BOSTON -- For most of the week, they were of Boston but not in Boston, symbols of a city struck by a tragedy they didn't hear about until they were on their way out of town Monday afternoon, a tragedy whose aftermath they experienced while playing baseball games on the shores of Lake Erie.
On Saturday afternoon, all of that changes.
On Saturday afternoon, the Red Sox and Boston, intertwined across the country this week and yet never closer to one another than 630 or so miles, will be reunited.
It will be a strange homecoming for the Red Sox, for much has happened since the team last finished a game at Fenway Park.
Four innocent victims have died, as has one of the alleged perpetrators of the attack. Many more -- including the other alleged murderer -- remain in the hospital, some fighting for their lives, others dealing with the loss of limbs.
Beyond the intensive-care units of the hospitals, beyond the homes of the injured and their families, a city, state, and region have been shaken as seldom before.
Funerals must still be held. Unthinkable horror must still be processed. Closure may have started with Friday's killing of one suspect and capture of the other, but the end is nowhere near.
But on Wednesday night, with nerves still raw, Boston turned to a hockey game for refuge. The Bruins delivered on everything but the two points, providing a safe place to channel the confusion, the rage, the unbearable sadness.
Sports can do that for us, still. It seems we don't agree on much in this country these days, but within geographic boundaries, we can agree on the home team.
And on those nights when circumstances demand, it can provide a stage, oddly, for patriotism. The mere singing of the National Anthem can seem not only unifying but defiant if it comes after an attack, the way it did on 9/11, and the way it did earlier this week.
We gather and we project a sense of purpose on our home teams. They're never more our representatives than they are after a crisis, after a shock to a city's - or a country's -- nervous system.
The Bruins seemed to get that part of it Wednesday when they handed over the National Anthem to their fans and got back a version that was somehow proud and mournful at once.
And after the game, in which the outcome hardly seemed worth discussing, the players -- home and away -- saluted the fans, an acknowledgement of the stakes, suggesting the roles had temporarily been reversed.
Yes, the Bruins were saying, we're here for you.
Now the Red Sox get their chance.
It's a given that Dr. Charles Steinberg's pregame ceremony will be done just right, with a respectful touch. But what should be fascinating will be the interaction between the team and the fans.
Because, let's face it, this franchise didn't come into this season with much good will in reserve. They had finished last in 2012 with the team's worst record in almost half-a-century. There was a clubhouse insurrection, which led to a Mutiny on the Bobby. There was a sell-off of high-priced talent (wise though it may have been), and there was yet another managerial change. And, finally, there was a book -- by the beloved former manager -- which further pulled back the curtain on some of the team's internal dysfunction.
Spring training seemed dominated by two topics and two topics alone: 1) When is David Ortiz going to be ready? followed in short order by 2) What's with this Bradley kid? Hope for a successful season was almost nonexistent.
But with the bar invitingly low, the Red Sox began to win games . . . and win back some fans.
It may have started almost innocently, with an Opening Day thumping of the Yankees in which a hustling Jonny Gomes scored from second on an infield hit and celebrated with more emotion, seemingly, than the '12 Red Sox showed all year. It continued with a sweep of the Rays, including two walkoff wins, and a six-game winning streak that has them in first place with the best record in the American League.
Jon Lester looks revitalized. Shane Victorino might be the team's best right fielder since Dwight Evans. Mike Napoli is, for now, healthy and apparently can still hit.
But it was what the Red Sox said and did off the field earlier this week that established a connection with people in Boston. The BOSTON STRONG uniform with No. 617 was a recognition that people back home were watching, needing something.
Gomes, one of the many newcomers, drove the idea for the show of solidarity, with some help from Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
It was humble and human, two attributes few would have associated with this team six months or a year ago, when they were seen mostly as entitled and distracted.
Now, the Red Sox come back to Boston and get another chance to reach out, not for branding purposes but because it's the right thing to do. What's more, they seem eager to do so. That, too, would have been unthinkable as recently as last season.
Back at Fenway, Saturday afternoon. In Boston, not just of Boston now.