By: Bob George/
January 01, 2004

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It's said that Grady Little cannot mow his own lawn. He can't because he can't get his lawnmower going. Why?

Because he can't pull the starter.

Little is now long gone, still unemployed, and still not forgotten by anyone in the northeast corner of the USA. His decision to leave Pedro Martinez in too long in Game 7 of the World Series has relegated Bill Buckner to "I'm off the hook!" status, and it unfortunately became the one event which all of New England will remember from 2003. The Patriots still have a few arrows in their quiver, but their glory days will come after champagne glasses are emptied and the good people of Pasadena, California throw that big ol' parade of theirs. As for the other three major teams, well, we still love 'em, but they can only offer up so much in their current states.

The Red Sox and Patriots simply dominated the sports scene in New England in 2003. The big question everyone should be asking is which of these two teams truly rules New England, the Patriots or the Red Sox? Both teams had banner years and both teams make headlines like McDonald's makes French fries. But the pursuit of Texas shortstop Alex Rodriguez over the last few months has gotten more media coverage around here than the capture of Saddam Hussein. And it must make Patriot Nation scratch their heads in wonder.

Not that the players care. The more anonymity, the better.

With that, we present our top ten Boston professional sports stories for 2003. We hope you all had a terrific year, and that 2004 turns out to be a "super" year for everyone.

#10 -- Danny Ainge named new Celtic GM, May 9

The former Toronto Blue Jay third baseman, famous only for a court-long dash to beat UCLA in the 1980 NCAA March Madness, became a Celtic in the fall of 1981 when Red Auerbach had to make a trade with the Jays. Auerbach showed that he not only can snooker basketball teams, but he's pretty savvy around the baseball clan as well. Ainge came on board, and became the bombardier for the Celtics for the next eight seasons. He played on two Celtic championship teams and made it to the NBA Finals on two other occasions.

Now he assumes the reins as Celtics GM, and has already caused a stir with two huge trades which have reshaped the Celtics immediately. Trading Antoine Walker to Dallas brought Jiri Welsch to town, and he may be the next star in waiting. And the trade for Ricky Brown and Chris Mihm, though at a steep cost, gives the Celtics some excitement and strength down low, as well as another go-to guy to help Paul Pierce out. All things aside, how well Ainge drafts and manages the salary cap will ultimately show his effectiveness as Celtic GM.

#9 -- Red Sox take Yankees to a seventh game, October 15

Losing Game 5 at home was a potentially devastating blow to the Red Sox. They now had to go to Yankee Stadium down 3-2 instead of up 3-2, and the Red Sox were forced to send John Burkett out to the mound against Sox killer Andy Pettitte, who won Game 2 of the ALCS down in the Bronx.

The Sox jumped on top, 4-1, and knocked Pettitte out of the box, which was amazing in and of itself. But, in an eerie foreshadowing of the next night, Grady Little left Burkett in long enough to squander the lead. It was 6-4 Yanks going into the seventh, and some heroic relief pitching by Alan Embree kept things at 6-4.

Nomar Garciaparra led off with a booming triple off Jose Contreras, and came around to score on a throwing error by Hideki Matsui. Manny Ramirez then doubled and came around to score on a base hit by David Ortiz. The Sox took the lead on a bases loaded walk, and cemented the affair with a 2-run homer by Trot Nixon in the ninth. The Sox won, 9-6, and forced Game 7. It was the second win at Yankee Stadium for the Sox in the series, and with Pedro Martinez going in Game 7 on full rest, the pennant seemed to be Boston's.

#8 -- Celtics trade Antoine Walker to Dallas, October 20

Ainge said that he would never trade Antoine Walker when he took the GM job in May. Hah. Walker was sent packing to Dallas with Tony Delk for Raef LaFrentz and Jiri Welsch. Walker has since drilled Ainge in the press, calling him a "snake". It was clear, thanks to Ainge making comments while doing analyst work for NBC, that he didn't like Walker's game. The only problem with this trade was Ainge saying that he wouldn't trade Walker in May.

