By: Bob George/BosSports.net
January 01, 2003

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For one glorious year, Boston fans sat on top of the world.

The throne was very comfortable. Not having sat there since 1986, the fans of the six-state region were able to hold the scepter and regard their kingdom with dignity and pride. The feelings generated at the beginning of 2002 were as positive as had ever been felt in the lives of everyone who either still lives here or used to at some point in their lives.

It's twelve months later, and all that's left of that feeling is the knowledge that if the situation ever came up again in the future to ascend to that throne, Adam Vinatieri could merely do it again. Not only is Vinatieri one of the more outstanding human beings you'd ever want to meet, he has established himself as big a big time player as anyone in the history of sports. In these parts, you'd have to go back to at least Larry Bird and then John Havlicek, Bobby Orr and Bill Russell to find such Boston sports icons with as much big game prowess. The Celtics delivered the most titles, but Vinatieri delivered the one that will ring in the minds of New England sports fans as long as they live.

We now give you the top ten New England sports stories for the year 2002. Some honorable mentions are in order, as not every notable event could make this list. Gillette Stadium opened this year, which may have more of a time etching itself into everyone's good graces given the acoustic and logistical issues and the impact of the old crib's finale. Red Sox Nation lost its golden voice of yesterday, Ned Martin, who died a short time after the Splendid Splinter left the earth. Future Governor-Elect Mitt Romney ran an impeccable Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, an event which helped propel him to the top office in the Bay State.

With that, here's our best for 2002. Enjoy, and our best wishes for a prosperous 2003.

#10 - Theo Epstein hired as Red Sox GM

All right, already. Not yet thirty. The Boy Wonder. Wasn't born yet when Luis Aparicio rounded third, slipped and fell, and cost the Red Sox a division title.

Forget this age thing. Epstein has hit the ground running. He did everything to try and sign Jose Contreras short of kidnapping him and holding him at gunpoint. If nothing else, his failure to sign Contreras has triggered what is shaping up to be a marvelous rivalry between Larry Lucchino and George Steinbrenner. You look at what has happened thus far, and you can't really fault Epstein one bit. What can you do when you offer more money and the Cuban takes less because he simply wants to play for the Yankees?

Epstein scored big the other day when he acquired former Yankee reliever Ramiro Mendoza. He also got second baseman Todd Walker and first baseman/DH Jeremy Giambi. He is also hot on the trail of Montreal's Bartolo Colon. Acquiring the latter without giving up a king's ransom would be a major coup for the rookie GM.

But what Epstein really needs to do is perhaps the one thing that the Yankees can't impact: develop the farm system. The Sox simply have to develop their own young talent, because they will never outbid the Yankees on anything they also want. Besides, not all the Yankee talent was acquired elsewhere (Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte, Mendoza, Alfonso Soriano). The Red Sox need to do the same, and that should be the early focus of Epstein's tenure as Sox GM.

#9 -- Bruins fall in first round of playoffs

The Bruins made a sudden return to the top echelon of NHL teams in 2002. They were the best team in the eastern conference based on points, and figured to make a serious run at the Stanley Cup.

Until they ran into a familiar postseason foe in the first round.

Thanks to a Dryden-esque effort from Jose Theodore and some Lafleur-esque performances from Donald Audette and Saku Koivu, the Bruins were sent home in six disappointing games by the Montreal Canadiens. The Bruins simply forgot how to play defense, and their offense went into the tank.

Wilbraham's Bill Guerin would play his last six games as a Bruin in this series. But the Bruins have at least settled on a core for the future in Joe Thornton, Sergei Samsonov, Brian Rolston and Josef Stumpel. Still, the Bruins are in desperate need of a super scorer and a top-flight goalie to make a serious run at the Cup some day. This series once again bore that fact out, as Theodore almost single-handedly sent the Bruins home with their tails between their legs.

#8 -- Patriots fail to make playoffs in defense of their title

What's this? Patriot Nation expected their team to suddenly win every Super Bowl in the future?

Won't happen, folks. Following two stunning wins over Pittsburgh and the Jets to begin their Super Bowl championship defense, the Patriots stumbled to a 9-7 mark in '02. The Kansas City Chiefs exposed the Patriots as old and slow and unable to stop the run in Week 3, and it set the tone for the rest of the season. The Patriots spent the rest of the season squeaking by crummy teams and getting stomped by top teams.

It was too much to expect a repeat of the magic of 2001. With much the same cast back, Bill Belichick expected the guys to go out there and stick it to everyone again. Instead, the rest of the league stuck it to the Patriots, with the home faves being the hunted instead of the hunters. That right there makes all the difference in the world.

It did come down to the final weekend, but it was the hated Jets who knocked the Patriots off their throne thanks to some exotic tiebreakers. The Patriots missed the playoffs after their Super Bowl win, the first team in three years to do so.

