Costello, Meehan avoided baseball practice shooting by stroke of fate

U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello, R-6
U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello, R-6
U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan, R-7
U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan, R-7

ALEXANDRIA, VA. >> U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello, a regular on the GOP baseball team due to play a charity game against House Democrats, said he was “in a state of shock” after hearing of the shooting that took place at a practice field Wednesday just outside of Washington, D.C.

Costello, R-6, of West Goshen, said he likely would have been fielding alongside the House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who was shot at the practice session, but for a twist of fate. He briefly speculated what might have happened had he been on the scene.

“He’s at second, and I’m at shortstop,” he said of Scalise, who was rushed from the field after being hit by the gunman’s bullets. Some 50 shots were said to have been fired. “If they came from the third base side, I’m closer to them than he was. It’s not possible for me to have not been hit, given the angles involved,” the second-term congressman said in a telephone interview around 9 a.m., 90 minutes after the shooting.

“It makes me think…,” Costello said, haltingly. “It makes me think of a lot of things. That’s where I was supposed to be If I’d left my office one minute sooner or raced up the steps … it makes you think about your family and Steve (Scalise).”

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Similarly, on any other day, U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan would have been standing on that ballfield across the river from D.C. in Alexandria, Virginia, when gunshots rang out.

But Meehan, R-7, of Chadds Ford had decided to forego the GOP representatives’ baseball practice Wednesday morning for another engagement.

The congressman was at a breakfast at the U.S. Capitol when he was asked, “Did you hear what’s going on? (U.S. Rep. Steve) Scalise has just been shot.”

Meehan said that was the beginning of what was to become an emotional day.

“My first thought was to say a prayer of thanks that I was not part of the tragedy,” he said.

Then, it hit him how close he would have been to the violent attack against his colleagues.

Meehan is a relief pitcher for the GOP team and has played every game since 2010.

Not only would he have been on the practice field, but he would have been in the location where the pitchers work out. The police, he said, sit behind the other dugout, leaving the pitchers in clear view.

“I look at that and realize I probably would have been 10 feet away from the first shot,” Meehan said.

He said he hadn’t had the opportunity to speak to Scalise directly but knew that his family was on the way Wednesday afternoon to be with him.

The representative said he had spoken to other teammates who were on the ballfield at the time of the shooting but were not hospitalized.

He said they, as well as all members of the U.S. House of Representatives, were thankful for the two Capitol police officers who stepped into the line of fire to confront the gunman who opened fire.

“Today has been the overwhelming expression of gratitude from both sides of the aisle,” Meehan said.

Scalise, the House majority whip, was in stable condition at George Washington University Hospital, according to one congressional aide. His injuries were not believed to be life-threatening. Several other people were also believed to have been hit, according to a lawmaker who witnessed the shooting.

Four victims were transported to local hospitals, as well as the suspected shooter, according to Alexandria Police. Costello said the victims included two of Scalise’s staff members and two of his security detail.

The suspect was later identified as James T. Hodgkinson of Belleville, Illinois. Hodgkinson reportedly died in the hospital from gunshot wounds sustained in his shootout with police.

U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Mich., said Scalise was at second base when he was shot ‘ I was looking right at him,’’ Bishop told Detroit radio station WWJ. ‘‘He was a sitting duck.’’

U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, an Alabama Republican, said that Scalise, 51, was down on the ground with what Brooks described as ‘‘a hip wound.’’ The Alabama lawmaker said the colleague ‘‘crawled into the outfield, leaving a trail of blood.’’

Brooks said it was well known on Capitol Hill and the neighborhood that Republican lawmakers practice in Alexandria on Wednesday morning. Other lawmakers on the field at the time were Sens. Rand Paul and Jeff Flake and Reps. Ron DeSantis and Chuck Fleischmann.

Costello, who played in the annual softball game between the two parties in 2015, said that practices usually begin around 6:30 a.m. He had scheduled a ride to the field with two other members and had planned to meet them by 6 a.m. He said he was delayed momentarily and got outside the Capitol at 6:02 a.m., missing the ride by seconds.

His colleagues and he take the game seriously, even though it is meant to bring some collegiality to the normally partisan world of the Congress. He said there are practices at least three times a week when the Congress is in session, and he’d been to about 20 of them. “It’s tongue in cheek,” he said of the competition. “It’s fun, it raises money for charity, and it doesn’t get in the way of the business of Congress.”

The practice field in Virginia is an open park, much like the local West Goshen Community Park, the congressman said. Usually there are local residents walking dogs or taking a morning stroll.

After missing his ride, Costello said he went back inside the Capitol to change out of his uniform, and then went up to his offices in the Cannon Office building to read. A television was on in the background, and Costello said he heard something about a shooting at a softball field. When he heard the word “Congress,” he said he told himself, “That’s where my practice was.” He sent a text message to his wife immediately to let her know he was not injured.

President Donald Trump said he was ‘‘deeply saddened by this tragedy’’ and was monitoring developments.

House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office said Scalise’s wounds were not believed to be life-threatening and that a member of the security detail was also shot.

Scalise is the No. 3 House Republican leader. He was first elected to the House in 2008 after serving in the Louisiana State Legislature.

Sen. Paul, R-Ky., told MSNBC that a shooter walked up to another lawmaker at the field and asked whether it was Republicans or Democrats who were practicing. The shooter then opened fire with what Rand believed was an AR-15, a civilian version of the military’s M-16 combat rifle.

Katie Filous was walking her two dogs near the field when she heard ‘‘a lot of shots, probably more than 20.’’ She said the shooting ‘‘went on for quite a while.’’

Filous said she saw the shooter hit a uniformed law enforcement officer, who she said was later evacuated by helicopter. She said the officer had gotten out of a parked car, drawn a handgun and shouted something to the gunman, who then fired.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer tweeted: “Both @POTUS & @VP are aware of the developing situation in Virginia. Our thoughts and prayers are with all affected.”

U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., posted on his Facebook account that he may have talked with the shooter. He left before the gunfire started.

“I am safe,’’ Duncan wrote. “I was at the congressional baseball practice, but left before the shooting to catch an earlier meeting. I believe I saw the shooter and am in the process of giving a statement to the police.”

He added: “Please pray for my colleagues, I am unsure of their condition.”

Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who was shot at a public event in 2011, tweeted her support to Scalise Wednesday.

U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., expressed concern on her Twitter account. “I’m horrified by the shooting at congressional baseball practice. Praying for the safety of my colleagues, their staff and Capitol Police,’’ she wrote.

Meehan said the annual game that pits Republicans vs. Democrats for a good cause will go on as planned Thursday.

“We have every expectation we will play (Thursday) and not let the events of (Wednesday) morning drive the narrative,” Meehan said.

He recalled what drew him to participate in the charity baseball game in which Republican and Democratic representatives face each other on the diamond.

“When I first heard about it, I thought it was a beer league softball game,” he said.

Then, U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, laughed at him and added, “This is hardball, this is tradition.”

The game dates to the early 20th century and has only been cancelled a few times. Meehan said the record is 39 wins for Republicans and 39 wins for Democrats with one tie.

“This year will be the tie-breaker,” he said, as he added that the game will now have an elevated purpose. “I think it will have a bigger meaning.”

As the business of Washington will continue, the representative said the hatred expressed in this attack provides a chance to put political vitriol on both sides aside.

“Maybe it’s an opportunity for the Congress to show that we have to deal with important issues and not be afraid to disagree on issues in a civil way,” Meehan said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.