Almost immediately after the final out in Boston’s ALCS-clinching victory over the Tigers on Saturday, Game 6 hero Shane Victorino found himself on camera. The subject of a postgame interview in front of a national TV audience and somewhere around 37,000 ballistic Red Sox fans packing Fenway Park.
“Bases loaded in the seventh,” began FOX's Ken Rosenthal, wearing one of his signature bowties. “You were 2-for-23 at that point in the series. What’s going through your mind?”
Victorino laughed, shook his head and laughed again. He was almost at a loss for words.
“Too much emotion,” he finally said.
Then, with seemingly nothing else to add, he raised his right arm, pointed to the Fenway crowd and screamed:
“Boston! Boston Strong!!”
In reality, Victorino’s choice of words probably didn’t matter all that much. Sox fans had just watched their team clinch a spot in the Fall Classic for only the third time in nearly 30 years. In the big picture, while nothing will ever touch the drama, passion and significance of 2004 -- when the Red Sox snapped an 86-year World Series drought -- it was Boston’s most unlikely American League crown in nearly 50 years. And at this very moment, Victorino, who jacked a seventh-inning grand slam to put the Sox over the top, was the man responsible for getting them there. He owned that crowd like mid-80s Springsteen at the Meadowlands. He could have yelled anything —
“I am a Golden God!”
“These pretzels are making me thirsty!”
And Fenway would have eaten it up.
But it’s no surprise that Victorino said what he said. Or, that he said it again no more than 10 seconds later.
“You know, it’s just one of those things,” he told Rosenthal. “I came here, and people counted me out. People said I was done. But ... there was something inside of me that wanted to prove something. That’s why I came here. Boston Strong!!”
And the crowd went wild.
The origin of “Boston Strong” isn’t a mystery. Unfortunately, everyone is well aware of the background. It was a phrase born out of the most devastating event in the city’s modern day history, the bombing of the Boston Marathon. It was fueled by anger, defiance and desperation. Eventually, it was a rallying cry, and a source of strength at a time of incomprehensible weakness.
Looking back now, it’s almost silly to think that those two words — Boston Strong — made even the slightest difference in helping an entire city cope with the lost lives, peace of mind and faith in humanity left in the wake of the attack. But they did. It was real.
In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, Boston Strong was more than just something you said. It was something you lived. And with that lifestyle came a much needed sense of pride -- a sense of hope, unity, freedom and power. And, at the same time, an overwhelming sense of guilt founded on the knowledge that while a majority of Bostonians had been afforded the opportunity to stand tall, hold their ground and boldly refuse to let the attack dictate their way of life, others weren’t so lucky. And that, in the end, it really was just a matter of luck. There was no rhyme or reason to who lived and died. Who walked away and who would never walk again. Which parents picked up a phone when the news first broke and heard the words, “Mom. It’s OK. I’m here. I’m safe,” and which ones never got an answer.
That was, and still is, the most difficult aspect of the whole Boston Strong mentality. Call it survivor’s guilt. Call it the guilt of survivor’s guilt. Call it knowing that this was the right thing to do. To come together. Be tough and say, “Screw the terrorists. They can’t hurt us!” All while understanding that, deep down, they already had. That while the city as a whole had to move on and resume some semblance of a normal life, for so many people, normal was gone and never coming back.
But regardless of that sad truth, Boston did need to move on. Boston has moved on. And through it all, as it always does, sports played a major role in that process.
At the time, just based on the calendar, combined with the intensity, passion and unbridled aggression that comes with playoff hockey, the Bruins really became the face of sports in post-bombing Boston. Marathon heroes and survivors, and that rallying cry — Boston Strong! — were as much a part of that team’s run to the Stanley Cup Finals as the players themselves. Not to say that the tragedy was the driving force behind their success, because that’s not reality, but in the moment, it was easy to lose sight of that. Especially on the heels of the Bruins' unprecedented comeback in Game 7 of the first round of the playoffs against Toronto, even the biggest cynics in a city with more than its fair share found themselves getting caught up in words like fate and destiny, and the idea that something bigger than hockey had a hand in the team’s run towards their second Stanley Cup in three years.
When the Bruins fell short of the title, and did so in such heart-breaking fashion, it hurt. But, more than anything, it was a reality check. A reminder that it was impossible for there to be a fairy-tale ending to this story. Not because the Bruins choked, but instead, because this wasn’t a fairy tale. It was real life. It was tragedy. And that, win or lose, sports are only sports. They can’t erase painful memories. They can’t make limbs reappear. They can’t reunite parents with their children. This wasn’t a lesson that Boston necessarily needed to learn, but it was impossible to ignore. And it would never be forgotten.
As the Bruins made and eventually wrapped up their run, the Red Sox were chugging along, doing their part to help restore that sense of normalcy. But while David Ortiz’s “This is our f*****g city” speech will forever be remembered as one of the most powerful and cathartic moments of the entire Marathon tragedy, the truth is that the Sox never captured the city’s emotions at the level that the Bruins did. This was due in some part to the nature of the sport and the general apathy associated with the first few months of an incredibly long season. It was due in some part to the state of the Red Sox, the ugly drama of the previous two seasons, and the fact that at a time when Boston was in desperate need of genuine comfort and support, there was little to be found in an organization, more specifically, an ownership group, that had most recently treated the city with obvious contempt and disrespect. But despite that, the team certainly played a role in the recovery.
First, by just being there. The beauty of baseball, especially in times of need, is that they’re out there every day. In Boston, summer is defined by the Red Sox's mere existence. It doesn’t get more normal than having them on TV virtually every night. Seeing the lights on at Fenway. Fighting through traffic jams that start in Kenmore Square and extend out to every major intersection.
The second thing the Sox did was win. More than anyone ever imagined, and in ways that no one could have dreamed. They did it the right way, too. With players you could believe in; with values, passion and a level of professionalism that any fan could get behind. And through it all, that sense of Boston Strong was still prevalent. After all, the Sox were there, out in the trenches, during those trying days and weeks after the tragedy. Even if they played second fiddle to the Bruins, they’d adopted that Boston Strong mantra from the start, and that’s not the kind of thing you just abandon. It’s a part of who this team is, and who they’ll always be.
But by the time the city came to understand and truly believe in what this team was capable of — as June turned to July and August and September and now October — a lot changed. So much time passed. Today, while the concept of “Boston Strong” is forever ingrained in the city’s culture and will be a part of everything Boston does from here on out, it’s taken on another life. At one point, those two words were something people needed just to get out of bed in the morning. Today, it’s just everywhere. It’s everything. It’s become more of a catch phrase than a way of life. Something vendors use to push merchandise. Something performers scream out at concerts at Fenway and the Garden when they’re looking for an easy applause. Something athletes throw out as filler when there’s nothing else to say, and even when there is. And when they do, the city will cheer. Because of course they will. There’s no other way to react. But that reaction, and the whole idea of Boston Strong, is not what it once was.
It no longer defines Boston’s struggle, it defines Boston’s existence.
And you know what? That’s OK. That’s just the nature of anything. It doesn’t change what happened. Nothing will. It doesn’t take away from how much that mantra helped Boston through the hard times. It doesn’t make things any better or worse for the victims still living through those hard times. It definitely won’t affect how much the city invests in the World Series. How much they’ll celebrate if the Sox win, or how deeply they’ll grieve if the Sox fall short.
If anything, it’s just a sign of progress. A sign of how far Boston has come.
It’s an understanding that whatever the future holds for this city, no matter how good or bad, whether in sports or any aspect of life, the bottom line will never change.
It will always be “Boston Strong.”