ALEXANDRIA, Va.— A Wednesday morning baseball practice for the annual congressional baseball game for charity went from peaceful to horrific in the blink of an eye.
Congressman John Moolenaar is playing his second year for the team, which raises funds for Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington, the Washington Nationals Dream Foundation, the Washington Literacy Center and — in support of what happened at Wednesday’s practice — the Capitol Police Memorial Fund.
Moolenaar, the Republican representative for Michigan’s 4th District, is a designated hitter who is typically assigned to the outfield. Wednesday’s practice began at 6:15 a.m. with batting practice behind the plate and then off to the batting cages for machine pitches. Moolenaar was in the batting cage when he heard the first gunshot.
“When the first shot rang out, it sounded like an explosion,” he said. “It was very surreal. You heard the gunshot and it sounds like a gunshot but you’re looking around and it’s this peaceful, pastoral setting at 7:15 in the morning and you can’t believe it was a gunshot.
“Then there were multiple shots and (Rep.) Trent (Kelly, who is a combat veteran) yelled ‘shooter!’ and we knew we were under assault.”
The shooter was later identified as James T. Hodgkinson, a 66-year-old home inspector from Illinois who had run-ins with the law in recent years and apparently despised President Donald Trump and the Republican party in general.
Hodgkinson, who was armed with a rifle, set up behind a fence at the third base dugout and began spraying the infield with bullets.
“You could hear bullets hitting a metal fence and you could hear the thud of bullets landing,” Moolenaar said. “I did not see the shooter and I did not know the direction the shots were coming from. We weren’t aware that people were down. There was a lot of chaos and people started seeking cover.”
Then the Capitol police — who were at the baseball practice as security for House GOP Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana — began firing back at Hodgkinson.
“You could tell there was a different sound from their revolvers as opposed to the rifle the shooter was using,” Moolenaar said.
Moolenaar and some of his colleagues began running away from the field and toward a nearby street, where they hoped trees and parked cars might provide cover. They quickly realized they wouldn’t be safe there either.
“We realized shots were shooting out windows on those vehicles,” Moolenaar said. “I was right behind a vehicle that had been shot out. People would shout out that the shooter was coming around the corner, but we didn’t really know what corner that was.
“At that point, miraculously, someone in an apartment right there invited three of us to come inside the apartment,” he said. “We still didn’t know where the shooters were or how many, we simply knew that we were being targeted for assassination.”
Police eventually shot Hodgkinson, putting an end to the attack, but not before Hodgkinson critically wounded Scalise and former congressional aid Matt Mika, along with congressional aide Zack Barth and Capitol Police officers David Bailey and Crystal Griner.
Barth, Bailey and Griner have all been treated and released from the hospital, but Scalise and Mika remain in critical condition and have undergone multiple surgeries. Hodgkinson died at the hospital later that morning.
Moolenaar asks his constituents to keep all five victims in their prayers, especially Mika, who formerly worked as a legislative assistant to former Congressman Dave Camp.
Moolenaar praised the police officers, saying they turned a potential massacre into a controlled shootout.
“Obviously someone who is as deranged as this person, you don’t want them to have a gun,” he said. “At the same time, I would argue that I am glad there were two people there who had guns or we would have been sitting ducks. There will be people who will argue more (congressional) members should be carrying guns, that we need better defense against this act of violence. That debate will happen. I’m just very grateful for those law enforcement officials who returned fire and aggressively pursued the attacker.”
Shortly after the shooting, Moolenaar’s office issued a statement calling the incident “an act of cowardice.”
“Clearly someone who sets up outside of a fence with a rifle aiming at an unarmed person, it is a terrible act of cowardice,” he said. “There was a 10-year-old kid on the field helping us shag balls, there were innocent people walking their dogs in that area.
“We know he was politically motived in his actions,” he said of the shooter. “He was motivated by an anger and a hatred toward Republicans. It was someone who had a clear agenda to hunt Republican members of Congress. Anyone who targets people for their beliefs, that’s a huge problem. In America, we don’t target people for their beliefs. We don’t use violence as a means to achieve our goals.”
Moolenaar was upbeat heading into Thursday evening’s baseball game, which took place as scheduled — albeit with increased security. He felt a new optimism about his colleagues, specifically Democrat members of Congress who gathered on the field immediately after the shooting and prayed for all the Republicans involved.
“There’s some encouraging things going on,” he said.
Moolenaar hoped to win his bet with Rep. Dan Kildee, a Democrat from Flint, at the baseball game. If the Democrats win, Kildee will receive a BLT from Tony’s in Birch Run, but if the Republicans win, Moolenaar will get coneys from Flint.
“I hope to get a few times up at the plate and we’ll see where that goes,” Moolenaar said with a grin.