Commentary

'Boston Strong' ... Sox have lived it

Red Sox players have made it a part of their lives to visit marathon survivors

Originally Published: October 18, 2013
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Jeff BaumanAP Photo/Elise AmendolaJeff Bauman was one of the many people who was severely injured at this year's Boston Marathon.
  BOSTON -- Dr. Charles Steinberg, the cherubic, perpetually upbeat force behind the Boston Red Sox's community relations department, keeps a different kind of statistic than the ones compiled by the Harvard and MIT whiz kids populating so many front offices these days. With a flick of his smart phone, he glances at a screen and confirms that the 2013 Red Sox made 470 community appearances this season -- one of the highest totals in his eight-year tenure with the club and easily surpassing the 305 appearances by the 2012 squad.

Each visit and human interaction has helped create a ripple of positive sentiment, through hands held, smiles shared and the simple act of listening. This was an extraordinarily challenging summer in Boston, and it took a monumental level of cooperation for the team to raise spirits and make an impact.

On April 15, after the final game of the Red Sox's first homestand, the Boston players boarded a bus to Logan Airport when they received word that multiple bombs had exploded on Boylston Street near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. As medical personnel sprang into action to treat the survivors and local law enforcement officials mobilized to apprehend the perpetrators, the Red Sox players searched for ways to express their concern and best wishes to the folks back home.

The term #BostonStrong gained traction on Twitter and spiked as a cultural phenomenon when Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks shared it with his followers. The players hung a Red Sox jersey bearing the phrase "Boston Strong" and the city's 617 area code in the visiting dugout at Progressive Field, and sent along quotes and tweets of support from Cleveland. A few days later, when the team had returned to Fenway, Neil Diamond dropped in to sing "Sweet Caroline" and David Ortiz gave an emotional speech in which he warned terrorists not to mess with Boston because "this is our [expletive] city."

But it didn't end there. Not even close.

Over the ensuing six months, while compiling the American League's best record, the Red Sox did more than just serve as a welcome diversion. In many ways, Fenway Park has been a sanctuary and a safe haven for the people who were most profoundly affected by the marathon tragedy.

On May 7, Patricia Campbell threw out the first pitch while flanked by members of the Medford (Mass.) High School softball team. Some people close to her said it was the first time they had seen her smile since her daughter, Krystle, died in the bombings.

The Red Sox have held moments of silence, first pitch ceremonies and quiet meet-and-greets behind the batting cage since April. Before Game 1 of the American League Division Series, they honored victims, medical personnel, police and rescue people to the strains of Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah" over the public address system.

Elizabeth Mitchell, a doctor who helped oversee emergency treatment at the marathon site, sang the national anthem before the American League Championship Series opener last weekend. The following night, Adam Davis and his wife, Adrianne Haslet-Davis, ushered in the start of the game by shouting "Play ball!" behind home plate. He's an Air Force captain who served in Afghanistan. She's a dance instructor who lost part of her left leg in the explosion, but has vowed to dance again and one day compete in the Boston Marathon.

Quietly, persistently and generally outside the limelight, the Boston players have sought out the human side of the stories they follow in the media. They've visited hospitals and talked to victims, and gained an appreciation for the fortitude that ordinary people can summon under extreme duress.

"I don't think you can find anybody in Boston who doesn't love the Red Sox," said second baseman Dustin Pedroia, "so we're responsible in the worst of times to try to help out."

General manager Ben Cherington and other team officials use the word "organic" to describe the team's response. In some ways, the mobilization effort evokes memories of the New York sports teams and their reaction to the 9/11 tragedy in 2001.

"When the players came back from Cleveland, they wanted to go visit hospitals," Steinberg said. "We were happy to arrange it, and they said, 'No, no, no. We want to do it ourselves.' They broke up into five groups of five and went to five hospitals. We said, 'We'll get you the cars,' and they said, 'No, we want to do it ourselves.' They take the initiative.

"With this team, you see the cohesion. It has resonated with them, especially when you watch their compassion with the families of the wounded and the families of those who are lost. It's been quite an emotional journey for so many people."

