Boston Marathon bombing victim Steven Byrne waves as he comes onto the field… (Michael Dwyer / AP )
BOSTON -- With a defiant and colorful cry, a Red Sox slugger sparked a cathartic release from Boston baseball fans after emotional pregame tributes to the victims and heroes of the Boston Marathon bombings Saturday at Fenway Park.
For a sports-mad city trying to regain its sense of normalcy, the mantra “Boston Strong” was necessarily joined with another familiar refrain, “Play ball,” as the Red Sox played their first home game since the marathon attacks.
A commemoration before the Royals took on the Sox began with a montage of images of the week’s events set to Jeff Buckley's somber rendition of "Hallelujah." Other touches honored marathon volunteers “pressed into duty in a life-changing and life-saving way,” as well as the first responders and law enforcement personnel.
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Three fans were chosen to throw out the first pitch to represent all of those touched by the bombing -- the good samaritans, the medical professionals, and the runners themselves. They were surrounded at the center of the emerald diamond by Gov. Deval Patrick, other city and state officials and law enforcement.
The crowd reaction, while strong at key moments, was a bit subdued. Even the “new Boston tradition” of having the fans sing the national anthem lacked the punch a similar rendition had before a Boston Bruins hockey game earlier in the week.
And then came “Big Papi.”
David Ortiz, making his return to the starting lineup for the first time this season, punctuated the proceedings with a declaration in keeping with Boston’s persona.
“This is our [expletive] city!” he said. “No one is going to take away our freedom.”
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The roar that followed may not have been heard as far as Watertown, but it was close. And it was just the moment that fans who came to the park were hoping for.
“After yesterday, everybody stayed in, now they can relax, enjoy themselves,” said Ed Lynch, a Fenway Park usher and retired firefighter. “It’s never going to go away, but for a couple of hours, hopefully you can forget it.”
Lynch said he knew many of the personnel who were lining the marathon route when the bombings happened. They are still “upset,” he said. “It’s something you never want to see.”
“Thank God it’s over. We hope it’s over,” he said.
With a near-sellout crowd of over 35,000, security was heightened in and around the iconic 101-year-old ballpark in what was the largest public gathering in the city after a near-lockdown the day before.
According to a team official, a private security firm did a full sweep of the ballpark immediately after the bombings, a second sweep on Tuesday, and then again Saturday before the game.
All fans had to undergo security checks as they entered the park, rather than the typical random searches that would take place.
The Red Sox, though, trailed after the top of the 8th inning, 2-1.
But the team had a surprise in store. On hand to personally lead the crowd in "Sweet Caroline," its unofficial anthem -- "bom, bom, bom," -- was none other Neil Diamond himself. "So good! So good! So good!"
Then in the bottom of the 8th? A three-run home run from Daniel Nava put the team ahead, 4 to 2, and they won 4 to 3.
The center field scoreboard found a lot of smiling faces in the crowd, many on fans wearing red, white and blue beyond the usual team gear.
Throughout the ballpark, the team was also collecting donations for the "One Fund," set up to help the wounded as well as the families of the victims. The jerseys worn by the players would also be auctioned off for the charity.
Mike Benoit, 45, said he couldn't help but notice the extra manpower on the streets. Benoit, who was attending Saturday's game with his wife and two sons, pointed around Yawkey Way to bomb-sniffing dogs, and police not just from Boston but surrounding towns.
Benoit was born and raised in Newton, just west of the city and bordering Watertown. He watched Friday's events play out on television from home all day.
"I've been mad," he said. "For someone to do that to our hometown."
“I was getting scared a little bit,” his son Jeffrey, 11, volunteered, prompting brother Nicholas, 8, to tease: “Scaredy puss.” The two held green flags with the Boston Celtics shamrock logo, and the words "Believe in Boston."
“I think it bounces back pretty quick," Benoit said of his city. Wife Ann-Marie echoed said she was just happy to be back outside. "We all come stand together," she said.
City police officials say that while there were no ongoing threats, extra manpower was being deployed out of an abundance of caution.
The mobilization also was intended to have a psychological effect -- giving peace of mind to fans and others in public places after the week's events shook the city.