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After tense week, Boston at ease once again

Red Sox bring sense of normalcy, comfort to fans in return to Fenway

BOSTON -- Now we have had a second "first game back after." It happened here Saturday afternoon, and it seemed to work. It came wrapped in the unsettling prospect of a third; some things can't be helped. And the targeted city was different this time; though the haunting sense was and is the same. We're all confounded, frightened and angry. Some of us filed into Fenway Park on Saturday full of resolve, others full of ifs, ands and buts. All of us sensed some emptiness.

The first time, a sports arena, Shea Stadium, was the setting for our first session of post-traumatic group therapy. This time, the despicables used an athletic venue as the stage for their madness. Though the toll was significantly greater 12 years ago, the more recent episode seemed more insidious and ominous.

Shea gave us Diana Ross and Liza Minnelli in 2001, hoping their singing would lift us and turn a page for some. It gave us bagpipes and hundreds of men in city uniforms, cops, firemen and all the others. They shared in the pall bearing, carrying the weight of the world.

Fenway Park was a tad more understated Saturday, if an American flag as wide as the Green Monster can be considered a subtle touch. Far fewer men in blue, though, and "God Bless America" was handled by a state trooper. The pregame singing responsibilities -- "The Star-Spangled Banner" -- were assigned to the thousands who paid to witness the Royals engage the Red Sox.

The Sox smartly -- appropriately -- made celebrities of the folks who were in the midst. Here, in the capital of the Commonwealth, the common man was asked to take a bow for the courage and cooperation he had demonstrated hours before the good guys caught the guy improperly dressed in a white hat Friday.

Shea usually played Lou Monte's "Lazy Mary" in the seventh inning, not that night in September 2001, of course. Fenway has given us Neil Diamond in the eighth since 2002. It did again Saturday, though, in person this time. Diamond flew in from L.A., unbeknownst to the Sox, and led 35,000 in "Sweet Caroline." They sang, "Hurtin' runs off my shoulder" less than a week after pressure cooker bombs had mutilated so many common men.

The Mets 12 years ago and the Sox on Saturday handled it all quite well. Just the right amounts of dignity, pathos, patriotism, celebrity, silence, resolve and residual but muted outrage. Baseball already is skilled and accomplished in these "first games back after," pregame programs. No city or ballpark needs more practice or experience in such mourning-after gatherings.

But "enough is enough" doesn't work any more -- anywhere. There always is another Satan to taint the Tylenol, annihilate a grammar school or drive a lethal pickup into our quality of life and sense of security. If only there was a finish line for evil.

Instead the remedial powers of the summer game were summoned once more Saturday. Raise a pennant, wave a flag. Wave a magic wand and make it all disappear. And hope for favorable forces.

Some were on display here outside the green cathedral Saturday. A representative of the common man turned sharply on the sidewalk separating the ballpark from Van Ness Street, crossed the macadam and embraced a cop. "Thank you, thank all of you," is all he said.

Four giddy teenage girls with obvious origami skills wore hats they had fashioned from white placards distributed by a local radio station. The red Red Sox "B," outlined in white against a circular, navy blue background, was on each placard. The word strong in a powerful, upper-case font appeared under the city's favored consonant. The girls saluted three soldiers dressed in camouflage.

A passerby noted that the presence of soldiers outside Fenway was a security measure usually reserved for visits by the Yankees.

Of course, red, white and blue were the colors of the day, even with the royal blue team in the other dugout. They always are when the Sox are home, though they seemed a tad more vivid Saturday. The entire city was vivid again as if it had been washed in Tide with brighteners, after an odd, inactive and anxious Friday.

Folks on the streets smiled at each other again Saturday. On Friday, the few who ignored the "stay inside" urging of the mayor offered smiles only after they had studied the faces of passersby as a part of some unofficial surveillance. City-wide suspicion had been in effect without order or urging.

Inside Fenway, players and fans were pleased to return to the comforting routine that had been interrupted by the postponement of the first game of the series Friday night.

"I'm so glad to be out here again," Red Sox outfielder Jonny Gomes said to no one in particular during batting practice.

Royals outfielder Jeff Francoeur spoke the identical phrase a minute later before musing about how he and his comrades had rooted against Suspect No. 2 the night before.

"I don't think anyone cared how they got him," Francoeur said, "after what they did. The city was paralyzed yesterday."

Fifteen feet from Francoeur, a father snapped a shot of his smiling son holding a baseball as if it were a precious stone with the Monster as a backdrop. The boy didn't resemble in detail Martin Richard of Dorchester, the 8-year-old killed near the end of the Marathon on Monday. But this boy was young and happy and had a full complement of teeth. His expression tugged at those who linked the two.

Shortly before the game, the center-field video screen began to display photographs of the marathon's premature ending. A series of still shots were, nonetheless, moving pictures that met with applause and cheers. Photos of the governor prompted an exclusively positive response, a Boston-New York dissimilarity. Aside from half-dozen postseason moments, some instances Saturday were as emotional as anything this venerable arena had seen since Mr. Theodore Ballgame was wheeled across the lawn before the 1999 All-Star Game, instances as splendid as the Splinter himself.

The official ceremonies included each team queuing up on the foul lines, a grand re-Opening Day, and a wonderfully written -- by Dr. Charles Steinberg, the Sox's executive VP -- statement that expressed what Fenway wanted to hear. It said, in part:

"Today, we gather as one. And we affirm to ourselves and to each other that we are one -- one community, one nation, one world, full of love, full of compassion and full of generosity. Those feelings, powerful all of them, fuel us with passion. To never quit. To persevere. To prevail.

"We will run another Marathon -- one bigger and better than ever.

"We are one. We are Boston. We are strong. We are Boston Strong."

And it all worked. Boston had stood at attention, rigid and staring straight ahead, not wanting to look, for too many days. It was at ease again Saturday. Baseball had helped it regain its confidence and equilibrium and perhaps added to its swagger. The Sox are in first place, after all. And they won Saturday with Daniel Nava doing in the second "first game back after" what Mike Piazza had done in the first.

Nava's home run came in the eighth and was good for three runs. Piazza's home run against the Braves came in the eighth as well and provided two runs. In each case, the home team won by a run. Huh! So Boston already is healing. So it's not "Bitter-Sweet Caroline" after all. So far, so good, so good, so good.

Marty Noble is a reporter for

Boston Red Sox