Thus far, LaFrentz, Paul Pierce's former Kansas Jayhawk teammate, has been injured and will not contribute much to the 2004 Celtics. But Welsch is the man everyone is keeping his or her eyes on. The former Czech Republic player has potential through the roof, and might just become the next great scoring machine for the Celtics.

#7 -- Red Sox land Curt Schilling, November 28

Happy Thanksgiving, Red Sox Nation, said Theo Epstein. On the day after everyone gobbled their turkeys and swallowed their pumpkin pie, Arizona's Curt Schilling, a former Red Sox farmhand, decided to waive his no-trade clause and accept a trade to the Red Sox for Casey Fossum. This trade, combined with the defection to Houston by Pettitte and the retirement (we think) of Roger Clemens, helps boost the Red Sox starting pitching staff ahead of the Yankees in their quest to finally overtake the eight-time AL East champs.

Most people in the know believe that Schilling came back to the Red Sox only because they were intent on hiring Terry Francona as their manager, and that this trade cemented that prospect. Whatever the case may be, the man who was traded in 1988 to Baltimore for Mike Boddicker gives the Red Sox a third solid starting pitcher in the rotation, and if Tim Wakefield wasn't going through some aberration in the ALCS, the Sox might just have the best starting rotation this side of Oakland.

#6 -- Patriots release Lawyer Milloy. September 2

This was a stunning move by Bill Belichick, at least at the time. Milloy was an All-Pro strong safety, and a captain of the Patriots. He signed with the Buffalo Bills practically the next day, who happened to be the Week 1 opponent of the Patriots that weekend. Milloy started, played well, and his side won, 31-0. The Patriots were a stunned and devastated team, and many people thought Belichick blew the entire season right then and there with the move, not only by making it, but by the timing of the move. How insecure and unstable must the players have felt, and they demonstrated it with the worst performance of the Belichick Era.

As usual, Belichick was right. Rodney Harrison was an upgrade at strong safety, but the key here was rookie Eugene Wilson switching from cornerback to free safety and making that position better (over the departed Tebucky Jones). Milloy came back to Foxborough on Saturday, with his team 6-9 and his old team 13-2, and this time his side lost 31-0. The Patriots are now poised for a Super Bowl run, while Milloy joins Drew Bledsoe as Patriot castoffs, wondering "wha hoppen" and thinking about what might have been.

#5 -- Red Sox terminate Grady Little, October 27

Yes, we know. Grady Little was not fired. His option was not picked up.

Same thing, though. There was no way that the affable ("Who knew?") Sox manager could come back after his hideous gaffe in the seventh game of the Yankee series. Never mind his winning record (first Red Sox manager to win 90 or more games in his first two seasons as skipper since Don Zimmer in 1977-78) or his rapport with his players (he got the buzz job after Game 2 of the Oakland series, but so did Epstein). His resistance to mainstream baseball stat analysis, as well as his Joe Morgan approach to game management, was what did him in, and at the worst possible time.

It could be said that Little was a goner anyway, and perhaps the Sox brass would have been stuck if Little had taken the Sox to the championship. This way, the Sox can start anew with Francona and the stat way of doing things.

Which is too bad. Francona and his stats can fail just as easily as Little did. But Francona won't likely fail in the same, tragic way Little did.

#4 -- Red Sox nearly land Alex Rodriguez, December 23

This story dominated the Boston area sports pages for about two months. Should it have?

You were talking about the biggest trade in baseball history. Two twenty million dollar men being swapped for each other. Manny Ramirez for Alex Rodriguez. With A-Rod coming to Boston, the Sox would then send Nomar Garciaparra and Scott Williamson to the White Sox for Magglio Ordonez. Talk about huge. This trade would have made King Kong look tiny.

But it never happened. The Sox had a restructure of A-Rod's obscenely huge contract in place, but union veep Gene Orza rejected the plan, saying that A-Rod could not accept a new deal which reduces the amount of the deal. Without this restructure, the deal fell through. It may be rekindled sometime soon, but both sides are proceeding with their current superstars at the moment.

