December 31, 2009
End of Best Decade In Boston Sports History
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
It was the best of times.
Charles Dickens babbled on a bit more, but fans in this area can stop it right there when the subject of this decade in Boston sports comes up. Following the Celtic championship in 1986, which was merely the 16th in a long bloodline of champions, Boston area teams went into a long slumber which carried through the rest of that decade and all the way into the 1990s. Boston fans are a loyal lot, but not a patient lot, and while the support for the teams never completely left, certainly the presence of these teams as well as the intensity for their support waned quite a bit.
The Red Sox hadn't won anything of consequence since World War I, but the 1978 Bucky Dent home run and the 1986 Bill Buckner error defined the team more than anything good they had ever done. The Patriots made two runs at the Super Bowl and were bludgeoned at one and shanghaied by a traitorous coach at the other. The Celtics were devastated by the deaths of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis, hired several wrong coaches and let the one good one get away. The Bruins will still never win anything as long as Jeremy Jacobs owns the team.
Then came Y2K, and as the old office supply store commercial said, "Who knew?"
Six championships. Two franchises that are the models of their league. Teams that their fan base can be proud of. Ownership that, for the most part, is as solid as a rock and committed to winning championships and keeping fans happy as well as the bottom line. An explosion of new ways to cover the teams, both on the Internet and on cable television. In short, Boston was the place for sports in this decade, and perhaps no city in the USA saw this sustained run of success over this long a time like this area saw.
Instead of coming up with the ten best sports moments of 2009, we came up with a similar list for the decade. These are the ten most significant moments of the decade in Boston sports. Granted, six of them are world championships, and that's about right. But there were some special sidebars which went into those titles, and deserve due recognition.
Some honorable mentions were pretty impactive and deserve at least some discussion. The Red Sox made the momentous decision to trade Nomar Garciaparra in 2004, and then traded Manny Ramirez in 2008 because keeping either player was actually not in the long term best interests of the Sox. The debacle involving Grady Little and Pedro Martinez which lost the 2003 AL pennant has been buried by the two championships the Red Sox would later win. Hiring Bill Belichick as Patriot head coach in 2000 was a smart move by Bob Kraft, but at the time a lot of fans wanted Dom Capers. The Celtics had quite a rally against the New Jersey Nets in Game 4 of the 2002 East Finals, but the Nets went on to win that series. Losing Red Auerbach in 2007 shook the foundation of the Boston sports landscape. And the Bruins playing in this Winter Classic at Fenway Park is quite the event, but that will have to wait another ten years before it can make this sort of list.
Here now is the ten best from this great decade. Read it, sit down and reminisce, then think for a second and wonder if these teams can possibly come close to matching it in the 2010s. Happy New Decade, everyone, and wherever you may be ten years from now, hopefully you'll be ten years wiser and happier rather than just older.
#10 -- Henry, Werner Group Buy Red SoxYes, this was a bag job by Bud Selig and MLB. Yes, most of you wanted concession mogul Joe O'Donnell to buy the Red Sox instead of some Marlins guy and some Padres guys. And who is this kid named Theo Epstein?
You cannot argue that this ownership group did all the right things in taking over from John Harrington and the Yawkey Trust in 2002. With the Tom Yawkey bloodline officially severed, John W. Henry and Tom Werner set out and immediately changed the way things ran on 4 Yawkey Way, starting with the firing of Dan Duquette. Along with president Larry Lucchino and general manager Epstein, the ownership team made several upgrades to Fenway Park, brought in just the field manager they wanted, made the team more fan friendly and fan accessible, and most importantly, brought two World Series wins to their fan base.
Today, Fenway Park is no longer a subject for replacement. NESN has become a powerful and glitzy regional sports network, now in competition with ComCast SportsNet for your attention. Terry Francona may be the biggest miracle worker in the history of sports in this area. And the Red Sox are a yearly contender for World Series wins. No longer the celebrated losers, the Red Sox have brought a new sense of pride to the area, and it begins with the management group.
Sorry, Joe. Henry, Werner and Lucchino did all the right things and are integral parts of this community. These guys deserve a big thank you from every member of Red Sox Nation.
#9 -- Kevin Garnett comes to Celtics in mega-tradeJuly 31, 2007. The Red Sox acquire Eric Gagne from Texas at the trade deadline for Kason Gabbard, David Murphy and others. Nobody took notice. Why, you wonder?
Because over at 150 Causeway Street, the Celtics had a major announcement of their own. Celtics GM Danny Ainge did a little business with his former teammate, Minnesota GM Kevin McHale. Kevin Garnett was coming to Boston for Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes and five others. About a month prior, the Celtics got guard Ray Allen from Seattle for Delonte West and Wally Szczerbiak. Almost instantly, the Celtics were relevant again. Another big three. And most importantly, championship contenders. Almost instantly.
