BOSTON -- To hundreds of New Englanders, these Red Sox already had a special place in their hearts and minds long before the American League pennant was won Saturday night.
This is a season forever woven into the efforts to comfort victims and heal a scared, angry city in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15. The Red Sox's team bus had just left Fenway Park to head to the airport for a trip to Cleveland when the bombs exploded.
That night in Cleveland, 22 players attended a team dinner in which they discussed what they could do to help. To draw lines from an incomprehensible act of evil to a baseball team can be an awkward leap.
Yet, there's absolutely no question the Red Sox played some positive role, just as the Yankees and Mets did in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Players were active in the community. Victims and heroes were honored at games throughout the season. In ways large and small, the Red Sox did what they could to help people cope and to restore a sense of normalcy.
Here's the strange thing about all of this. The Red Sox saw their efforts bring them closer together as people and as a team. They'll surely never completely understand, but players frequently mention the bombing as a defining moment for the baseball team.
"Obviously you're not looking for a national catastrophe to bring your team together," Red Sox reliever Craig Breslow said, "but emotions have run high through this team all season long. Such a strong identity and such a strong personality. That was kind of one event that helped to mold the team as we've seen."
After that team dinner in Cleveland, players hung a jersey with the city's area code (617) and the words "Boston Strong" in the visitors' dugout the next night. Thanks to third baseman Will Middlebrooks and others, Boston Strong became an entire city's rallying cry.
And five days after the bombing, the Red Sox held a touching, emotionally charged pregame ceremony in which first responders, victims and others were honored. Left fielder Daniel Nava hit an eighth-inning game-winning home run that day, and Red Sox slugger David Ortiz told the crowd, "This is our [bleepin'] city."
At that point, this Red Sox season seemed to take on a magical quality as the club sprinted to its first postseason appearance since 2009. Now it's headed back to the World Series for the third time in 10 seasons.
Dr. Charles Steinberg, the Red Sox's senior advisor to team president and CEO Larry Lucchino, said the players have made 470 community appearances this season, compared to 305 in 2012.
Throughout the season, the Red Sox honored victims, visited hospitals and contributed money. There have been moments of silence, and victims and law enforcement officials were invited onto the field for batting practice.
The Red Sox say they're under no illusion about how much they can do. They can't replace loved ones or heal the horrific injuries. But they can reach out to people and be sensitive to their needs. Along the way, they might get something out of the work as well.
"The one moment that stands out in my mind is during the moment of silence in Cleveland following the bombing," Red Sox manager John Farrell said. "And it wasn't so much about on-field performance. We saw some things come out of the individuals that spoke to their understanding that they were in a special place and showed some [character] at a very difficult and unique time."
In the end, no one can know how much the experience contributed to winning. All that's certain is that the work the Red Sox did speaks volumes about their heart. This is an easy team to root for because of the everyman quality of players like Jonny Gomes and Shane Victorino. And in Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox fans have a player who symbolizes the fight and spirit of an entire city.
These Red Sox had so many new players still figuring out what Boston was like and whether they'd like it here when the bombing occurred. In the days afterward, they decided it was a pretty special place.
"Remember 9/11?" catcher David Ross asked. "It was like everyone in this country was a New Yorker all of a sudden. This bombing, it happened a mile from where we live. I'm a Bostonian now."