Learning to walk again

Heather Abbott, a 38-year-old human resources worker at Raytheon Company in Rhode Island, is one of the many faces of hope and courage from April 15. She was standing outside a Boston restaurant with friends when the bomb detonated, and suffered a major injury that eventually forced doctors to amputate her left foot. Former New England Patriots linebacker Matt Chatham, who was attending the marathon, helped care for Abbott at the scene and make sure she was loaded onto an ambulance as quickly as possible.

Heather Abbott
Winslow Townson/Boston Red SoxHeather Abbott had her left foot amputated after a bomb detonated near her while she was watching the Boston Marathon back in April.

The watershed day in Abbott's recovery came on May 11, when she left the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital to go home and dropped by Fenway Park to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. It was Rhode Island Day at Fenway, and she would be leading the festivities.

Small and subtle acts of kindness permeated the day. A man who identified himself as "Wheelchair Willie" greeted Abbott upon her arrival, and another Red Sox staffer held an umbrella over her head to shield her from the rain. Abbott's friends showed up carrying a banner and wearing T-shirts with the inscription "Heather Strong." The game was delayed by the inclement weather, so the stands were almost full by the time Abbott took the mound.

That wasn't necessarily good news for Abbott, who laughingly says, "I'm not the most athletic person." She had practiced throwing with her physical therapist, and when the time came, she was ready. Rather than throw from her wheelchair, she hopped to the mound on crutches and tossed the first pitch to catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. They exchanged hugs, and shortly thereafter Ortiz came over to chat and sign a baseball.

When Abbott returned to Fenway Park for a reunion ceremony during the ALDS against Tampa Bay, she gained a better appreciation for the concept of ballpark-as-social support network.

"I saw the same ball girl who was there the first time, and she looked at me and said, 'Oh my God, you're walking,'" Abbott recalled. "I hadn't seen her in a while, and she seemed really emotional about how far I've come. There's definitely a connection that they've kept going through the season. It wasn't just a onetime ceremony."

Abbott's indomitable spirit has helped her rebound from the physical and emotional swings of losing part of her leg. She has three prosthetic devices and is in the process of acclimating to a fourth -- an Oscar Pistorius blade-like attachment that will allow her to return to running.

During her time in the hospital, Abbott met a young boy from Rhode Island who was suffering from epilepsy. She encountered the boy's mother at a baseball game in Newport, R.I., later in the summer when she was throwing out the first pitch, and learned how it feels to be a role model.

"He told his mom, 'Heather doesn't have a leg, and I saw her throw out the ball and smile. If she can do that, I can too,'" Abbott recalled. "I've been pretty good about not getting too emotional about all of this. But sometimes it's hard to do."

The savior in the cowboy hat

Carlos Arredondo is, in many ways, the face of selflessness amid unspeakable tragedy. Clad in a cowboy hat, jeans and gray T-shirt, he charged into the fray to help a young marathon spectator named Jeff Bauman whose legs had been severely injured in the blast. The photograph of Arredondo and emergency volunteers pushing a battered and bloody Bauman in a wheelchair remains an enduring and iconic image from the chaos.

[+] EnlargeDustin Pedroia
David Richard/USA TODAY SportsRed Sox players as a whole have strongly taken to the "Boston Strong" theme ever since the bombings.

Arredondo, a Costa Rica native, has called Massachusetts home since 1980. At age 19, he came across the Mexican border in search of opportunity, and settled briefly in California before linking up with friends in Boston. He worked in typewriter repair before finding work in truck and heavy equipment painting.

Through the years, his life was shaped by profound personal loss. Arredondo's older son, Alexander, a U.S. Marine, was killed in action during a tour of duty in Iraq in 2004. His younger son, Brian, became grief-stricken over Alexander's death and struggled with depression and drug addiction before committing suicide in 2011.

Arredondo and his wife, Melida, are doing everything in their power to help families who might be at risk or are coping with similar circumstances. They work with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and a Boston-based non-profit organization called Samaritans that has a similar mandate. The Arredondos work closely with military families and try to raise awareness and help veterans who might be at risk for suicide.

