After Thursday’s interfaith memorial service for victims of the bombing at the Boston Marathon, Red Sox president Larry Lucchino walked out of an old church, his ears ringing with the echo of America the Beautiful , performed by a choir.
But another song was on his mind as he spoke with CNN. Lucchino mentioned Sweet Caroline , the unofficial Red Sox theme played by the New York Yankees and several other major-league baseball clubs on Tuesday in empathy with their Boston rivals.
“It was almost surreal,” Luccino said. “I have tremendous fond feelings for my colleagues in baseball and particularly for the Yankees, reaching out as they did. It may not seem like much of a gesture. But to us folks ... it meant a great deal.”
Three spectators died Monday afternoon and more than 100 were injured when two bombs exploded near the finish line of a world-class sports event that is loved as much as a joyous civic festival as for its elite participants.
The blasts came a few blocks from Fenway Park, where fans sing that old Neil Diamond hit every eighth inning. This moment of solidarity underscored the role of music in groups, the healing power of sports during crisis and the mixed bond between fans of Boston and New York, the Athens and Sparta of the East Coast since colonial times.
Fans in both towns nurse long-standing grudges in every sport and sometimes claim to hate each other. Kevin Youkilis, a first-year Yankee who played nine years for the Red Sox, called the playing of the song “a great tribute” after a tragic event and a chance to recalibrate perspective. “The players don’t hate each other,” he said. “The fans shouldn’t either. Keep things civil. Take a step back and consider. In the scheme of life, sports are important, but only so important.”
Perhaps players don’t hate, but sometimes they get very angry. Such a scene took place in January when the New York Knicks played host to the Boston Celtics, two teams that will renew a historic rivalry when they begin a first-round NBA playoff series at Madison Square Garden on Saturday.
In January, superstar Carmelo Anthony of New York tried to confront Boston’s Kevin Garnett after the game near the Celtics’ dressing room and outside Madison Square Garden by the Celtics’ bus.
Later reports indicated that Garnett enraged Anthony by telling Anthony that Anthony’s wife, La La, tasted like Honey Nut Cheerios. Them’s fightin’ words, for sure, but much in tune with what goes in the sports rivalries of the two cities.
In baseball, hostile moments between the Red Sox and the Yankees have involved Youkilis. Beginning in 2007, Yankees’ pitcher Joba Chamberlain developed the habit of throwing hard pitches near the head of Youkilis, who once had to be restrained from charging the mound.
A more ludicrous scene came in the 2003 playoffs when Don Zimmer, the 72-year-old Yankees’ coach and former Red Sox manager, charged from the dugout during a larger brawl and tried to slug Pedro Martinez, a 31-year-old Red Sox pitcher who threw the senior coach to the ground.
But even that incident lacked the visual absurdity of Dec. 23, 1979, when the Bruins climbed over the glass and into the stands at Madison Square Garden after a victory over the Rangers.
A Rangers’ fan had bloodied a Bruin, Stan Jonathan, with a rolled-up program and stolen his stick. Among those entering the seats without a ticket was Mike Milbury, then a Boston defenceman, who pulled a shoe from the foot of the stick-wielding fan and beat him with it (the shoe, not the stick) before throwing the shoe onto the ice.
And New Yorkers recall with ire the machinations of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick. In 1999, he quit as head coach of the Jets after just one day on the job to take over the Pats. The Jets protested and got a first-round draft choice as compensation and the Patriots got very, very good. The Jets? Not so much. But in the past five years, Belichick’s Patriots have met New York’s Giants twice in the Super Bowl and New York won both.
These sports rivalries were set aside the day after the marathon bombing when Yankees’ communications director Jason Zillo suggested playing the song in their Bronx ball park.
The Red Sox, after all, had played New York, New York by Frank Sinatra after the 9-11 terrorist attacks in 2001. When Zillo’s idea for Sweet Caroline was approved, he tweeted the message across the Internet. Other teams joined the chorus, a disparate demonstration of unity among rivals that rarely bond this way. This spread not only through baseball but other athletic venues and it wasn’t just Sweet Caroline .
On Wednesday, before the first Bruins’ home game after the bombing, hockey fans in TD Garden sang the U.S. national anthem at the direction of Rene Rancourt, the usual singer, who sang the first few lines then used his hands to conduct the impromptu choir.
“The song was carrying me, lifting me up in the room,” Rancourt told a Boston radio station the following day. Video shows flag-waving fans wiping tears from their eyes and chanting “U.S.A! U.S.A!”
Canadian hockey fans know all about passionate anthem singing from Roger Doucet’s era at the Montreal Forum to the booming renditions of police officer Lyndon Slewidge in Ottawa. But an anthem vibe is not always joyous.
In the 1991 NHL all-star game, with the United States at war with Iraq, the singing and cheering that rattled the rafters in old Chicago Stadium during The Star-Spangled Banner had an ominous undertone. Flags waved, sparklers sparkled, clenched fists pumped and one sign said “No Flag Burners Here.”
Another popular notion about sports and community bonding is that victorious teams unite troubled cities. This myth is especially rich in Detroit, where it is often said that the World Series championship of 1968 repaired the wounds of the riot of 1967.
Kirk Gibson, now the manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, was a sixth-grader in the Detroit area at the time. “It united the city, it helped,” Gibson said. “It made us all happy and we felt all of us were pulling in the same direction.”
But, Gibson added, “It didn’t unite it forever.” Gibson starred on the only Tigers’ championship since then, in 1984. That celebration included a riot that featured a torched police car. While both titles lifted the spirits of the residents, neither had significant impact on the city’s long-term decline or mentality.
Joel Fish, director of the Center for Sport Psychology in Philadelphia, said even in good times, sports unite “old and young, rich and poor, white and black, city and suburb.” He said sports have taken on greater symbolic significance in recent decades and that the bombing of a sports event added gravitas.
He said the anthem before Wednesday night’s hockey game was “an example of how some tragedy can be an avenue to bond together. This is an example of a real good support system, a very powerful feeling of sharing in that moment.”
According to Heidi Ahonen, a professor of music therapy at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., such a rendition of such a song may mean more than meets the ear.
“Music can make us cry and laugh, weep or dance together,” Ahonen said in an e-mail. “Music can bring us peace or stir us up for a conflict ... Music is so powerful during a grief process. Music has been such a huge part of any emotional events in cultures around the world since the beginning of human history.”
Suzyn Waldman, a veteran colour analyst on Yankees’ radio broadcasts who grew up in Boston as a Red Sox fan, said Canadians might logically compare the New York-Boston rivalry in baseball to hockey in cities such as Toronto and Montreal.
“In this rivalry,” she said of baseball, “I don’t think there’s really a hatred. Maybe I’m a little naïve.” While growing up in Boston, Waldman spent marathon days by the course, cheering siblings, friends and local legends. “I used to wait for Johnny Kelley the Elder,” she said.
Waldman started the New York phase of her life as a singer in Broadway musicals. Ironically, her first role was in the chorus of No, No, Nanette , the revival of an old musical that plays a mythical role in Boston-New York lore.
A longstanding tale, now disputed, suggested that Harry Frazee, the Boston owner and Broadway producer, financed that show with funds obtained for the sale of Babe Ruth from the Red Sox to the Yankees before the 1920 season. In fact, the show came years later, but Waldman nevertheless enjoys its irony in her career arc.
She admits “belting” the words and tune when Sweet Caroline plays at Fenway Park while her network is doing commercials. When asked what she likes so much about it, Waldman replied: “It’s like baseball. It’s personal. It touches your heart.”