‘B-Strong’ for democracy as well as security

David Ortiz addressed fans during an April pregame ceremony honoring the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings.
David Ortiz addressed fans during an April pregame ceremony honoring the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings.

The Red Sox are in the hunt. And whether they ultimately win baseball’s greatest prize or not, a glance back over the season will show what already makes this year’s saga one of triumph over adversity — or at least for the team and its host city.

The Red Sox season started well, but something transformative happened on April 15. The game at Fenway Park, a 3-2 victory over Tampa Bay, ended at 2:10 in the afternoon. At 2:49, the bombs at the Marathon finish line exploded. The whole United States was shocked, with Boston itself staggered. But soon, the city declared itself “resilient,” and found an immediate embodiment of that virtue in its beloved baseball team.

On April 19 came the urban lockdown, and the Sox did their part by postponing the game, a potent symbol of a sheltering-in-place population’s serious determination. The next day, after one fugitive was killed and the other captured, Fenway Park was the site of a mass recovery rally that was both solemn and joyous. The eyes of an anxious nation turned to Boston. The dignitaries were there. Neil Diamond sang “Sweet Caroline.” The victims were remembered, the first responders honored. Bats, uniforms, T-shirts, and the Green Monster blossomed with the mantra “B-Strong” — a slight variant of the phrase that the Hub of the Universe had adopted as its latest slogan. A roar could be heard across the city when David Ortiz, fresh off the disabled list, declared, “This is our [expletive] city, and no one is going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong.”


Daniel Nava’s 3-run homer in the 8th inning that day gave the Sox a 4-3 victory over Kansas City, and released what seemed an unstoppable energy. The Red Sox went on to finish April with the best record in the majors (18-8). The athletic energy, combined with renewed fan interest, became synergy, and began to feel as much moral as athletic. When the team that finished last in 2012 finished the 2013 season tied (with St. Louis) for the best record in baseball, the word resilience seemed inadequate to express the marvel. Fate seemed at work here. Boston’s recovery from the Marathon Day trauma, it seemed, was complete.

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Or was it? A second glance back across the same season might also reveal something else: troubling currents obscured by this sports story, and a cautionary tale for the nation.

Was there a “doth protest too much” aspect to “Boston Strong,” cloaking a still-pointed fear of powerlessness? And was resilience the only message this year’s events in Boston sent to the rest of the nation? The near-universal approval of the government’s pursuit of the Tsarnaev brothers had set loose powerful energy of its own, and just at a crucial time. Across America, the Boston bombing sealed a once-unthinkable acceptance of security measures of the kind formerly associated with police states — with, for example, surveillance by ubiquitous cameras and listening devices suddenly seeming wholly justified. Would defense contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency’s PRISM communications intercepts have caused so little public outcry in the United States had they not come in the wake of Boston?

Or what about Guantanamo? The Marathon bombings occurred just as an overdue wave of national determination to close the much-deplored prison was cresting. In early April, a hunger strike at Guantanamo — and the force-feeding of some prisoners — drew wide notice. Americans learned that 84 of the 166 inmates had already been cleared for release. Around the time of the bombings, a national petition was launched , and soon, on May 23, President Obama insisted again he wanted Guantanamo closed. But, after the trauma sparked by the Tsarnaevs, the public indignation was lacking. Why else were the near-starving Guantanamo prisoners abruptly dropped from the broad circle of national concern? There are only two fewer prisoners there now than in April. “Boston Strong” cannot mean Guantanamo forever, can it?

What the Red Sox play is, as the phrase goes, only a game. Yet baseball has been deeply tied to the American soul — especially in the days after April 15, when the Red Sox helped heal an American wound. And there’s the reason not to let the national pastime be part of a regrettable national distraction. Yes, the fragile new world demands unprecedented security measures, but baseball of all things should remind us of core democratic values that need protection more than ever. In that sense, too, go Sox.

James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.