Red Sox helped heal Boston, ever so slightly, in wake of Marathon bombings - Metro US

Red Sox helped heal Boston, ever so slightly, in wake of Marathon bombings

Red Sox Boston Marathon finish line Jonny Gomes and Jarrod Saltalamacchia place the World Series trophy at the finish line of the Boston Marathon during Boston’s 2013 World Series Championship parade on Nov. 2, 2013. Credit: Getty Images

There were 48 players, along with all the members of the Red Sox coaching staff and management who received rings for the 2013 World Series title, but they certainly were not the only ones part of Boston’s triumph.

Though they never recorded an out, scored a run, or even appeared in a game, the Boston Marathon bombing victims, who suffered such heartbreak in the spring of 2013, will forever be linked to the success of Boston’s baseball team in the fall of that emotional year.

“I felt like [the Red Sox] were trying their hardest for us and we were rooting hard for them, so it worked both ways,” J.P. Norden, 33, whose lower right leg needed to be amputated following the bombings, told Metro Boston.

“100 percent,” former Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamachhia, now with the Miami Marlins, told Metro Boston in a recent phone interview. “We kept in touch with them, went and visited them in the hospitals and saw them during the season after the games. They came to charity events, so they were a big part of our team.”

The connection between the Red Sox and the victims began almost immediately as the Red Sox, suggested by Saltalamacchia and outfielder Jonny Gomes, hung a ‘617 Boston Strong’ jersey in the visitor’s dugout in Cleveland a day after the tragedy.

Back in Boston, in hospitals throughout the city, victims that needed something – anything – to get their minds off of what happened – if just for a moment – often turned on televisions to watch the Red Sox.

“I had them on all the time,” Norden said. “I am a big sports fan. We always had the Red Sox on. They helped us.”

Some sense of normalcy

The team knew many back in Boston were turning to them for some sense of happiness and normalcy. It truly meant something to the players to know they could have an impact, simply by playing their sport and playing it well.

“It puts baseball in perspective really fast when you have a big tragedy like that,” catcher David Ross told Metro. “Those victims, to us, brightening up their day makes us feel as one. [It made us feel] bigger than we really are. It was important to brighten someone’s day after they lost limbs to some moronic bombing. It makes you feel good and have a sense of responsibility, like ‘Hey these people are looking to us to brighten up their day and have something to look forward to. A lot of them were in the hospitals trying to walk again and recovering from surgeries and I’m sure at night they flipped on the Red Sox. Hopefully we gave them something to smile about.”

The day after the bombing suspects were caught, the Red Sox hosted the Kansas City Royals at Fenway Park — the first public gathering after a long, tiresome week of uncertainty and uneasiness. After a moving pregame ceremony, David Ortiz took to the microphone and said what was on the minds of all Massachusetts citizens.

“This jersey that we wear today, it doesn’t say Red Sox. It says Boston,” Ortiz said. “We want to thank you, Mayor Menino, Governor Patrick, the whole police department, for the great job that they did this past week. This is our (f—in’) city and nobody’s going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong!”

The words stuck with the Marathon victims and they had a new-found appreciation for the Red Sox slugger.

“Of course,” Norden said. “With his one-liners and watching him do everything with victims, throwing out first pitches, he seems like a pretty cool guy.”

Meeting the victims

The next week the Red Sox broke up into groups to visit hospitals in Boston that had Marathon victims. The Sox did so privately, and it didn’t become public knowledge until the postseason.

“That wasn’t what we were doing it for, we weren’t doing it for the attention, we did it because we wanted to show them our support just like they showed us their support,” Saltalamacchia said. “We didn’t want to make it a big media thing, we knew it was a tough time and it didn’t necessarily need it to be out there. We were just trying to lift their spirits ourselves.”

Many personal relationships between the players and victims began to form that week and it changed the mindset of many of the players.

“It put into perspective with how small we are, but in some people’s minds how big we are. It was kind of a two-way thing,” said Ross. “We got a lot of good feedback from the doctors, the nurses and the patient’s families. It was a really good sense of ‘we’re playing for something a lot bigger than ourselves.’”

Throughout the season the Red Sox invited many victims and their families to Fenway Park, many of them throwing ceremonial first pitches, including Heather Abbott, 38, from Newport, R.I.. Abbott’s left leg was severely injured in the bombings and it was determined the leg needed to be amputated below the knee. Abbott began the tragic April day at Fenway Park, like she had done for a number of years, before heading over to the finish line to watch the runners cross the finish line. Returning to Fenway for the first time since April 15 last summer was emotional to say the least.

