DORCHESTER, Mass. -- The whirl of fire truck sirens and blaring of bagpipes drowned out the usual hum of the Southeast Expressway traffic on Savin Hill Avenue. Saturday was opening day for the Savin Hill Little League and, as is tradition, the ballplayers walked in a procession from the Little House on East Cottage Street along a roughly one-mile parade route to McConnell Field.
It was a patriotic scene, straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting -- a portrait quintessentially American and definitely New England. That scene has played out for years in Dorchester, but Saturday meant all that much more.
Baseball has always served as a rite of spring, particularly in Boston, where opening day signifies a victory over the cold, dark winter and the promise of finer days ahead. Saturday was one of those days with the sun shining bright. The gentle breeze off Dorchester Bay carried the scent of salt water, a beacon of not-too-far-off beach days.
On opening day, 8-year-old Martin Richard should have been playing for the Minor League Rangers. He was to wear No. 8. He would have played first base, or perhaps toed the rubber as the opening day starter. He would have been among the nearly 200 pairs of tiny footsteps walking along the parade route with his family. But Martin was killed April 15 in the Boston Marathon bombings.
A pall fell on the community, particularly at the Savin Hill Little League, where the Richard family has become a fixture. The unimaginable loss has only been compounded by the injuries inflicted on Martin's mother, Denise, and his 7-year-old sister, Jane. While the community grieves, they're also praying for recovery.
"Kids need to know they don't have to cry every day," said Tony King, president of the Savin Hill Little League, after Saturday's ceremonies.
The parade was led by a vintage police paddy wagon and a Boston Fire Department pumper truck. An honor guard displayed the colors of the United States, the Commonwealth and the City of Boston. Parents toted their youngsters along, with baseball bags draped over shoulder, cameras in hand to capture the memories. Mothers rolled younger ones in carriages and dads sported baseball caps with the Little League's "SV" logo stitched in the colors of their respective teams.
Along the route, people poured out of their homes. Heads darted in and out of three-story tenement houses. Some folks were perched on second-floor balconies with morning coffee in hand. Some were taking their dogs for a morning walk, but stopped to join the onlookers.
When the caravan reached the Interstate 93 overpass, it was met by a tunnel of Boston firefighters. All of them work at firehouses in Dorchester -- many of them are lifelong residents.
Jerry Powers, 37, also a resident of Dorchester, stood on the opposite side of the normally busy thoroughfare. He coordinated the actions of the men and women standing at attention, many of them with their own children at their feet. When the colors passed, all saluted. When the Little Leaguers and parents passed, all placed hand over heart.
"We wanted to come and support Dorchester," said Powers, whose 8-year-old son, Liam, plays baseball at the nearby Cedar Grove Little League. "We're here for the Richard family. We want to show everybody what this community's all about."
Kathryn Stanish stood with her sister Vikki on the corner of Savin Hill and Playstead Road, waiting for the parade to make its final turn toward McConnell Park. They wore matching navy blue T-shirts with "Dorchester Strong" printed in white lettering. They were on the lookout for their brother and sister who were playing in the pipe band along with their nephew, Shane, a Little Leaguer who instead chose to play with the band on Saturday.
"He's the little midget right in the middle there," Kathryn said as the group from the North Shore Pipe Band passed. "There he is!"
When the parade met its terminus, it spilled into McConnell, its participants passing through the gate underneath a gigantic stars 'n' stripes hung from the extended boom of a Boston Fire ladder truck.
King, 29, was master of ceremonies for the on-field gathering. He invited a parish priest to offer a blessing before observing a moment of silence for Martin. The reverend asked those assembled to trace out a letter "B" in the air, imploring the crowd to "Be faithful" -- a nod to the "B Strong" motto. "The Star-Spangled Banner" was sung, as was "God Bless America." Local dignitaries and legislators offered remarks before three first pitches were thrown by a Boston Police officer, a fireman and an EMT, all Dorchester natives.
After a rousing ovation, King took the microphone again. He announced an effort to extend donations made in the league's name to the Richard Family Fund. Just weeks ago, Savin Hill Little League was robbed of $5,000 worth of equipment. Donations flooded in and all that was lost has been recovered and then some.
"It just shows you what this community is all about," King added.
King gave the ceremonial "Play Ball!" invocation and the crowd dispersed. He plugged the opening day matchups between the Braves and Expos and the Giants and Athletics. "Both rematches of last year's championship games," he exclaimed.
King said he's been a part of opening day festivities at Savin Hill for more than two decades, playing between the ages of 5 and 15, and spending the last eight years as a coach and administrator. He has no children, but the Catholic Memorial graduate fits a common mold among the roughly two dozen volunteer coaches who return to give back to the organization that helped shape them.
He now finds himself in additional roles, as many coaches do at times.
"Out of the 200 children [in the league], there are a hundred, 99 others who need our attention right now," King said. "If Martin were here, nobody would know who he was. He'd just be another little boy playing baseball.
"We glorify him, just like we do every one of these kids."
King lives in Dorchester with roommate and "lifelong best friend" Mike Christopher, 28, who manages Martin's Rangers team. It's been a trying week for all, but they've tried to maintain a stiff upper lip -- for the kids.
"They're tough people and they're resilient," Christopher said of the Richard family. "They're going to have a lot of support to get through this with. We'll just try to be there for them, that's all you really can do."
In the outfield, which is shared by several of McConnell's fields, a baseball was outlined in paint with an "8" in its center. The words "Boston Strong" were stenciled below it. To its right was a memorial band with Marathon-themed blue and yellow paint. Kids tossed the ball around before their games.
Lisa McDonough looked on and chatted with a friend. McDonough's 9-year-old son was among those making their season debut on Saturday.
"Look at them, they have no cares in the world, running around, playing ball, having a good time, enjoying the sunshine," she said. "It's been a long winter, it's been a long week -- a lot of emotions, high and low."
"We're taking it day by day. But the kids think they're superstars for a day."