Oh, well. The Rams did worse.

#7 -- Celtics make it all the way to the East Finals

The Great Remembering.

Ah, nothing like wistful memories. It was truly enjoyable to see the current incarnation of the Celtics make what should have been a run to the NBA Finals and another showdown with the Lakers. Seeing Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker running things on the floor, with Jim O'Brien in charge as a masterful head coach, was something that had to be seen to be believed.

The Celtics defeated longtime playoff nemesis Philadelphia in five games in the first round. Then they went to Detroit and took care of still another playoff nemesis in six games. In just eleven games the ’02 Celtics had exorcised all sorts of demons over the years. The Celtics, who have been ravaged by death and lousy ownership in recent years, were poised to make their return to the big time.

All that stood in their way between them and an unbelievable shot at the finals were the NBA's version of the Ford Edsel, the New Jersey Nets. The finals seemed certain when the Celtics took a 2-1 series lead with one of the more amazing games in team history. The Celtics trailed the Nets by 26 points in the second half of Game 3 but rallied to win. But in the end, the Nets pulled themselves together and won the final three games to advance and get trounced by the Lakers in four straight.

But the Celtics were back. And the Great Remembering continues.

#6 -- Drew Bledsoe traded to Buffalo

Shoot, if Bobby Orr can play for someone else, why can't Drew Bledsoe?

In one of the more improbable trades in region history, Bledsoe was sent off to the Buffalo Bills on the second day of the 2002 NFL Draft. The Bills sent the Patriots their first round pick for 2003, which turned out to be the #14 pick in the draft. The man who was destined to be the greatest player the franchise had ever known merely shuffled off to Buffalo, and he helped make the Bills an instant playoff contender.

But the fact that this trade was even made necessary is still another element of how magical the 2001 season was. Tom Brady's rise to the starting quarterback position will be one of the great folk tales in the long history of this region. This sort of thing simply doesn't happen. But happen it did, as Brady made re-inserting Bledsoe back into the starting slot simply impossible.

Did the Patriots do the right thing? Sure, Belichick laid two whammies on Bledsoe in '02 when the teams met. But Brady did not enjoy the same success he did in '01, though it really wasn't his fault and he does still possess the solid leadership qualities the team needs. And Bledsoe, though Pro Bowl-bound, wasn't the saviour he was made out to be. The true impact of this trade won't be felt for a few years down the road.

But the impact of his leaving was certainly felt. It was sort of like an atom bomb.

#5 -- Dan Duquette fired as Red Sox GM

Anyone shocked by this move?

Despite delivering the Red Sox three postseason appearances in a five-year span in the late 1990s, the first thing new owners John W. Henry and Lucchino did was to can this guy. The ink was barely dry on all the legal documents of transfer of ownership, and the pride of Dalton was out the door.

On the one hand, in addition to the aforementioned playoff years, Duquette brought some decent talent to Boston. Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon were some of the biggest plums of all. Trading for Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe was the best Sox trade in recent years. The development of Nomar Garciaparra, Trot Nixon and Shea Hillenbrand were further positive aspects of the Duquette reign.

Unfortunately, it was all the negatives that did in the Duke.

Letting Roger Clemens and Mo Vaughn walk without getting anything in return. Misjudging Clemens' ability at that stage in his career in the first place. Alienating established veterans who were acquired by previous GMs. Having lousy people skills which not only torqued off the media, but other GMs around the league who simply refused to deal with him and the Red Sox in the future.

In the end, Duquette symbolized all that was wrong with the Sox, though many folks will say that that "honor" goes to John Harrington. He had to go, and how quickly he was sent packing was both amazing and totally expected.

#4 -- Derek Lowe tosses no-hitter

It took 36 years for the Sox to finally get someone to toss a no-hitter. And it took only 12 months to get another.

Hideo Nomo shocked the world when he blanked the Orioles in Game 2 of 2001. For the second April in a row, a Red Sox pitcher turned the masterpiece trick, as Derek Lowe did in the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on April 27th. It was the first Fenway no-no since Dave Morehead in 1965, which up until Nomo's '01 gem had been the most recent gem by any Sox pitcher.

Lowe no-hit the hapless Rays with ease. It was one of the easier no-hitters in recent memory. But it helped launch Lowe on a marquee 21-6 campaign where the former Seattle reliever nearly won the Cy Young Award. Lowe, along with Mr. Pedro, became the first dual 20-game winners for the Red Sox since 1949.

It wasn't the beginning of something special for the team. But for Lowe, who started the 2002 All-Star Game in Milwaukee, it was the zenith of what has been a remarkable career. He has been a long man, a terrific setup man, a terrific-then-horrid closer, and now a 20-game winner with a no-no. He has literally seen it all, and he continues to grow in folk stature in this fair city.

