The role of sports during times of tragedy has been debated in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. How can one cheer, yell, and feel joy in a time so filled with sadness? I suppose the answer is up for each of us to decide on our own, but it seems that, in times such as these, when heartbreak and fear have touched us so deeply and it’s all we can do to not break down and cry, sports has the power to help unite us in common purpose. It can alleviate, however slightly, our sadness, and through that, can help us feel a little less sad and a little less alone. Maybe that’s putting too much on it, but that’s the way I feel.
On Saturday the Red Sox returned home for the first time since the bombings at the Boston Marathon. On a sunny Saturday afternoon in an exhausted and shaken city a baseball game was played. And it was perfect.
They say a great piece of writing must have a great opening line. Most baseball games don’t start with words, they start with actions. Due to the gravity of the circumstances, this game began with a video montage of the Boston Marathon and the events following it, leading up to the capture of the bombers and the celebrations thereafter set to Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah.” If you ever want to cry, play that song while you look at anything. A bug crawling across the tabletop will do it. So did seeing photos of the horror and bravery that followed the bombings. Afterwards, David Ortiz, returning from the disabled list to play his first game of the season, and resplendent in a special home white uniform with “Boston” on the front (it would be auctioned off for charity after the game), spoke. I’ll warn you, the quotation uses foul language so if that offends you, you might want to skip to the next section.
Here’s what he said (you find it bleeped amongst the videos here):
All right. All right, Boston. [crowd cheers] This jersey that we wear today, it doesn’t say “Red Sox”, it says “Boston.” We want to thank you Mayor Menino, Governor Patrick, the whole police department for the great job that they did this past week. [pause] This is our fucking city, and nobody’s going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong! Thank you!
In a week full of shocks, I’m not sure anyone expected Ortiz to drop an f-bomb on a national TV audience in a speech. But he did. And, surprisingly, it fit. Move past the label (it’s a “bad” word), and the word conveyed the stridency of the moment, the strength and refusal to give in to fear, and the freedom to express how Boston felt. We are taught that some words are right or wrong, but Ortiz’s diction showed otherwise. It showed that strong words in a time of need can serve a purpose. He wasn’t just swearing for swearing’s sake. His language jolted the crowd, reflected anger, indignity, and refusal to bow to fear. I thought it was perfect. Almost as surprising as the comments themselves, the Federal Communications Commission agreed.
Arguments about linguistics aside, there was a baseball game to play and to reach the level of perfect a game must have great pitching. It’s a foundational requirement. This game did, with James Shields and Clay Buchholz matching zeros for the first four innings, combining to strike out 10 batters to two walks and three singles before the Royals broke through in the fifth. In all, they combined to strike out 14 in 14 innings, while walking four, giving up 12 hits, and three runs.
Shields got the Red Sox to swing and miss 14 times, the whiffs almost evenly distributed between his changeup, slider, and fastball. Buchholz got the Royals fishing seven times. Kansas City held a 2-1 lead before the Red Sox batted in the bottom of the eighth inning.
Like Derek Jeter and other long-tenured star players, Ortiz has become the face of the Red Sox, so it was cosmically appropriate that he would return to the lineup on this of all days. But, it being Ortiz, just returning wouldn’t be enough. In his first game off the disabled list and second game since July 16th of last season, Ortiz stepped into the batter’s box against a pitcher with dominating stuff and singled up the middle to score Jacoby Ellsbury and tie the game in the sixth inning. It was one of those moments that sound cheesy, or hokey, but when you experience it, is neither of those things. At its best, baseball is dazzling with those moments, those small slices of storybook perfection. This fit in the canon perfectly.
Closers are terrible
Maybe it’s that I’ve been reading Baseball Prospectus since the early days and recall the strident thoughts about how teams were mismanaging their bullpens. Maybe it’s that I, like you, have been burned one time too many by closers. Grow a goatee, crank some passé rock music (or a song about a grilled cheese sandwich which is admittedly both better and far, far worse), trot in from the pen while the crowd goes wild, and proceed to torch a three-run lead. That’s the closer game plan. I’ve been there before. You’ve been there before. The entire baseball-watching world has been there before. When it happens to your team, wow it’s terrible, but like any great story needs a story arc, so does any great baseball team need a goat to sacrifice on the alter of redemption. This game had it. But for the specifics, you’ll have to read on.
Some people love that the Red Sox play (or jam into your ears with salad tongs, depending on your point of view) Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline over the loudspeakers before the top of the eighth inning at Fenway Park. But whether you are keen on the idea or not, it has become a tradition that is unique to the Red Sox. The song is so synonymous with the Red Sox that the Yankees and other teams played it in between innings of their games following the Marathon bombings as a show of solidarity.
And so it happened that Neil Diamond himself showed up unannounced to Saturday’s game and requested to sing the song live. He did and, for once, I enjoyed hearing it.
…which always includes an unexpected Hero.
No great game can be great without one defining moment. Somehow that moment wouldn’t fall to Ortiz, or Buchholz, or Shields, or any of the Royals because this is about Boston and the redemption and joy the city wanted, needed to feel, and that this single game, in some small part, delivered. The moment fell to Daniel Nava.
I wrote about Nava last July. If you’re unfamiliar with his story, this should catch you up.
[Nava] was cut by his college team but stayed on to wash the team’s uniforms. He later made the team and played well but was not drafted anyway. He caught on with the Chico Outlaws of the No Chance In Hell League, but only after trying out and not making the team, of course. There he won league MVP honors. This was enough for the Red Sox to buy him from the Outlaws. For a dollar.
Nava played his way up the Red Sox ladder and then the annual Boston Injuryfest took place. The team became increasingly desperate for warm bodies, which was the cue for the Nava theme song. The unlikely occurred on June 12, 2010 when, in a nationally televised game, Nava came to the plate against the Phillies’ Joe Blanton with the bases loaded and the Red Sox leading 2-1 in the second inning. This happened.
“This” was a first-pitch-seen-in-the-majors grand slam on national television. It’s not hard to root for a guy with Nava’s background but it’s even easier when he does stuff like that. It was the kind of hit that might make you jump from the couch and scream “Yeah!” at the top of your lungs in your in-laws’ living room even if maybe you happened to be watching the game with people who might be startled and even taken aback by such behavior. Call it storybook, call it boilerplate, but it was nothing if not amazing.
Now Nava stepped to the plate in a game that felt like it meant more than any regular season game in mid-April should. It felt like the Red Sox were trying to deliver a gift to the city of Boston. Moments before, it had seemed that David Ortiz was about to be that guy again. After a Jonny Gomes double and a Dustin Pedroia walk, Ortiz, seemingly with the game in his hands, failed, grounding into a disastrous double play. Down 2-1, it seemed the game was lost. Then Mike Napoli walked, up stepped Daniel Nava to face Kansas City closer Kelvin Herrera, and this happened.
There aren’t many moments in the life of a 37-year-old man that make him go running through his house waiving his hands in joy. Nava’s homer into the Red Sox bullpen in right field was one of them. It put the Red Sox up 4-2, and gave them enough of a cushion to absorb a solo homer offered up by closer (grr!) Andrew Bailey in the ninth.
Life doesn’t often offer up Hollywood-style endings. Most of time things don’t follow a perfect storyline. But the personal stories of return for David Ortiz and redemption for Daniel Nava seemed to mirror that of the city of Boston. So on a cloudless New England spring day, the Red Sox offered a grieving city a moment of joy. And just for a moment it was perfect.