“That day it rained so there was a rain delay and there were a lot more people than usual at the first pitch,” Abbott recalled about her return to Yawkey Way. “I had my wheelchair because I had just left the hospital that day and I didn’t have my prosthetic leg yet. I did use my crutches to get out on the mound and threw the pitch with one crutch in one hand and luckily it was caught [by Saltalamacchia]. There was a standing ovation and … it was just a really emotional day.”

Saltalamacchia caught a number of the ceremonial first pitches last season, including Jeff Bauman’s, with each one of them having a special meaning.

“[Catching for Bauman] was big just because everyone knows his story and the role he played in catching the guy. That was definitely emotional, but just all the victims, it hit home,” Saltalamacchia recalled. “You couldn’t help but just feel for everyone and all the families, meeting fathers who just gave their kid away to a stranger and said, ‘Make sure my kid is safe,’ because they couldn’t walk. Just to hear all the different stories, it’s just sad.”

Norden, along with his brother Paul, who also lost his right leg, were invited to throw out first pitches, but couldn’t do so because of conflicts with medical appointments. Norton was still able to make it to Fenway for a game in September.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia Red Sox Marathon Jarrod Saltalamacchia shakes hands with Ron Brassard from New Hampshire, who was injured in the Boston Marathon bombings, before a game against the Twins last May. Credit: Getty Images

“I’ve been to Fenway, I got to meet Mariano Rivera. It was nice to go back, everyone is the same way. You get greeted by a bunch of good people and everyone wants to help,” said Norden. “We got special seats at the game and offered us a lot of things, but we weren’t available to take them up on it, but my brother and I certainly appreciated it.”

Before that September day Norden wasn’t Rivera’s biggest fan, but a few minutes with the former Yankees closer quickly changed his mind.

“He was another class-act guy,” he said. “I think I hated him most of his career because of the way he pitched, but after talking to him and listening to him and seeing the way he listened to us, he’s a pretty special guy.”

Ending the year right

The connection between baseball, the Red Sox and the Marathon victims didn’t stop once the team made the playoffs. The ‘B Strong’ logo was engraved into the center field grass at Fenway at the start of the playoffs and remained there throughout the entire postseason.

“They kind of took on the ‘B Strong’ mantra and for me it was a reminder of the city coming together and supporting those of us who were hurt and people who lost loved ones,” Abbott said. “It was great that they invited us to games and we were a part of it because of that connection, especially for me because I started my (Marathon) day there. Each time I go back it wasn’t an unhappy reminder because I was always there to do something fun and exciting.”

Abbott, along with many other victims and their families were invited back to Fenway Park for Game 2 of the World Series where they joined James Taylor on the field during the seventh inning stretch for the singing of “God Bless America.”

The Red Sox claimed the World Series title the next time they were at home in Game 6, clinching their first title in Boston in 97 years. The win was for more than the Red Sox organization — it was for the entire city. It was for the strength they showed in coming together in a time of need six months prior.

“Not only the victims, but the way the city rallied around it and didn’t back down,” Saltalamacchia said. “They didn’t run away from it and what was going on, they wanted to hit it head on. I think we were a release for them and at the same time they were what drove us.”

The entire city gathered the following Saturday for a “Rolling Rally” along the streets of Boston. It was all cheers and smiles until the motorcade reached Boylston Street and the Marathon finish line.

“I remember when we did stop there it was just silence,” Ross recalled. “Everyone was cheering when the parade was going on and there was a lot happening to celebrate and then there was a little sense of mourning, a little sense of … like a Band-Aid on that area, like Jonny [Gomes] said. A sense of remembrance for us and how strong of an impact that moment was both on the year and our baseball season.”

For Saltalamacchia, who with Gomes placed the World Series trophy – draped in the ‘617 Boston Strong’ jersey – on the finish line, that beautiful early November day was a joyous ending of a year that started off so horribly wrong.

“I think it was one of those things that me [and Gomes] were the ones that started the ‘6-1-7’ and all that. I think the front office had talked to us and we were both on board with it,” he said. “It wasn’t just our World Series, it was their World Series. To put that trophy on the finish line meant a lot more than just a baseball game.”

Several victims sent the team on their way at Fenway Park at the start of the parade as they were invited for a breakfast. Others took the parade in on television.

“It was emotional to see them stop [at the finish line] and recognize the people who died and who were hurt,” Abbott said. “It was a long baseball season and everyone was so excited to see them win the World Series, especially this year. It was pretty emotional, especially because I was watching it with a lot of the other survivors at Fenway.”

On Boston’s World Series championship rings there is the inscription of, “Bearded Brothers.” Throughout the 2013 championship season, brothers, sisters and a professional baseball team were all brought together by a terrible tragedy.

With the help of each other, they each became stronger and tougher as the months of 2013 rolled on. By November of that trying year, there was cause for some smiles.

Follow Metro Red Sox beat writer Ryan Hannable on Twitter @Hannable84

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