#3 -- Sale of Red Sox to Henry and Lucchino completed

Can't blame Charles Dolan, Miles Prentice and Joe O'Donnell for giving it the old college try.

It seemed like a stinky deal, engineered by Bud Selig just to get one of "his boys", Henry, in the inner loop of MLB owners. Stinky as it may have been, and as much as Red Sox Nation would have preferred O'Donnell to get the team, so far the sale has turned positive for the Red Sox.

Their first act was to oust Duquette. They have made themselves more accessible to the media and the public. Fenway was made into a more fan-friendly park. NESN added pre- and post-game shows, which turned out to be terrific elements of the broadcasts (though Jim Corsi needs to take a few broadcasting lessons). Henry even befriended Bob Kraft, and had the Patriot owner over for a few games. Members of the Super Bowl champs helped welcome in the 2002 season at Fenway.

But other challenges loom on the horizon. Lucchino has thrust himself dead smack in the center of the Sox-Yankees rivalry, which is not a bad thing. Ticket prices are still way too high. Many fans are worried that Henry may order the Sox to slash payroll some day and rid the team of high-priced talent. Being rebuffed in their attempt to sign Billy Beane as GM was a major blow, though Epstein seems a nice fallback. What to do about a new ballpark may ultimately define their legacy in the region.

So far, so good. At least top players are wanting to play in Boston again.

#2 -- Ted Williams passes away

The entire region got incredibly poorer on July 5th.

He was the sports icon to end all sports icons. He was Boston Sports personified. People in years to come will remember this guy longer than they will John Winthrop.

The Kid was the last of the .400 hitters. He was one of the greatest fighter pilots in the history of the nation. He was the greatest fisherman the nation has ever known. He also was the greatest asset the Jimmy Fund has ever known.

To Red Sox fans, Ted Williams was the Red Sox. More than that, Williams was baseball, period. The conclave at the pitcher's mound at the 1999 All-Star Game proved that point. Teddy Ballgame was the king of baseball.

And he was a man who indeed fulfilled his lifelong dream. When I walk down the street, I want people to say, "There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived." That he was, plain and simple.

Like the drama of the Homer In His Last At Bat, Williams was larger than life. In death, he still is. He will continue to be Boston Baseball, and forever have the legacy he so dearly sought to have.

And thank goodness the fighting over his remains is over for now. It's still hard to believe that his ashes never got dusted over the seacoast of Florida. Their family business is not ours, but it sure would be nice if that's where you'd find The Kid these days.

And this corner of the Nation believes that that's what he really wanted.

#1 -- Patriots win Super Bowl XXXVI

To this day, it's still just as unbelievable as when it happened.

The Patriots sat at 5-5 after a 24-17 loss to St. Louis at home in November of 2001. That would be the final loss of the season for the Patriots. They won their final six regular season games, won the AFC East, and got a first-round bye thanks to an improbable combination of teams losing that broke just right for the Patriots.

The Patriots played the Oakland Raiders in the snow at what would become the final game at Foxborough Stadium. It turned out to be the finest game in stadium history, with Vinatieri kicking two of the most clutch field goals in league history to give the Patriots an overtime 16-13 win. This divisional playoff game is more famous for the "tuck rule play", where a Charles Woodson sack of Brady produced a fumble which Greg Biekert recovered. But after replay review, referee Walt Coleman ruled that Brady's arm was going forward and did not tuck the ball away, and the Patriots stayed alive.

The Patriots then went to Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship, and stunned a cocksure home crowd by winning 24-17. The Steelers and their fans were aghast at losing a game they thought for sure they'd win. The Patriots had two special teams touchdowns, and Bledsoe, in his final act of glory for the Patriots, replaced an injured Brady and threw a touchdown pass to David Patten. Bledsoe wept openly as he took the final snaps, and the Patriots punched their ticket to, as Otis Smith would say, "The N-O!"

The Patriots pounded the St. Louis Rams into submission, hitting their fast receivers and totally intimidating them all game long. They ran up a 17-3 lead thanks to an interception return by Ty Law and a Brady pass to Patten. But the defense tired in the fourth quarter, and the Rams tied the game with two late touchdowns.

With 1:21 left and no timeouts and perched at their own 19, Brady led the Patriots to the Promised Land. Three passes to J.R. Redmond and a 23-yard toss to Troy Brown set up Vinatieri from 48 yards out. Snap. Placement. Kick. Champs. Patriots 20, Rams 17.

It was the greatest Super Bowl of them all, and the Patriots were the winners. The celebrations and good feelings that followed were simply marvelous. The Patriots left their permanent mark on the region, and for a team that was greatly mocked under the Sullivan regime, they are champs forever, chumps no more.

And what they did for the region in 2002 was a priceless gift that will be cherished forever.

That is, until Automatic Adam is called upon to merely do it again.


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