It is a scene which is indelible in the eyes of Boston sports fans. Paul Pierce and Allen attended the presser. There they were, the three of them, Garnett, Allen and Pierce, holding up those green jerseys with their names on them. The first words out of Garnett's mouth were "It's Paul's team!" Hoo boy, thought Celtic Nation. Happy days are here again.
While Gagne gagged at Fenway, Garnett did all he was asked to do. Perhaps the biggest tribute to Garnett was how poorly the Celtics did without him in 2008-09. Bill Russell professed his adulation for this guy, and offered to give him one of his rings if he never won a title in Boston. That became a moot point, of course. It turned out to be the biggest Celtic trade since McHale and Robert Parish came to Boston for Bob McAdoo. Garnett knows full well that to become a "real Celtic", he needs to win more than one title. We'll get back to that subject sometime in June.
#8 -- Mo Lewis' hit on Drew BledsoeYou cannot forget that Drew Bledsoe almost died from that hit, it was that bad. But the Patriots changed forever after that hit, and it turned out to be the most fortuitous injury in the history of Boston sports, if not all of sports.
This was the first Patriot game after the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington. Joe Andruzzi came out with American flags, and his FDNY brothers were honored in the pregame ceremony. The game was blah, as the New York Jets were in the process of beating the Patriots, 10-3. With 5:11 left in the game, facing third down and ten at the Patriot 19, Bledsoe scrambled to his right and tried to head for the first down marker. Mo Lewis met him at the 27 and blasted him with a jarring hit that sent the quarterback sprawling out of bounds. The Patriots got the ball back after a three-and-out, and Bledsoe came out to play, not knowing how hurt he was. The drive lasted three plays as Kevin Faulk lost a fumble on third down.
After still another three-and-out by the Jets, Tom Brady came into the game. He was drafted in the sixth round the previous year out of Michigan, spent his rookie year fourth on the depth chart, but rose to second in 2001. Brady had a 20-5 record in Ann Arbor but had to share playing time with Drew Henson. Sick and tired of having to deal with quarterbacks named Drew, Brady came in and nearly led the Patriots to a game-tying drive. His desperation pass to Charles Johnson as time expired went long, and the Patriots started the 2001 season at 0-2.
But Bledsoe would never get his starting job back. Bledsoe had suffered a collapsed lung and internal bleeding which was nearly fatal. Brady embarked on a season which would find him Super Bowl MVP and champion at season's end. Brady is destined for the Hall of Fame someday, while Bledsoe was relegated to basically mediocre seasons with Buffalo and Dallas to end his career as a good but not great quarterback. Most of all, Brady's ascension to starting quarterback transformed the Patriots into something they had never been, that being an elite NFL franchise. Everyone except a few scant media members who are still loyal to Bledsoe knows darn well that the Patriots would never have achieved this success under Bledsoe.
And everyone knows darn well that Belichick could never have made that kind of position switch without Lewis' hit on Bledsoe.
#7 -- Patriots defeat Carolina in Super Bowl XXXVIIIThis is like a middle child in the family. The oldest gets all the fanfare, the youngest is spoiled rotten, the middle child is often times forgotten or thought of as nondescript.
In the case of the three Patriot Super Bowl wins, the first one was euphoria times one thousand, the third one was historic in that it was three wins in four years and elevated the Patriots to dynasty status. The middle one? It was one of the best games in Super Bowl history, featuring one of the best quarterback shootouts you'll ever see anywhere.
Both the first and third quarters were scoreless. Then the Patriots would score, and the Panthers would answer. Brady throws a touchdown pass. Jake Delhomme throws a touchdown pass. Brady throws another one. Panthers get a 50-yard field goal as halftime hits. In the fourth quarter, the teams put up five touchdowns and a field goal. Delhomme managed to throw an 85-yard touchdown pass. Both Patriot safeties had to leave the game with injuries. Panther head coach John Fox twice went for two-point conversions and missed both. One touchdown pass by Brady was thrown to a linebacker.
The game came down to the final possession with both teams tied at 29. Brady had 1:04 and three timeouts. He overcame a Troy Brown offensive pass interference penalty and managed to drive the Patriots to the Carolina 23 with eight seconds left. Adam Vinatieri, who had missed his previous two field goal attempts in the game, duplicated his feat from two seasons prior with a game-winning 41-yard field goal to give the Patriots the win and their second Super Bowl title in three seasons.
