BOSTON -- Monday morning broke as bright and clear over Boston as if painted by a child, the kind of tableau that instantly inspires hope for the better, just like birthday candles or a shooting star. It was Patriots Day, a holiday in Massachusetts for 120 years, but this one was unlike any other in six score worth of Patriots Days. It was the first since the horror of terrorists detonating bombs on Boylston Street near the finish of the Boston Marathon last April 15. Begun as a commemoration of the battles of Lexington and Concord, Patriots Day still honored the American spirit, but this time the backward glancing gave way to the look ahead. It was a celebration of Boston's strength not just to recover, but also to carry on.
They ran the world's most famous race again, as they have since 1897. They played baseball at 11 a.m. at Fenway Park just as they have on this day since 1968. It hardly mattered that the Red Sox lost to Baltimore, 7-6, with the game ending with the tying and winning run on base, as if the scriptwriter had a sudden change of heart -- Who would believe this? -- and pulled the paper from his typewriter carriage. Maybe the Red Sox lost, but Boston won.
"I'm the type of guy that likes to take something positive out of every game," said Red Sox catcher David Ross. "And this weekend I thought we represented the Red Sox and the city well. It was emotional and it can be draining, but as a baseball player I'm glad to be a part of it."
Ross slung a few articles of dry cleaning over his shoulder and headed out the clubhouse door. He wasn't going home. He was headed to an overpass not far from Fenway with his family to watch the marathon runners who were still on the road. Several other Red Sox players said they, too, would visit the race to cheer on the runners.
Last year, the bombs exploded 42 minutes after the Red Sox won on Patriots Day. The players were on board a bus to take them to Logan Airport for a flight to Cleveland, where they were to play the next night. They knew something was wrong, but they didn't know what. Cell service was down.
"We saw people running and crying," second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. "We saw and heard helicopters above. We knew it was serious, but we didn't know what. You start thinking maybe there's been a shooting or something. We just didn't know. We didn't find out until a little later. And then we sat there on the plane watching it. The airplane had those TVs on the back of the seats. We sat there and watched and couldn't believe it."
"You know what really got me last year?" Ross said. "When we visited those people in the hospital after the bombing. Those people were so happy to see us, but they did way more for us than we could ever do for them. I mean, think about it: your worst day in baseball is what? You might go 0-for-4? And seeing these people and they strength they had after what they went through? It really does put things in perspective for you."
The Red Sox were glad this year to stay in town after their Patriots Day game -- they play the Yankees at Fenway Tuesday night -- because it gave them a chance to watch the race.
There is something about baseball that reassures us, like our hometown. Maybe it's the dependability of it; it's there virtually every day for more than half the year. We can turn our attention away from it for a spell and know it's always there, like picking up a conversation from an old friend you haven't talked to in months. Maybe it's because it literally gathers us, bringing us together outdoors when the weather turns comfortable. The ballpark is our town square. Maybe it's the democracy of it; the game, with its batting order and untimed 27 outs per side, is fiercely American in its insistence that everybody gets an equal chance.
No other sport binds us like baseball, as we have been reminded in times of war and in September of 2001. This truth is especially evident in Boston, where the cultural import of the Red Sox on this region is stronger than anywhere else in major league baseball. The Red Sox arranged a touching commemorative ceremony Sunday night before their game against Baltimore. People wept nearly as much as they cheered, with the playing field entirely filled with the truly brave: not the athletes, but the first responders, survivors and their families. On Monday the Red Sox turned the page. The day became more about taking back Patriots Day from the darkness of last year and into the light of the future.
The 2013 Red Sox played a part in Boston's recovery from the bombings. No picture was more touching than outfielder Jonny Gomes taking the World Series trophy, draped in a "Boston Strong" jersey, and placing it on the marathon finish line last November. He couldn't change history, but he wanted to redefine that special place of Boylston Street. Triumph over horror. Then as now, Bostonians found it more empowering to help and hope than to hate.
Those Red Sox are forever bound with Boston Strong. The 2014 Red Sox now must find their own identity as a baseball team. What's clear after three weeks is that the mission is going to take some time. Injuries to Will Middlebrooks and Shane Victorino have knocked out a couple key cylinders in their offensive engine. The outfield misses Jacoby Ellsbury tremendously. Last year the Boston outfielders ranked first in batting average (.285) and third in slugging (.432) in the American League. They entered play Monday ranked 13th in average (.209) and 13th in slugging (.341).
Starting pitcher Clay Buchholz continues to lack the arm strength that made him one of the best pitchers in baseball early last season. Buchholz has been throwing his fastball at 92-94 mph over the previous four years, but now he sits around 90-91. Without velocity, the signature run on his two-seamer/cutter combination is missing.
"With arm strength comes the velocity," Buchholz said. "It's lacking a little bit right now."
The Orioles handed Buchholz the third quickest knockout of his career Monday. He gave up six runs and obtained only seven outs. In one stretch of the third inning the Orioles scored on six consecutive batters.
On this Patriots Day, though, it was hard to linger on such faults. There were 32,408 people running the Marathon and 37,513 people watching the Red Sox. All were inspired. The people at the Fens were on their feet when Mike Carp swung at a pitch from Baltimore closer Tommy Hunter with two strikes, two outs and two on in the bottom of the ninth. Carp hit a ground ball to first baseman Chris Davis, who easily turned into the final out of the game. A low groan came over the ancient grandstands, and quickly faded. It wasn't a day to complain. Patriots Day was back. There was blue sky above, and for as far as anybody could see.