Opening Day for the Savin Hill Little League is Saturday. The kids will convene at the Little House on Cottage Street, and they'll line up for the parade procession over to McConnell Park. The sound of bag pipes will fill the air in that small section of Dorchester, Mass., just as they do every year. With any luck, the rain will hold off, the sun will shine bright and every kid on the field that day will enjoy his or her part in the tight-knit community's annual tradition.
"Baseball," says Mike Christopher, the league's secretary, "is something that has always been a fabric of our neighborhood."
There is a loss, though, that cannot be replaced -- a loss the people of Dorchester will feel deeply when those innocent children take the field.
Martin Richard, the 8-year-old victim in last week's Boston Marathon bombings, won't be on the field with his Rangers teammates. He will, instead, be memorialized prior to the first pitch, and the shock and senselessness of Martin's absence will still sting.
"He was a special kid," says Christopher, who coaches the Rangers. "And I'm not just saying that because of what happened. There really was something special about him."
I'll be honest: I didn't want to know anything about Martin, and not because I was indifferent to his death or his family's pain. Quite the opposite, in fact.
When news of the three casualties of the terrorist attack began to spread last week and we learned that the youngest victim was an 8-year-old boy there to see his daddy cross the finish line, I deliberately avoided delving into the details. On Twitter, when an image began to circulate of Martin holding a handmade sign -- one that I now know read, "No more hurting people. Peace." -- I didn't click on it. At a family dinner on Sunday, when my sister-in-law mentioned that there are photos circulating of Martin watching the race with one of the bombers in the background, I changed the subject.
Some things are just too terrible to take, and sometimes I, admittedly, try to compartmentalize reality to save myself from the sadness and anger it inspires.
That's what I was doing, deliberately, with Martin's story.
But then somebody sent me the link Tuesday to Pete Thamel's well-reported, heartbreaking piece on SI.com about Martin and the Savin Hill Little League, and I clicked on it. And now I can't stop thinking about the little boy who won't take the field with his teammates Saturday.
He was a little boy, I've come to learn, who loved this sport.
"You know, in baseball, for young kids, it's not an easy sport at that age to really understand the game and really pay attention and just get it," Christopher says. "But the way he played the game, the way he paid attention like I said [in the SI piece], he was a little 'Mr. Baseball.' "
Martin was a pitcher and a first baseman. He was one of the youngest members of the Savin Hill travel team last summer, and his summer coach, Pat Ryan, told Thamel the touching story of the time Martin escaped a relief jam on the mound after Ryan told him, "Throw some strikes, and let's get an ice cream and get out of here."
The kids will have their ice cream Saturday. Opening Day will go on as scheduled, thanks to a spirit of generosity that pervades in Savin Hill.
Just a couple weeks back, vandals raided the Little League's equipment storage trailer, stealing about $5,000 worth of bats, balls, helmets and catchers' equipment. Suddenly, Opening Day was very much in doubt. The league had to set up a PayPal page online to request donations to save the season.
"All the non-profits and a couple companies stepped up," says Christopher, "to the point where we had to cut it off within a few days."
That speaks to how much Little League is valued in Savin Hill. Young guys like the 28-year-old Christopher, who does not have a child of his own in the league, volunteer out of a sense of civic duty.
"It's a very changing neighborhood, but some fabrics have stayed the same," Christopher says. "This is one thing that has stayed the same. I've worked in some government campaigns, and I've looked at change in neighborhoods. This is one of the last things left in the neighborhood that brings people back to the park."
The Richard family lives a couple miles south of Savin Hill, in the Ashmont-Adams section of Dorchester. They were relatively new to the league. But Martin's mom and dad, Denise and Bill, are described as gracious, selfless parents who always offered their time.
"It was always, 'What do you need?' " Christopher says. "If they ever had a question about how we were doing things, it was always, 'How can we help you?' Just super people."
Super people going through unimaginable adversity. They lost their son; their 7-year-old daughter, Jane, reportedly lost a leg; and Denise suffered a brain injury that required emergency surgery.
This is the sadness that will permeate the air on what is normally a joyous day for the people of Savin Hill. Little League is one of those quintessentially American experiences that bonds so many of us. If you've played it, you know the thrill of that day when you pick up your uniform and find out your number for the season or the satisfaction of that ice cream cone or orange slice after six innings of labor in the sun.
Martin was No. 25. His favorite player was Dustin Pedroia. He had a gap-toothed smile, a sturdy swing and great mechanics. He was there for the Rangers' first practice, two days before the bombings.
I know all this now, and I'm glad I know it. Because as Martin's teammates take the field Saturday afternoon, participating in a tradition that bonds a community and a country, I'm going to say a prayer for the little "Mr. Baseball" looking down from above.