Hard on I-93 North in the Savin Hill section of Dorchester, two Little League baseball teams practiced last Thursday beneath an American flag fluttering at half mast at McConnell Field. The brake lights of commuter traffic winked in the twilight as the distinct ping of aluminum bats echoed through the rush hour din.
On the last Saturday in April, Martin Richard would have played his first game of the season at McConnell Field in the Savin Hill Little League. He'd have donned the dark blue uniform hat and ran out to one of his usual positions, pitcher or first base. Though he played for a team called the Rangers, Richard surely would have emulated his favorite Red Sox, Dustin Pedroia.
Instead, the Savin Hill Little League, Dorchester and all of America mourns an inexplicable loss. Martin Richard, 8, died from the second explosion set off in the Boston Marathon bombings. His soft brown eyes, innocent smile and message on a blue poster board -- "No more hurting people. Peace." -- will remain defining images of this tragedy.
The Richard family, which hails from the Ashmont-Adams neighborhood of Dorchester, is forever changed. The blast maimed his 7-year-old sister, Jane, and forced his 43-year-old mother, Denise, to have brain surgery.
As a community searches for answers, Savin Hill mourns the loss of Martin, who epitomized the untainted, quintessentially American joy of Little League baseball. Martin flashed an easy smile, donned an oversized black glove and wore Bruins gear to practice and No. 25 for games. But nothing stood out to Rangers Coach Mike Christopher more than Martin's gap-toothed smile.
"He's what you think of," Christopher said, "when you think of a little leaguer."
As a player, Martin's skills and focus stood out for his age. As one of the team's younger players last year as a 7-year-old, he'd earned the coaches' trust enough to pitch and play the infield. Martin spoke judiciously, followed directions and never had any discipline issues.
"At baseball, he was there to play baseball," Christopher said. "He's the kind of kid you want your little leaguer to be. He's like 'Mr. Baseball.' You just try and strive to have your kid be the type of kid that he was."
Martin flashed enough talent last year that Christopher recommended him to Pat Ryan, who coached the Savin Hill travel team of 7- and 8-year-olds last summer. Martin was one of just three 7-year-olds on the team, which Ryan says left him "punching a little above his weight." A strikeout or missed grounder couldn't alter his unflinching demeanor.
At a game in Holbrook, Mass., last summer, Martin pitched mop-up in a Savin Hill blowout victory. Martin started to get knocked around a bit and looked rattled. Ryan made a trip to mound with a simple message: "Throw some strikes, and let's get an ice cream and get out of here."
Martin looked back at Ryan and flashed that fluorescent smile, the same one that President Obama mentioned in his speech in Boston last Thursday. The ice cream soon followed.
"I'm not going to tell you it was perfect, but we definitely got out of there," Ryan said. "I'm really glad that I have that now. That really speaks to him as a little guy and a player."
Savin Hill Little League offers a microcosm of Dorchester itself, tight-knit, resilient and full of local pride. When the league got robbed of $5,000 worth of equipment earlier in April, the community raised money for new equipment in a matter of days.
The head coaches in Savin Hill typically aren't parents, but rather local guys in their 20s and 30s who simply care about the community.
Dorchester, one of Boston's largest and most diverse neighborhoods, is a proud place of stately Victorian homes where many families are identified by which parish they attend. Savin Hill, one of a handful of leagues in Dorchester, is an extension of that thanks to volunteer coaches and dedicated parents.
"We're not a very big league," Ryan said. "We have about 175 kids. When one is missing and one family gets impacted, it's impossible not to notice."
The Richard family's penchant for service is best shown by the dazzling Ashmont MBTA Station, which Bill Richard's work in the community helped restore, a project that took more than six years and $30 million. But it trickled right down to Little League, where Bill and Denise Richard proved to be all-star parents. Ryan said they helped organize lunches, coolers of drinks and orange slices for road games. Christopher recalled Bill Richard getting kids warmed up at practice if he ran late.
"Anything you need," Christopher said. "It was always 'How can I help?'"
That question will be much harder to answer this season. Savin Hill folks will be searching for a new normal like everyone else in the Boston area after a week of bombings, man hunts and mourning.
In Little League, that bastion of American innocence, there will be something glaringly missing this season. And as the cars on I-93 lurch past McConnell Field this season, a family, community and Little League will move on with heavy hearts.
"His memory will live on," Christopher said, "without a doubt."