Alex and Brian Arredondo were hard-core Red Sox fans, and they would have looked on with pride during the events of May 28, when their dad and Bauman threw out first pitches on a beautiful, crisp spring day in New England. The Boston Bruins also honored the two men, and when Arredondo received the Madeline Amy Sweeney Award for Civilian Bravery at the Massachusetts State House in September, Bauman was on hand for the ceremony.

During the ceremony at Fenway two weeks ago, Arredondo looked at the police officers and amputees, doctors, nurses and others whose lives were irrevocably changed on that April day in Boston and felt a sense of togetherness that's difficult to express with mere words.

"My god," Arredondo said. "You looked around that room and saw the people and everybody's faces, and they all had a feeling of healing. Then we walked out on that field and had thousands of people cheering for all of us, for who we are and what we represent. Boston Strong -- that's what we represent."

Jonny Gomes When we put our heads together and wanted to do boots on the ground, so to speak, we wanted to make it as personal and real as
possible.

-- Red Sox outfielder Jonny
Gomes on visiting victims

Even though soccer is the sport of choice in Arredondo's native Costa Rica, he has taken a rabid interest in the Red Sox's pursuit of a pennant. He and Melida reveled in watching Ortiz's grand slam off Joaquin Benoit in Game 2 of the ALCS at Fenway, and felt the emotional letdown when the Boston bats fell silent in Detroit. "There's so much intensity in the games," Arredondo said. "I can feel it over my whole body."

The fear, anger and rampant confusion that dominated that April day in Boston have since been channeled into something more enduring and profound. The Arredondos, through their activism and kindness, have discovered a new extended family.

"The Red Sox organization and the fans at Fenway have really been supportive and kind," said Melida Arredondo. "They've been inspiring. I know Carlos is uneasy around the word 'hero,' but I see a lot of young men who are Brian and Alex's age who come up and say, 'You done good.' Those are good feelings that we all share. It's like the song says: 'I Love That Dirty Water. Boston, You're My Home.'"

Doing their share

Early on, the Red Sox players determined that the more low-key and intimate the interactions, the greater the impact. Very few if any of the meetings with survivors or the first responders were publicized or staged. Indeed, the Boston players preferred it to be just the opposite. More often than not, they left the uniforms and memorabilia behind and went in street clothes.

"When we put our heads together and wanted to do boots on the ground, so to speak, we wanted to make it as personal and real as possible," said outfielder Jonny Gomes. "The Red Sox have done a great job, but we didn't want them to tweet out where we were going. We didn't want WEEI or the Globe to tell people where we were going. We didn't want the pub. We just wanted eye contact and to have it be from the heart."

Gomes, Craig Breslow, Middlebrooks and Saltalamacchia were among the players who seized the initiative in the outreach effort. When the players saw footage of the Boston Marathon blast, they recognized a neighborhood where many of them dined or shopped or spent idle time just roaming with their families. Their home was under attack, and they took it personally.

Saltalamacchia grew up in Florida, where sports are an integral part of the culture. But he's never seen anything quite like the passion on display in Boston. Outsiders might roll their eyes at the phrase "Red Sox Nation," but it's a very real phenomenon to those who live it.

[+] EnlargeHeather Abbott
Courtesy of Winslow Townson/Boston Red SoxAbbott threw out the first pitch at a Red Sox game earlier this season.

"When you step on the field with that Boston jersey, it's a whole different feeling," Saltalamacchia said. "Whether you're doing good or bad, they're still passionate. Whether they boo or cheer for you, they love you. You can't find that anywhere else. It's the only city I've ever been in that's that way."

Through the events of this summer, Saltalamacchia has made personal connections that transcend signing a game program or tossing a ball to a kid over the roof of the dugout. During one hospital visit, a father recounted his efforts to make sure his 3-year-old son was safe amid the chaos. The father scooped up the boy in anticipation of running, then looked down and discovered, to his horror, that his leg was shredded so badly he couldn't move. How can anyone hear that story and not be changed forever?

"That's what it's about," Saltalamacchia said. "This is our livelihood and we're here to play and win, but at the same time, we can't forget about who's out there supporting us. The city is one, and we have to be there to support them. At the end of the year, yeah, we'll fly to different places. But we're still a team and still a family, and we'll always remember this."

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer

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