Carolina gave the Patriots more problems than most experts had predicted. But Brady further cemented his legacy as a top shelf quarterback, and Vinatieri as the best clutch kicker in NFL history. The Patriots were once again NFL champs, and weren't done bringing Vinces to Foxborough for the decade.
#6 -- Red Sox Win 2007 World SeriesAfter an 86-year wait, it took only three years for the next one.
The idiots in 2004 gave way to the dancers in 2007. This was about riverdancing and Irish jigs. Jonathan Papelbon became the comic relief to the 2007 Sox like Kevin Millar was in 2004. But in 2007, Papelbon didn't have to deal with any curse or had to yell to anyone who would hear, "Don't let us win tonight!" The Red Sox did have to pull off another comeback like 2004, but the road to this title was a lot easier than 2004.
The Sox won the AL East and had 96 wins, tied for most in the AL with Cleveland. The Sox swept the Angels in the ALDS, then fell behind 3 games to 1 against the Indians. But Josh Beckett, who had World Series pedigree with the 2003 Florida Marlins, rallied the Sox with a strong game in Game 5 in Cleveland, and the Sox pummeled the Indians in Games 6 and 7 at Fenway to win the pennant.
In the World Series, the Red Sox took on a red hot Colorado Rockies team which had won 21 of 22 games going into the fall classic. The Sox took advantage of a rusty Rockies team and blitzed them in four straight to win their second World Series in three years. There were two blowouts and two one-run games. The Sox celebrated at Coors Field in Denver, then came home and had a parade that, unlike 2004, stayed on terra firma and did not wind up in the Charles River.
Guys like Papelbon, Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Beckett and Jon Lester had nothing to do with the 2004 title. These guys looked like the core of many more championships to follow. Along with vets David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Jason Varitek and series MVP Mike Lowell, the Sox were invincible in 2007 and seemingly poised for a run at sustained greatness.
#5 -- 2007 Patriots make a run at 19-0 but fall one game shortNever mind the unforeseen ending, this was one unbelievable season, one that may never be seen again.
The Patriots looked rather foolish in letting their two best wide receivers, David Givens and Deion Branch, skip town and head to other teams. Branch has had some success with the Seattle Seahawks, but Givens' career came to an early end with a string of injuries at Tennessee. The Patriots replaced them eventually with Randy Moss and Wes Welker and brought them in for the 2007 season.
Then the fun started.
Moss, known more for man-child antics and a wasted talent during his years in Minnesota and Oakland, came to New England with a mandate to behave or else. Moss behaved, and caught an NFL record 23 touchdown passes. Brady threw an NFL record 49 touchdown passes. Welker made Miami look stupid in letting him go.
The Patriots put up points at a dizzying pace. In their first 8 games, their lowest point total scored in any one game was 34. They put up two fifty-burgers. By week ten they were 10-0, the only close game being a 24-20 win at Indianapolis. The other wins were all sheer blowouts. They won at Dallas and at Miami by 21 points in each game. Moss caught four touchdown passes at Buffalo in the first half alone.
Things changed slightly when Philadelphia came to Foxborough for a Sunday night game. Backup quarterback A.J. Feeley showed how to throw on the Patriot secondary, the late Jim Johnson showed how to get blitz pressure on Brady, and the Eagles came tantalizingly close to beating the Patriots before falling, 31-28. They were 15-0 going into a Saturday night game against the Giants at the Meadowlands, and the Patriots trailed 28-16 before a stunning rally gave them the first 16-0 season in NFL history.
In the playoffs, the Patriots held off a tough Jacksonville team and managed to squeak by an injured San Diego team to make it to Super Bowl XLII in Glendale, Arizona. Neither playoff win was easy despite both being at home. The Patriots looked tired, but still figured to beat a Giant team they beat on the road a month prior.
But the Giants didn't forget the Patriots, either. In an amazing display of one team wanting a win more than the other, the Giants expended three quarters of unbelievable energy in keeping the clamps on the smoking Patriot offense by blitzing Brady all game long. The game came down to two drives in the fourth quarter, and Brady did hit Moss from six yards out for a touchdown to make it 14-10 Patriots with 2:45 left in the game. But the Patriot defense failed, as Asante Samuel saw a game-ending interception go through his hands, Rodney Harrison was victimized by a miracle catch by David Tyree, and Ellis Hobbs was burned on the game-winning touchdown pass from Eli Manning to Plaxico Burress. The Giants prevailed, 17-14, and the Patriots had to settle for the most disappointing 18-1 season in NFL history.
But it was still a great season and a great team. The Patriots were the best team in the league that year, but the Giants deserved to win the Super Bowl. The Patriots did things in 2007 that no team may ever do again, and though it did not bring the expected end, it was a marvel, a thing of beauty to watch, and something Patriot fans can be awfully proud of.