During all this time, this got all the headlines and not the Patriots and their run to a 14-2 record. Could it be that this region was desensitized to football after the Patriots won it all in 2001, and that the 86-year drought for the Red Sox became even more endearing? Who knows. But this story, which now is a non-story, was hype and innuendo at its all-time worst.

#3 -- Red Sox rally to beat A's in ALDS, October 6

Worry not, Oakland. Cleveland knows how you feel.

It's worse for the A's, though, as they lost their eighth straight playoff series, a series in which they led, 2-0 in games. The Sox lost a demoralizing 12-inning Game 1 to Oakland when their catcher bunted home the winning run, then were handcuffed by Barry Zito in Game 2. The two teams headed back to Fenway, and Kevin Millar broke out the barber clippers and shaved everyone's heads except Johnny Damon's and Nomar Garciaparra's.

Hooray for the barber clippers. Trot Nixon hit a pinch two-run homer in the bottom of the 11th to win Game 3, David Ortiz hit a two-run double (off of new Sox closer Keith Foulke) to win Game 4, and Manny Ramirez hit a three-run jack off of Zito out in Oakland to give the Sox a 4-1 lead in Game 5. Derek Lowe had to put out a raging fire in the ninth, but the Sox held on, 4-3, and won the series 3 games to 2.

#2 -- Patriots gain top seed in AFC, finish 14-2, December 27

We need to get off of this "revenge" kick. But sticking it to Buffalo after what happened in Week 1 was real sweet.

What was sweeter was the Patriots authoring the finest regular season in franchise history. They won 14 games when the old record was 11. They nailed down the top seed in the conference, something they had never done before. They played as efficiently as any team in recent NFL memory. They survived a rash of key injuries, and discovered a draft class that may be the best in Patriot history.

And it further reinforced the greatness of Bill Belichick and his coaching staff. Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel, Belichick's top lieutenants, may not be back next year, but instead may be head coaches somewhere else. The Patriots are the unquestioned best-coached team in the NFL, which has the rest of the league continually denying how great the Patriots are.

Of course, the Patriots cannot afford to lose anymore, now that the playoffs are here. Three more wins, and it's party time again in February.

#1 -- Red Sox lose Game 7 to Yankees, October 16

Enos Slaughter's mad dash. Bringing in Jim Burton to pitch the ninth. Buck Dent's home run. Bill Buckner's error. This one topped them all.

Leading 5-2 and in a position to not only win the pennant, but to do so in the lair of the Yankees (the Red Sox would have been the first team since the 1926 Cardinals to beat the Yankees at the Stadium in both a Game 6 and 7 of a playoff series), manager Grady Little opted to leave in an exhausted Pedro Martinez to pitch the eighth inning. Despite being able to hit 95 mph on the gun, his pitches did not fool the Yankees one bit. Derek Jeter doubled, Bernie Williams singled him in, Hideki Matsui doubled Williams to third, and Jorge Posada doubled both Williams and Matsui in to tie the game at 5. Little then pulled Martinez for Mike Timlin, but the damage had been done. Had Timlin merely pitched the eighth and Scott Williamson the ninth, the pennant likely would have been Boston's, and it would have been the biggest Red Sox win since perhaps Game 6 of the 1918 World Series.

But the Sox could not recover. Mariano Rivera blanked the Sox the rest of the way, and Tim Wakefield surrendered a leadoff home run to Aaron Boone to lead off the 11th. The pennant was New York's, as always, while the Red Sox lost in a legendary manner, as always. Little paid the ultimate price with his eventual release, but Red Sox fans may have paid a worse price in the form of continued despair and regret.

That's it for 2003, folks. Our best wishes for a Happy New Year. May the Patriots once again bring home the NFL Holy Grail, may the Celtics finally find an answer for the New Jersey Nets this year, and may Terry Francona know exactly which buttons to push, and by golly, push them.

As soon as he knows who's playing shortstop and left field for him, he'll have an even better idea of those buttons.