Magic in the Air

It started late in the second period Sunday afternoon, when Zdeno Chara blocked a shot, the Bruins’ killed another penalty, and Milan Lucic struck moments later, putting the home team up 3-1 and reminding the upstart visitors that the winners of the Presidents’ Trophy had awoken from their Game One slumber.

It continued just before seven that night, when double-amputee Jeff Bauman walked out of the left field gate and onto the Fenway Park grass on prosthetic legs, a man risen onto new feet after an unthinkable year of pain. A couple hours later it kept going, when the magnetic Jonny Gomes drove a three-run homer just inside the left-field foul pole, cutting a 5-0 deficit to two and galvanizing the listless Red Sox toward an impressive comeback.

Finally, it reached its height just before noon on Monday, somewhere around Mile 23 of the Marathon, when American Meb Keflezighi’s lead over Kenyan killer Wilson Chebet was down from over a minute to barely ten seconds, when the 38-year old from San Diego remembered the names of the victims written on his bib, opened his ears to the exhortations of strangers, and found the unfathomable strength to make history.

My friends, there was magic in the Boston air this weekend.

The three parallel stories ascended from the impressive to the improbable to the impossible, and by the time Keflezighi draped the stars and stripes around his shoulders on the now-hallowed ground that was once ground zero, anyone from Bangor to Bridgeport with a pulse for sports remembered just how special it is to live in New England. 

We love to joke about religious fandom here, but it’s hard to find a better word than resurrection to summarize what happened in a 24-hour span starting Easter afternoon. First, the Bruins resurrected their series and their image as Stanley Cup favorites. Then, the Red Sox resurrected their silent bats and the comeback spirit which defined them in 2013. And finally, Keflezighi resurrected the tradition of U.S. distance running, becoming the first American to win Boston in 31 years.

The first was, of course, the most likely success story of the trio. It would have been far more shocking, in fact, for the Bruins to have lost Sunday and gone down 2-0 heading to Detroit, but after the Red Wings roundly outskated the B’s in Game One, it seemed all too possible. 

We needn’t have feared: the sleeping giants awoke on Sunday, setting a wholly different tone from the fast and tight-checking Friday affair as they bullied the smaller Wings early and often, no moment more iconic than Chara’s laugh-fest at the expense of Brendan Smith’s dignity. The Bruins backed up their physicality with a dominant special teams performance as an injury-plagued penalty kill rallied for a 4-for-4 showing and the power play capitalized on two of four. This series is a long way from completion (aren’t the playoffs awesome?), and as long as Pavel Datsyuk is terrorizing the neutral zone, the Wings will have a fighting chance. But make no mistake: if the Bruins can sustain the level of physical and efficient play they showed Sunday, they will win. And if Detroit shows resilience at home and this thing goes six or seven before the B’s triumph, watch out: the Black and Gold rode the momentum of last year’s first-round marathon with Toronto all the way to the finals, and this 2014 unit is the more talented of the two. The swagger is back for the Bruins, and the next month could be a whole lot of fun. Let’s be glad it only took one game for them to wake up.

On to the Sox. I’ll be honest, it was personal for me this weekend. My dad and I were at Fenway for Patriots’ Day last year: we parked at Alewife and took the T in on a beautiful bustling holiday, watched the boys rally and win on a Mike Napoli walk-off, then found ourselves amidst the marathon chaos moments later. It wasn’t until we’d hoofed it back to our car and turned on the radio to a steadily rising injury count that we started to realize how close we’d been to history.

So we came full circle on Sunday night. For me, there wasn’t much need for healing by now. A year of Boston Strong tributes, a redemptive World Series title, and my good fortune of not knowing anyone majorly affected had taken care of that. I was excited to see our beloved UMass Marching Band perform in the pregame remembrance ceremony, but was far more eager to see if the Sox could keep their winning ways going. Having recently read the outstanding story of his recovery from the NY Times, however, the moment finally became emotional when I saw Bauman working his way toward the infield on crutches and his new prosthetics, when I considered once again just how profoundly his and so many other lives were altered, how no amount of pomp and circumstance could give him back his legs, or give Lu Lingzi’s parents back their daughter.

And baseball? The game itself may be insignificant, but never underestimate the communal power of sport. The Red Sox inspired more than enough last year, but for a few crazy hours on Sunday, they did it again. With some help from the Orioles’ defense and the league’s new interpretation of the transfer rule, they pulled off the kind of miracle comeback that typified the 2013 team of destiny.

And they almost did it again on Monday. After Clay Buchholz cast a new wave of doubt over his health by spotting the O’s a 6-0 lead, the Sox clawed their way back once more only to come up a run short. And you know what? It’s okay. It’s almost better that it happened that way. This team needs to know that it isn’t 2013 all over again, that they’re a long, long way and a lot of hard work from the Promised Land. For all the sweetness of Sunday’s win, it was more gift than triumph, a momentary throwback from the baseball gods. As the axiom goes, momentum is only as good as the next day’s starting pitcher, and Buchholz halted any positive feelings promptly. Clay is a shell of his pre-injury 2013 self, his velocity way down and his command not good enough to compensate like it did in the playoffs. We could well be in store for another maddening and drawn-out trip to the DL, folks. It’s time we forgot about the ace Buchholz could have been. 

The good news: we have the extra arms with Chris Capuano, Brandon Workman, etc. And more importantly, the offense is slowly warming up with the weather. The fact that we scored six late runs Monday signifies far more than the end result. If we can keep stringing together the quality at-bats that led to this weekend’s rallies, and if Shane Victorino and Will Middlebrooks can get up to speed quickly as they return from injury, then the reawakening begun in Chicago and continued at home will be complete.

Now, finally, a quick word on the weekend’s greatest triumph of them all. Others have already written far better than I could about Keflezighi’s miraculous victory, but the significance of it cannot be overstated. To the world of American running, it was the Impossible Dream, a perfect race run by a deserving champion, and, with the event’s heightened media coverage, a chance for the sport to gain some new momentum. To Boston, and to the entire nation which wrapped our city in its arms, it was a coronation beyond our wildest hopes, a final feel-good story where there was no business being one. It wasn’t the true fairy tale: that script would have involved Marblehead native Shalane Flanagan holding onto her impressive pace and winning the women’s title. But the narrative of Keflezighi overcoming injury and age, then channeling the support of a million spectators to pull off the unthinkable is amazing enough. There couldn’t have been a dry American eye on Boylston Street as the Star-Spangled Banner played.

That’s the power of sport, folks. And my fellow New Englanders, that’s the power of our region’s pride. We are in the midst of a Golden Age, and these magical couple of days are its latest chapter. We are home to the Stanley Cup favorites, the defending World Series champs, and a race that captured a nation’s hearts. If you’ve been napping, like the early-season Red Sox or the Bruins in Game One, wake up. The greatest sports city of them all is more alive than ever, and it’s never been better to be Boston Strong.

Cover photo credit: espn.go.com

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