Friday, February 01, 2008

New England: We Are The Champions...

January 29, 2008
An Uncommon Wealth of Success Hits Boston

BOSTON — For a city with an inveterate inferiority complex, Boston has been feeling awfully superior lately.

The Red Sox just won a second World Series in four years after an 86-season drought that traumatized generations of New Englanders. The Patriots, already winners of three Super Bowls this decade, are storming into Sunday’s game an unprecedented 18-0. And the Celtics, only months after being accused of trying to finish with the N.B.A.’s worst record, have the league’s top mark at 34-8.

All this winning raises the question: what has Boston lost? If not games — since Oct. 16, those three New England teams have won 87 percent of the time — then perhaps a certain identity the region must now reconsider. Wearing a Red Sox cap or a Patriots jersey no longer identifies citizens as connoisseurs of pain, lovable Charlie Browns to New York’s success-swiping Lucy. Boston’s little garage bands have made it big, and the victory parades are crowded with bandwagons.

“There’s an embarrassment of riches, all these championships; we’re terribly spoiled,” said Chris Greeley, a government-affairs consultant in Boston and who was once a former chief of staff for Senator John Kerry. “Being the underdog was something Boston always liked. It was easier, and it was good for banding together. But now we don’t have a great enemy to point to — New York, we’ve become them.”

Marty Meehan, the chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Lowell who was a former United States Congressman, added: “I have an 8-year-old and a 5-year-old. I wonder if they’re ever going to know what it was really like here for all those decades.”

No city, let alone Boston, has ever fielded a threesome in the most popular national team sports as dominant as the current Patriots, Red Sox and Celtics. The closest — fittingly — was New York from 1969 through 1970, when the Jets won Super Bowl III, the Mets won the 1969 World Series and the Knicks won the 1970 basketball title. But New York had multiple baseball and football teams, which Boston does not. That inspired Carl Morris, a statistics professor across the Charles River at Harvard, to calculate the chances of a monofranchised city having the three best teams in one year: about 1 in 29,000.

“I’m not sure if people here realize how unlikely this thing really is,” Morris said. “No city is ever going to see anything like this again.”

New York celebrated its 1969-70 sports success with a decade of bankruptcy and rampant crime; Boston’s future appears rosier. Paul Guzzi, president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, described the economic impact of the region’s sports success as modest, citing added tourism and spending during World Series games, and impact of the Patriots’ new stadium/mall complex in Foxborough.

Terry Francona, the Red Sox manager for both recent World Series titles, said the benefits of winning were probably more spiritual. Francona grew up outside Pittsburgh in the 1970s, and watched the Steelers and the Pirates win championships in 1979.

“The steel mills were shutting down, and Pittsburgh was going to have to change its identity,” Francona recalled. “People were walking around town wearing the black and gold with pride. Winning made people feel better about themselves.”

If Bostonians are feeling sunnier, they do not always show it at the Harp, a watering hole down the street from the TD Banknorth Garden. Katie McAuliffe has tended bar there for six years and she laughed as she considered the difference in fan outlook. “They’re a lot more bold than they used to be,” she said. “They like to break things more now. I think it’s pent-up frustration — like they don’t know how to handle this.”

Indeed, success can demand some emotional recalibration. Sports columnists for The Boston Globe, who for decades could charitably be described as dyspeptic, now must scrounge for material. And even Champagne loses its allure in six-packs.

“When the Red Sox finally won in 2004, the city just went bananas; it was the greatest bachelor party ever,” said Mark Sternman, a researcher for a state government agency, adding that, “2007 was the best party you could have as a married man.”

The Celtics, of course, spent the 1960s as one of sport’s great dynasties, and became dreadful only recently. (Last spring, the team was accused of losing games on purpose so it could finish with the N.B.A.’s worst record and increase its chances of landing the No. 1 or 2 pick in the draft. The Celtics botched that, too.) The Red Sox have been traditionally competitive, just not good enough to outlast the hated Yankees.

The Patriots’ history has been the most pathetic. Beyond frequent 3-13 seasons, their first true home, Schaefer Stadium, opened in 1971 with massive toilet overflows and barely improved thereafter.

Meehan has been a fan through it all. He has held season tickets since 1984, and he said that winning had changed the Patriots fans’ experience. “There are times when you want fans to get up and remind the team that this is a home game,” he said.

Greeley said that Boston fans today expect more of their teams but less of their players. His father once caught a foul ball off the bat of Ted Williams, but threw it back because he, and most of New England, disapproved of Williams’s sulking and apparent selfishness. Fast-forward to today, when the slugger Manny Ramírez is generally shaky on the field and quite flighty off it, but is beloved for this (and his .300 average).

“Manny would never have gotten away with being Manny 40 years ago,” Greeley said. “Nowadays there’s such emphasis on performance. There’s a whole generation that’s growing up now with so much focus on the winning that they may never appreciate the play and the artistry itself. They’re not being trained to appreciate it.”

At Sully’s Tap, not far from the Harp, Jon Megas-Russell did not agree as he nursed a beer at the weathered counter. A devout Boston sports fan and Celtics season-ticket holder, he said that old, rumpled Fenway Park was better than ever thanks to recent renovations (although some complain that rampant advertising has left the Green Monster looking like a Nascar entry). Also worth it, he said, was having to coexist with frivolous front-runners who jump in the marathon only at the end.

“You don’t lose anything by winning, you only add on,” said Megas-Russell, 25, a sales manager from suburban Somerville. “When they win, it validates what you’ve been doing. It puts the city in the limelight in America. People look at the Pilgrims, but we’ve been in the back seat to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago. This brings us back.”

He added: “A true fan takes it when it’s good and takes it when it’s bad. When Tom Brady retires, the Patriots won’t be as good. You have to live in the moment.”

Boston’s moments, for most of the last century, ended in heartbreak — none more poignant than Bill Buckner’s grounder between the legs against the Mets in 1986. The New Yorker writer Roger Angell encapsulated New England’s perpetual and divine grief in a palindrome: “Not so, Boston.”

Yet as the Patriots enter Sunday’s Super Bowl as heavy favorites — over the New York Giants, naturally — to win the city’s sixth championship in seven years, “Not so, Boston” seems as outdated as those Pilgrims. Backward is forward, and Boston is first.

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