CLEVELAND — When the Red Sox left on the team bus to Logan Airport Monday after a Patriots Day victory over the Rays, the trip started like any other, except for the fact that it was early because of the 11 a.m. game.
At some point en route, word spread of the bombings at the Boston Marathon finish line, leaving players and personnel wondering what they’d left behind.
In subsequent days, the Red Sox have used the tragedy to bond and become an even closer-knit group. Most of the team went out to dinner together — 22 strong — upon arriving in Cleveland.
The Sox have have tweeted team photos with messages of support for the victims. With the help of clubhouse manager Tommy McLaughlin, they dressed up an extra uniform that read “Boston Strong” with the 617 area code. They have worn black armbands and spoke about the tragedy in heartfelt words.
The one thing general manager Ben Cherington wanted to do when he constructed this Red Sox team was to bring together good people. He has succeeded. This team is as genuine a group as I’ve witnessed since I began covering the club full time in 1984.
“I’m more than excited to get home,” Will Middlebrooks said. “Be in the city, be with the fans and play in front of them again.”
There were times when the players would care more about their paychecks than life itself. There were the old 25 players, 25 cabs days when it was indeed every man for himself. But this group is much different. The fact they’ve started the season 11-4 isn’t surprising when you notice the chemistry and the togetherness. And it was like this even before Monday’s horrible events.
And so they’re coming back for the start of a 10-game homestand, against the Royals. As we wrote earlier this week, it’s not about the baseball, really. Friday night will be about Boston. It’ll be about a chance to bring a city and a fanbase together to mourn and pay tribute to the victims of the bombings, and the first responders.
“I know one thing, in just talking to guys, I think we’re very much looking forward to getting back home, and that’s not looking past [Thursday night], but I’m sure there’ll be some low-key tribute to those who responded first to the situation,” manager John Farrell said.
“I think as well, based by the example of a jersey being hung in the dugout, that we feel we can contribute to a communal spirit and hopefully create a little diversion for those affected directly. We’re certainly not going to replace what happened, but I think we have a way of helping getting back to some sense of normalcy.’’
Farrell watched the Bruins pay tribute to the victims at TD Garden Wednesday night, and Thursday’s prayer service, at which President Obama delivered an inspirational speech.
“It was great to see what took place with the anthem, and then at the end of the game a tribute to the crowd that both the Bruins and Sabres showed. But to see the passion come out when the crowd sang the national anthem, I think it strikes everyone to see patriotism play out at a sporting event,’’ said Farrell.
We will likely see a similar show at Fenway Friday night. Dr. Charles Steinberg, who plans such events, is not looking for a major production. He’s looking to capture the moment in the most natural way possible. A good bet is that the crowd will join in on the national anthem, and a moment of silence will be observed. It’s a good bet you’ll see some sort of player participation, though no formal show is planned.
But that doesn’t mean there won’t be an impromptu gesture similar to the one at the Bruins game, where the players paid tribute to the fans.
“There are two themes of emotion — solemnity and resilience,’’ said Steinberg. “When people come together to share those emotions it can be therapeutic, which is a role we hope to play.”
“I can’t wait to get back there and be there with our fans,” Dustin Pedroia said. “They’ve been through a lot and it’s nice to be there in one place to honor the people who died and were injured in this horrible tragedy. Everyone was moved by this. It affected all of us in some way, and this will be a sign of unity and support for our city and our team that together we’re going to get through this.”
The Red Sox’ road jerseys sport “BOSTON” on the front. The home jerseys say “RED SOX.” Maybe it would be a good idea to have the Red Sox wear their road uniforms at Fenway for one night.
What the Red Sox don’t want to do is compare this night to the night when baseball returned to Fenway after 9/11. The circumstances were different. Baseball was shut down as our country mourned a terrorist act.
Last Monday’s events occurred in our backyard. It occurred close to Fenway Park, so this should never be compared to anything. It should stand alone.
The tributes and the way they’re conducted will be appropriate and unique.
And no one will ever forget.
As we said, the baseball is secondary. Oh, David Ortiz returns, and the Royals look to be a better team than they’ve been in some time. The Sox will face old nemesis James Shields.
Clay Buchholz will be on the mound.
“I’m looking forward to it and playing in a great environment,” Buchholz said. “I’m at a loss for words. I don’t even know how to comprehend a bunch of it. It’s going to be a special day for everybody.”
Buchholz said it might be hard to keep focus on baseball, but he will “think about my job, and on top of that you’ve got to know what this is all about and why the guys are going to get together and do as much as we can as a Red Sox organization to help out any way we can. It’s above and beyond it being another baseball game.”
He added, “Looking forward to being there and being part of the healing process. It’ll be good for us to get back and be a part of what’s going on there.”
They may have left the tragedy in the rearview mirror that day, but Friday night, they will immerse themselves in the healing.Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.