BOSTON — As the Boston Red Sox boarded their buses and headed to the airport, they had a sense this season could be something special. They had just swept the Tampa Bay Rays. The season was barely two weeks old, but a team that finished last season in last place had started this one in first place.
As the buses rolled along the streets of Boston, word spread among the players that something bad had happened. Something about the marathon. But cellphone service had been interrupted, and the team flight took off for Cleveland before the players were fully informed.
Craig Breslow, a relief pitcher for the Red Sox, was not with the team. He was rehabilitating an injury, and he was trading text messages with one of the runners in the marathon. He got the same vague information: something had happened, something awful.
By the time the Red Sox got to their hotel in Cleveland, the tragic scope of the Boston Marathon bombings had become apparent. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, a catcher, thought about how teams hang the jersey of a deceased teammate in the dugout. Jonny Gomes, an outfielder, suggested a Red Sox jersey with the number 617, the area code for Boston.
When the Red Sox returned to Fenway Park, as part of a ceremony in which emergency personnel were honored and "Hallelujah" was sung, David Ortiz took the microphone and improvised a line that became an anthem: "This is our [bleeping] city!"
That could have been the end of it. There was a baseball season to play, after all, and the stench of chicken and beer to extinguish.
The players would not let go. The "Boston Strong" logo would not just be cut into the outfield grass.
"It went from a slogan to almost like a lifestyle," Gomes said. "It wasn't like, once it happened and we had that one game, it was like, out of sight, out of mind."
The gray road jersey that hung in the dugout in Cleveland has been framed and mounted at Fenway Park, along a concourse behind home plate.
The players went above and beyond, far beyond. Gomes used two bats with the names of four victims etched into the barrel, then auctioned the bats off for charity. The players collected auction items and donations among themselves. The Red Sox front office offered to arrange hospital visits; the players went by themselves so the media would not find out.
"There was no need for any driver other than the guys in this room," Breslow said.
The doctors were tired, the nurses exhausted, the victims devastated. In came the Red Sox players, into one hospital room after another, all around town.
"People had been in the bombing and lost limbs, and they were so excited we were there," catcher David Ross said. "I'm just a dork that puts on a mask and tries to win ballgames. You could see how it really affected them. It made me, personally, feel like, 'Wow, this is bigger than me, and baseball. This is a city-wide thing.'"
The Red Sox invite victims and first responders to every game. Ortiz recalled meeting a girl who had waited at the finish line for her mother, who had lost her legs in the bombing. Saltalamacchia remembered greeting a professional dancer whose leg was blown off but vowed to resume her career with prosthetics, and a father who had tried to rush his son safely out of the blast zone.
"He realized he couldn't run," Saltalamacchia said, "because his leg was blown off."
Said Gomes: "It's pretty rare that you see people wheeled out to the mound, or go out on the field with prosthetics, that aren't from the military. They were just runners."
That the Red Sox players have kept up their commitment to the community, out of the spotlight and amid the pressure of pennant races and playoffs, is the personification of Boston Strong.
That the Red Sox are in the World Series, after a spring of tragedy and a summer of dignity, goes to show the players had a better instinct about this year than they could have ever known. This season has indeed been something special.