listed on EventBrite. She could get tickets for free, and since this was now his third trip to see her, they'd exhausted most of the D.C. tourist traps. Now as he watches a replay of a military member catching a foul ball on a bounce in the fifth inning, he's considering keeping their plans. "We're still thinking about going," Jones says. "The only thing to worry about is the weather. There's a chance of rain." 

As the Braves score six runs in the seventh inning, the escalators in the stadium switch from up to down, and an usher named William (he declines to give his last name) watches as the 13-2 deficit causes a diaspora of Nats fans. William heard the news on WTOP-FM as he was getting ready to come into work. He's never been to the Congressional Baseball Game before, which is scheduled for Thursday at 7:05 p.m. ET, but he will be happy to be there this time.

"We're not going to let any terror—domestic or international—stop us," he says. "I'm looking forward to the game. It'll probably be the safest place to be in the world."

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 14: Ryan Zimmerman #11 of the Washington Nationals waits at first base for his hat and glove after making the last out in the sixth inning against the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park on June 14, 2017 in Washington, DC. Atlanta won t
Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Because of the giveaway tank tops and the Nationals' colors, the throng of people looks particularly patriotic. The attack Wednesday morning had targeted one of the last remaining bipartisan efforts in Washington, but it hadn't stripped sports of its power of reprieve. On their way out, Democrats and Republicans and people from across the political spectrum make conversation with folks just because they happen to be walking near each other. 

By the bottom of the ninth, only a few thousand fans still season the stands, and after the last out, they too walk back out of the diversion and into an unexplainable world. By the main box office, a seven-piece brass jazz ensemble serenades the fans under a paling blue sky. 

Seven miles away in Virginia, another ballpark is quarantined by crime scene tape and squad cars with their sirens on. It'll be a long while before there's baseball here again, and longer still before there are answers. For now, people jog and walk their dogs around the perimeter. The last light fades, and the sun sets on another normal day in America.

Correction: This story has been updated to note that Kristen, the girlfriend of Terrance Jones, works for Missouri Rep. Sam Graves.

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