As the boys in blue baseball jerseys trooped over the Savin Hill bridge, led by the skirling of bagpipes and a slow-moving fire engine, they saw a row of men standing with hands over hearts, many with moist eyes and all wearing shirts that read, “We are Martin’s Firefighters.”
The Savin Hill Rangers — one player short this year after 8-year-old Martin Richard was killed in the Marathon bombings — held up their hands and high-fived the firefighters, who chanted the team’s name and encouraged the boys to hit home runs.
For Nolan McKenna, 9, a teammate and friend of Martin’s, the outpouring of support at Saturday morning’s annual parade to start the Little League season left him with mixed feelings.
“I am grateful and sad,” he said. “It’s great that so many people have come out to remember him, but I just miss him a lot.”
Under a bright sun, with flowering trees blossoming all around, hundreds of players and parents in the Savin Hill Little League made a mournful morning march through the closed streets of Dorchester to the manicured fields of McConnell Park in Savin Hill.
Along the way, there were signs of support with simple messages, such as “Hope,” and “Love.” Some wore blue-and-yellow Marathon jackets and others held up signs bearing only the number 8, which was also the number Martin wore on his jersey.
Tony King, president of the Savin Hill Little League, said he was confident Martin was there, looking down on all his friends preparing to play their first game.
“We miss him dearly,” he said of the boy who died in the same instant his mother and sister were severely injured; Martin’s brother survived, as did their father, who suffered shrapnel damage to his legs.
“He would have been here today,” King said. “We’re all devastated.”
Shawn McDonough, who coaches the Rangers, described Martin — a utility player who hit two home runs last season and played shortstop, pitcher, and second base — as “always smiling, polite, and absolutely a great athlete.”
“It’s just not right — just not fair,” he said. “It’s really tough now, but we’re never going to forget him. We’ll try to go out and have fun and do what he would have done.”
Many wore red, white, and blue ribbons in Martin’s honor, and the streets were lined with bunting and similar ribbons. Many stood on their porches, in silent prayer as the procession passed. Off-duty police officers wore “Boston Strong” shirts.
Other friends of Martin’s recalled a boy who was as talented a joke teller as he was an athlete. He had a knack for knock-knock jokes, they said.
“He was really funny and happy,” said Andrew Smith, 9, who pitches for the Rangers. “He always smiled.”
Governor Deval Patrick, who arrived late after attending a similar gathering of Little Leaguers in Watertown, doled out hugs and said he came to show his support.
“This community has been shaken,” he said. “I think they need to know we’re still standing with them.”
As the parade made its way past the Vietnamese restaurants and auto body shops on Dorchester Avenue and past the wine bars and pristine gardens along Savin Hill Avenue — all closed off by a large number of state and local police on motorcycles — the North Shore Pipe Band played “Minstrel Boy,” “Wings,” and other dirges in Martin’s memory.
“We felt the need to be here for him,” said Cindy Carrancho, the band’s pipe major.
When the procession made it to the park, where the Fire Department draped a large American flag from the top of a ladder truck, the players gathered around the field, where the league had painted a large number 8 on the grass. At home base, a group of little leaguers held a handmade sign that read “One Team.”
They played the national anthem, and when a local priest said a prayer in Martin’s honor, the young players held their caps over their hearts. An honor guard representing police, firefighters, and paramedics — first responders to the bombings — tossed the ceremonial first pitches.
Before the first games began, James McGee, 8, who joined the Rangers this year, said it meant a lot to him to play on Martin’s team.
“Hopefully, we can bring the championship home for him,” he said.David Abel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.