Boston Red Sox found inspiration through the resilience of a city and its people
(In the coming weeks, you’ll see in our series at FOXSports.com what the Boston bombing means to more than two dozen people directly affected at last year’s marathon. So 2014 is the comeback, because 2013 was the knockdown. This is the next installment. Read their stories.)
Jonny Gomes is a baseball player, not a marathoner.
"Helllll no," he emphasized.
A lot of people in Boston might disagree. Gomes plays outfield for the Red Sox, who inspired Boston Marathon bombing victims and an entire region.
Or was it the other way around?
A scruffy bunch of baseball players nobody believed in won the World Series. Along the way, they helped a city rise from despair and ashes.
The tale sounds too corny to be true. It also trivializes the tragedy, since nothing that happened all season at Fenway Park could make up for what happened on Boylston Street on April 15. But something extraordinary took place on the way to a title.
"It not only helped us and pushed us through tough times," third baseman Will Middlebrooks said, "it helped the city a lot. It’s sort of hard to talk about, but it’s one of the things we wanted to do for the city."
It was so fitting. Boston’s known as a rough-around-the-edges, tough city. It was perfect.
Will Middlebrooks on David Ortiz's powerful speech
He sounds like Derek Jeter after 9/11 in New York or Drew Brees after Katrina hit New Orleans. Trite as it sounds, sports teams really do become rallying points and almost chemically bond with the greater cause.
Boston was coming off the disastrous Bobby Valentine season. The Red Sox image was covered in beer and chicken wing grease. A couple of guys stopped shaving in spring training to signify a new, working-man identity. The spirit meshed with the marathon as soon as the Red Sox landed in Cleveland that Monday night.
They’d beaten Tampa Bay in the annual Patriots’ Day game, and on the way to the airport they started hearing about a bombing. Cell phone service was out, so details were sketchy. The next night, Gomes hung a gray jersey in Boston’s dugout.
The number on it was 617, Boston’s area code. When the Red Sox returned home for their first game four days later, one bombing suspect was dead and the other had been caught. The team honored first responders, and a giant American flag unfurled on the outfield wall.
David Ortiz took the microphone, thanked police and had a few words of advice for any other terrorists.
"This is our (bleeping) city and nobody is going to dictate our freedom,’ he said. "Stay strong!"
Though some complained about the "bleep," the crowd roared its approval.
"It was so fitting," Middlebrooks said. "Boston’s known as a rough-around-the-edges, tough city. It was perfect."
The Celtics and Bruins had as much sympathy, but Boston has always been a Red Sox town at heart. The Gothic "B" on the baseball cap became the font for the phrase "Boston Strong." The logo was cut into the outfield grass at Fenway.
Gomes used a bat with victims’ names etched in the barrel. It was auctioned for charity. Middlebrooks pressed the Twitter hashtag #BostonStrong.
Players made dozens of hospital visits. Most of them were quietly arranged since players didn’t want to appear to be using the tragedy for image enhancement. If a bond was to develop, they wanted it to be real.
"It was a team call," Gomes said. "We wanted to make it as organic as possible."
The Red Sox made almost 500 community visits, roughly 200 more than any previous year. Of course, there were more people who needed a visit than any previous year.
"It was eye-opening," Middlebrooks said. "Just the victims, I expected more people to be down. They’d just lost a leg or an arm or a brother or a son.
"But they were really in high spirits. That’s what stuck with us. They had all this going on, and they were still happy just to see us walk in."
The feeling became mutual. As the season wore on, Fenway became a therapeutic haven. Wounds slowly started to heal and victims came to the park. Some would hobble on crutches to the mound to throw out first pitches. Some would be wheeled behind home plate to yell, "Play Ball!"
There’d be tears and hugs and smiles. The crowd would stand and cheer. Neil Diamond’s "Sweet Caroline" would blare from the loudspeakers.
And oddly enough, the Red Sox would usually win.
"Please don’t hang a win-loss record on how we felt," Gomes said. "I think all the moons aligned, but at the end of the day that tragedy didn’t add talent to anyone."
He’s right. Saying it was all due to emotional pixie dust shortchanges players and belittles victims. Maybe the Red Sox would have won 28 more games than in 2012, anyway. Maybe they would have won the AL East, beaten the Rays and Tigers and Cardinals and become only the second team to go from last in its division one year to a world championship the next.
It was Boston’s third title in the last decade. There was the usual parade three days after the final game, only this one wasn’t quite so usual.
It paused at the marathon’s finish line on Boylston Street. Gomes placed the World Series trophy on the spot and draped that 617 jersey over it as the crowd sang "God Bless America."
The Red Sox were not marathoners in 2013. They were baseball players.
The marathon just helped them make it to the finish line.