One day later, does baseball mean nothing … or quite the opposite?
“It does — and it doesn’t,” Boston Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks said.
“It’s just a game. But at the same time, that game can take someone’s mind off what’s been going on, at least for a couple hours.
“Baseball, it’s not life or death. A lot of people are dealing with casualties and injuries and families torn apart. I’m not married. I don’t have children. But most people (in this clubhouse) do. That hits home. This is very important for everyone on this team.”
At locker after locker, during interview after interview Tuesday, Middlebrooks and his Red Sox teammates demonstrated how deeply and instinctively they understand their role in helping New England recover from Monday’s terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon.
Many Red Sox players were on the team bus, preparing to leave Fenway Park for Logan Airport, when they learned of the tragedy. “That bus ride,” Dustin Pedroia said, “was silent.” After a similarly quiet plane ride to Cleveland and reflective team dinner Monday, they remained visibly affected by the events when they reassembled for a three-game series against the Indians.
Pedroia called the bombings “the worst thing you could ever imagine” and mentioned that he was near the blast site the day before. Left-hander Jon Lester said determinedly that the country must come together, as it did after 9/11, to “show these people that this isn’t going to break us and continue to live our lives.” A grey Red Sox jersey bearing the “Boston Strong” rallying cry and 617 area code hung in the dugout throughout Tuesday’s game.
Even former Red Sox manager Terry Francona — who was in the opposite dugout Tuesday night — talked about how he saw the church in which his daughter was married while watching news footage of the explosions.
“We represent the Red Sox. Today, we’ll have ‘BOSTON’ across our chest,” Jonny Gomes said Tuesday afternoon. “We represent the people. There are some heavy hearts and good people on this team.
“We’re not getting anyone out of surgery with a win or a loss. This is a lifer here. The main thing is showing the Boston Red Sox aren’t laying down to this. We’re going to keep trucking. Hopefully we can set that character of attitude throughout the whole city.”
On that score, Bostonians could smile Tuesday night. Despite afternoon rain in Cleveland, the game started on time. Both teams wore black armbands in honor of the victims and stood solemnly on the baselines during a moment of silence before the game. And before darkness fell, the Red Sox had chased Indians starter Ubaldo Jimenez with a seven-run second inning.
In the first sporting event for a Boston pro team since the attack, New Englanders found a pleasant diversion. The Red Sox won, 7-2, and remained atop the American League East with a surprising 9-4 record. The teams played at a sluggish pace, and only a few thousand fans watched at Progressive Field. But it was precisely what the people at home needed. “Given the events and the tragedy, this was a good way to maybe send some positive energy back toward Boston,” manager John Farrell said.
“When it comes down to anything in life — I know going back to my experiences with cancer — the further you can get away from that and not think about it, it eases your mind,” Lester said before the game. “Maybe we can do that by taking the field — (ease) some minds back in Boston and give them something other than news to watch for a couple hours.”
Yet, even the Red Sox themselves felt distracted at times during the 3-hour, 30-minute game. Catcher David Ross said baseball seemed insignificant at times during the day. “It’s hard not to think about it,” first baseman Mike Napoli said. “You’re sitting in the dugout, long inning, and you think about what really happened yesterday. The umpires asked me about it. Everyone that gets to first asked me about it. I thought about it throughout the game.”
The Red Sox have a unique place within New England culture, which the 2013 edition has embraced to a greater extent than its immediate predecessors. (Could you imagine how last year’s fractured clubhouse would have responded to a similar circumstance?) Recently, it had become fashionable to say that the Red Sox had fallen behind the Patriots, Bruins and Celtics in popularity among Bostonians. But the Red Sox — Fenway, Ted Williams, the iconic “B” logo — are woven into the region’s identity in a way that the other teams are not.
With that adulation comes responsibility. These Red Sox understand what that means — especially now. “When we put our uniform on,” Pedroia said, “it’ll be that much more special every day.”
Middlebrooks spoke about the team’s close link to the Patriots’ Day celebration, which made the tragedy especially personal — and the obligation now especially clear.
“We’re not part of the Boston Marathon, but we’re part of that day,” Middlebrooks said. “We always have an early day game, so people can go to the game and then run over and see the end of the Marathon. It’s a day-long thing.
“This team, if we’re going to do anything, we’re going to play hard every day. That won’t be an issue. I just know how serious guys are taking today. We take it very serious every day. We know the support we get from our city. We know how passionate they are about us and baseball. We just want to do our best to return the favor.”
That’s not to suggest the Red Sox are programmed performers, immune to the anxiousness felt by others in Boston and across the country. Monday afternoon, the Red Sox uneasily left their wives and children and flew 600 miles away. “A lot of these guys, they’re the rock of their family,” Gomes said. “We’ve got to jump on a plane and leave when that’s going on.”
Lester acknowledged that — for the first time — he thought about his own safety at the ballpark.
“It never crossed my mind before,” he said. “But with the stuff that happened yesterday, yeah, guys have thought about it. We talked about it. We talked about the chaos of what would happen if one of those bombs was at Fenway that went off. It’s a scary deal.
“But it goes back to 9/11: We can’t live in fear. You’ve got to live your life. You can’t let these people get the best of us. That’s the way to defeat it: Keep living our lives, keep doing what we need to do every day.”
On Tuesday, that meant the Red Sox played a baseball game. For a city and nation searching for answers that will not come, a measure of comfort could be found in balls and strikes.