Lobbyist takes field year after baseball practice shooting

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
'We talk about all the time. We’re not supposed to be here,' Oakland County native Matt Mika, left, said of himself and fellow shooting victim GOP Rep. Steve Scalise, who were severely wounded by a gunman a year ago at practice for the Congressional Baseball Game. Mika wears his Southfield-Lathrup High School jersey.

Washington — It was "emotional" when Oakland County native Matt Mika stepped onto the field at Nationals Park Thursday morning, a year after almost dying on another baseball diamond. 

"It was a big moment. It was amazing that we all are back, and I'm just happy to be out there," Mika said.

Members of Congress were practicing ahead of Thursday night's annual Congressional Baseball Game, and the lobbyist has rejoined them as a volunteer coach for the Republican team.

They all took a break and said a prayer at about 7:05 a.m. — the time that a gunman opened fire a year ago during practice at a field in northern Virginia.

The gunman wounded five that day, including Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Mika, who was bleeding from a gaping chest wound and a shot to his left forearm. 

"We talk about all the time. We’re not supposed to be here. It's very lucky," Mika said of he and Scalise, the most gravely hurt. 

"A lot of people call me a victim. We’re not victims. We’re survivors."

Mika missed last year's Republicans v. Democrats game while in intensive care at George Washington University Hospital.

A bullet just missed his heart but resulted in other major damage and three broken ribs, which still cause Mika pain. Shrapnel from the bullet remains lodged in his chest.  

After 10 days in the hospital, doctors discharged him, and his father and step-mother drove him back to East Lansing to recuperate for two weeks. 

Continuing recovery

He had five surgeries and two other procedures in the first month. He still receives physical therapy weekly, trying to rebuild lost muscle mass and regain feeling in his left hand, where a bullet severed a major nerve. 

"I have full function of my hand, but I can’t tell you if something is hot or cold," Mika said. 

"I saw both my doctors last night, and they were pretty amazed. It just takes time. I think that’s the hardest part — going from how active I was to having to sit and wait, take a break, take a nap." 

Mika, 39, was born in Mississippi and moved to Michigan at age 10.

He played baseball and football at Southfield-Lathrup High School and Adrian College.  Since moving to the Washington area 15 years ago, he has played baseball, softball, hockey and golf in recreation leagues. 

He previously worked for Republican U.S. Reps. Dave Camp of Midland and Tim Walberg of Tipton, focusing largely on agricultural issues, and is now the director of government relations in the Washington office of Tyson Foods.

He has been a volunteer coach for the Congressional Baseball Game for 10 years.

Matt Mika practices with fellow volunteer coach Brian Sutter, who is from Midland, Michigan, at Nationals Park on Thursday, June 14, 2018. Mika and Sutter previously worked together in the office of former Rep. Dave Camp, he said.

The bipartisan tradition dates to 1909. Last year, the game raised more than $1.5 million for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington, the Washington Nationals Dream Foundation, the Washington Literacy Center and Capitol Police Memorial Fund.

Michigan Reps. John Moolenaar of Midland, Mike Bishop of Rochester, Jack Bergman of Watersmeet (for the Republicans) and Dan Kildee of Flint Township (for the Democrats) were on Thursday's roster. 

'I thought we lost him'

"If you'd seen him the way I saw him a year ago, you would not believe he is standing, let alone playing baseball tonight," Bishop said of Mika.

Bishop, Moolenaar, Bergman and others were wrapping up practice when the first shots rang out a year ago. Everyone fled for cover. 

Mika, who was standing near first base, ran through a gate behind the dugout. Bishop said he was right behind him and saw Mika go down.

"I thought at the time that we had lost him on the scene," Bishop said, describing the "hole" in Mika's chest.

"I'd never seen a wound like that before, and it didn't seem to be bleeding anymore, so I thought he'd completely bled out. I can still see it. It's not good."  

Moolenaar was on a cellphone conveying what information he had to Mika's relatives back in Michigan, letting them know Mika was hit and they should get on a plane to Washington. 

"I felt terrible at that time because I knew it was very serious and didn't know even what hospital they were taking him to," Moolenaar said.

"I can't tell you how meaningful it is to have seen him in that posture, bleeding, and to now see him thriving, helping us out on the baseball field — it's nothing short of a miracle."

'It took a team' for survival

Mika credits his survival to the quick response of two Capitol Police officers at the scene who were part of House Majority Whip Scalise's protective detail, David Bailey and Crystal Griner, and to the paramedics and doctors who treated him.  

"It took a team to put me back together," Mika said. "For as bad as that 10 to 15 minutes of that shooting were, everything that's come after has been a miracle. We've formed this little family, all of us. They've really become good friends."

Some people approach or treat him differently now but "I'm still who I am," he said. "I can't let one incident define me, but it can make me a better person."  

What helped Mika's emotional recovery the most was returning to the scene of the shooting with fellow coaches and others a month later. They walked through the incident second by second — where people were standing and what they did. 

"It was the best therapy for me and really helped me move past it," he said.

"It was like — all right, all my friends are OK. We're here. I've heard their side of the story and put it all together. I don’t want to say it’s closed the book, but it closed that chapter so we can move forward."

He has also developed friendships with victims of other mass shootings. They include  Kristina Anderson, who was shot in the back in class during the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, and Nick Robone, who was shot in the chest last October during the massacre in Las Vegas.

"We talk and chat and, as other shootings have happened, we've reached out to different groups. It's kind of a survivors' group, and it's really helped all of us," Mika said. "It's a common bond."

Mika wouldn't say whether his experience as a shooting victim changed his views on gun reform, but he hopes the issue of mental health treatment gets more attention. 

"I'm not a public official," Mika said.

"I have my own opinion, but I think really as a nation I would encourage our elected officials to sit down and have an open dialogue, listen to one another and make the changes that are needed."

The gunman, James Hodgkinson, 66, of Belleville, Illinois, died following the baseball field shootout with police. Hodgkinson was later identified as a Bernie Sanders supporter who once posted on Facebook that "Republicans are the Taliban of the USA."

Mika wouldn't talk about him.

"I don’t want to give him any news or recognition. He’s a crazy guy with a gun who doesn’t deserve anything," he said. 

Some of Mika's family members worried about him returning to help the congressional baseball team, but he never considered not going back. 

"We have to show people that just because we have crazy people in the world, we have to be better than that," he said. 

"This baseball game is on the sandlot. That's a safe haven. And we want to be there."