By Evan Berkowitz | [email protected]
A sign above the left field wall of Eugene Simpson Stadium Park’s large baseball diamond reads, “Our youth is our future.”
Now, as Alexandria prepares to move past the shooting on June 14 that critically wounded a congressman, and injured two police officers and others, the grandson of the diamond’s namesake said he finds himself reflecting on that motto.
“It’s the truth,” said Don Simpson Jr., plain and simple.
Simpson was changing planes in Chicago en route to a family vacation in Wyoming when he saw the field named for his grandfather on television screens.
At first, Simpson thought the story might be positive — a tournament or other event, perhaps.
Instead, he learned of the early morning shooting in which gunman James T. Hodgkinson opened fire on a group of Republican lawmakers, aides and others who had gathered to practice before the June 15 Congressional Baseball Game for Charity. Hodgkinson critically wounded Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), whose condition had been upgraded to fair by Wednesday afternoon, as well as two U.S. Capitol police officers, an aide and a lobbyist.
“It was terrible, crazy to see that,” said Simpson, an executive with his family’s development company who serves on the Alexandria Youth Sports Commission and is a past president of the Alexandria Sportsman’s Club. “It was shocking.”
On Tuesday, just shy of a week later, hundreds gathered to officially reopen the park, including a Texas congressman who was on the field as the carnage took place. Many said they were keeping that motto in mind.
“I can’t tell you how it warms my heart to see families and little league teams arriving, not the crime scene tape and FBI and all of the law enforcement,” said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), who manages the Republican congressional baseball team.
“I think just getting kids back on the field, playing there is going to be the most positive step,” Simpson said from Wyoming.
“It’s good for the kids to get back out there,” echoed Sara McGrail, there to watch a friend’s son take the field once more. Some children she knew expressed trepidation, McGrail said, and a bit of “hoopla” was important to show that “this is not going to shut this neighborhood down.”
A place for America’s pastime
Natty Ray, a 2017 T.C. Williams graduate who played two years of varsity baseball on “Big Simpson” for the Titans, still remembers how special it was to graduate from the small diamond next to the large one as a teenager.
Now, he’s hesitant to return.
“I’ve played on that field for four or five years,” said Ray, who played first base and as designated hitter, according to T.C.’s baseball roster. It didn’t make sense to Ray for someone to openly fire on a place that’s often home to families enjoying picnics, dog walks and America’s pastime.
“I’ve only had good memories there,” he said. “Even though there have been losses, it’s always been fun playing baseball, the game that I love.”
Many city residents expressed a similar adoration for the field that’s been at the center of their community long before June 14’s tragic events.
“Everybody I knew who played baseball played on it,” McGrail said. “Simpson Field has been the Alexandria field for as long as I can remember.”
The stadium was named in honor of Eugene Simpson, a former city councilor and longtime supporter of local athletics, in 1964. On the site of a 19th-century almshouse, the park opened for baseball in 1941 as Alexandria Municipal Stadium, hosting local youth and adult amateur teams.
In April 1951, it had been used as a spring training facility for the Racine (Wis.) Belles, a women’s professional baseball team featured prominently in the 1992 film “A League of Their Own.”
“Every Spring, you couldn’t wait for the snow to melt and see the green of that field,” said Jeff Wallingford, owner of Taqueria Poblano in Del Ray. “It’s yours. As a kid, there’s very few places that are yours: There’s your bedroom and there’s the baseball field.”
For Sheriff Dana Lawhorne, moving on is important, but emotionally complex.
“I’ve been in that neighborhood my entire life. I’ve played ball on that field,” he said at a Monday press conference. “I can’t tell you what it means because I’m there every day.
“That was a place where I went … we all went — a place [for] America’s pastime,” Lawhorne said. “It’s got to get back to normal. We’ve got to move on in the sense that it means so much to us, to all of us who live there.”
Ray said he wasn’t certain how long returning to normalcy will take.
“I’m still not quite sure how to feel,” he said. Ray plans to return to Simpson during the first college break after he starts at James Madison University this fall. When he does come back, Ray said he’ll likely sit on the bleachers, look out to the field and reflect.
“I’ll be thinking about the good memories,” he said, “hoping I can block out what happened.”
Let’s Play Ball!
As little leaguers in uniform hurried about the Simpson dugout Tuesday evening and the smell of cooking hot dogs wafted over checkered cloth tablecloths they’d soon populate, a group of students in blue T.C. choir t-shirts practiced the national anthem behind a utility shed.
The song was in their repertoire already, said director Theodore Thorpe III, so it wasn’t too much different than any other game, just another chance to “remind ourselves of who we are as a nation.”
In general, the longstanding traditions of baseball seemed to anchor this week’s reopening in a familiar, beloved pattern that, save for the prayers, could have been any given Tuesday.
The power of baseball was evident in how people talked about their beloved “Big Simpson” and the times they’d spent rounding its bases.
It was evident last Thursday when President Donald Trump, in a video address to the Congressional game, called “Let’s Play Ball!” the “three great American words that for generations have torn down barriers, built bridges of unity and defied those who have sought to pull us apart.”
It was evident in the kids in cleats running every which way and the Washington Nationals Rubik’s Cubes and Magic 8 Balls they’d been given upon entrance.
But for Alexandrian Bill Kelley, who played at Simpson Park as a little leaguer, baseball was simply incidental, and he pointed to the motto in left field as proof.
“The youth and the kids bring people together,” he said. “Baseball is just what they’re playing.”
Denise Dunbar, Alexa Epitropoulos and Jack Mackey contributed to this report.