#4 -- Celtics return to glory, pummel Lakers in 2008 NBA FinalsHow in the world did the experts, never mind the Lakers themselves, think they could have won this series?
The Celtics overcame a Paul Pierce injury in Game 1 and a furious fourth quarter rally by the Lakers in Game 2 to take a 2-0 series lead in their first NBA Finals since losing to the Lakers in 1987. The teams went out to the Staples Center in Los Angeles, and the Lakers predictably won Game 3 at home.
Game 6 was fun to watch, but Game 4 might have been everyone's favorite game in the series. The Celtics at one point trailed in the game, 45-22 in the second quarter. It was 70-50 in the third quarter when the Celtics went on a 21-3 run to finish the quarter down only 74-71. The Celtics took their first lead of the game, 84-83 on an Eddie House jumper, and a Ray Allen layup made the final score Celtics 97, Lakers 91. Reserve guard Sasha Vujacic punched his chair on the bench in disgust when someone tried to comfort him as the game neared its end. You sensed that he knew the series was over with that loss.
The Lakers won Game 5, but the series went back to Boston with the Celts up 3 games to 2. Kobe Bryant told his team "If we win Game 6, I PROMISE you we will win Game 7!" That promise never materialized, not even close.
To make that promise come true, the Lakers had to win Game 6. The Celtics pulled away in the second quarter, then leveled the Lakers in the second half with an offensive bombardment not seen since the days of Bob Cousy. Allen hit seven three-pointers, the Celtics at one point led by 43, and wound up winning the game and the championship by the unbelievable score of 131-92. Pierce realized a career's worth of vindication as he let the cheers of the TD BankNorth Garden shower down on him while holding up the Finals MVP trophy. Owner Wyc Grousbeck was only slightly less cheered as he held up the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
But the Celtics did more than just win an NBA title, their 17th overall and first in 21 years. They rejuvenated a fan base which had become detached from the Celtic glory days. They made everyone feel great over seeing the Big Three all win their first NBA championship. And by beating the hated Lakers, it was "just like old times" at the New Garden for a new generation to see and enjoy.
The Celtics rode the duck boats all through downtown Boston, and a few days later rode them into rainy Fenway Park to a thunderous ovation as two Boston world champs met on the same field. It was a surreal scene which far outdid the brief appearance some of the 2004 Red Sox made at Gillette Stadium that fall. The Celtics returned to their lofty perch once again, became the third Boston team to win a title in the decade, and all really was well with the world in the Hub of the Universe.
#3 -- Patriots cement dynasty with win in Super Bowl XXXIXThis was where the Patriots went from being great to being immortal.
The Packers. The Steelers. The 49ers. The Cowboys. Now the Patriots. Brady gets to sit at the same table with gents like Starr, Bradshaw, Montana and Aikman. Lombardi, Noll, Walsh, Johnson, and now Belichick. The Patriots can now be mentioned among the greatest teams in NFL history. Three Super Bowl wins in four seasons. Wow. In these parts, where pro football used to be something to laugh at, this is still hard to believe.
The game itself wasn't real artistic nor memorable. At AllTel Stadium in Jacksonville, the Patriots held off the Eagles, 24-21 (all three of their Super Bowl wins were by three points) with Deion Branch winning game MVP honors thanks to eleven catches for 133 yards. The game basically came down to Philadelphia not being able to stop the Patriot screen passing which neutralized their blitz packages, Donovan McNabb suffering a physical breakdown in the fourth quarter, and bad clock management by the Eagles in the last five minutes.
But the win sent shock waves across pro sports in general. The Patriots became an official NFL dynasty, a team for the ages. It was the crowning moment of glory for owner Bob Kraft, himself a fan in the early 1970s who eventually bought the stadium and then the team. The Patriots have turned Gillette Stadium into a literal museum of Boston area football, but it was the Patriots of the 2000s which made all this possible. By winning three Super Bowls in four years, the Patriots enjoy a pedigree and a distinction that few other teams in any sports can enjoy.
The Patriots are hated nationally. So are the Yankees, Canadiens and Celtics. Maybe that's the best compliment you can pay the Patriots.
#2 -- Patriots pull off miracle win in Super Bowl XXXVI, win first titleBy 2005, you had become used to this. But in 2002, this game was hard to believe, and maybe you still don't believe it happened.
This was the third Super Bowl for the Patriots. They had been clobbered by the Bears in Super Bowl XX, 46-10. They were beaten in XXXI by Green Bay, 35-21, but Bill Parcells did more to hurt the Patriots in that game than Brett Favre did. Here they were again in the big show, once again in New Orleans. Three of the last four Super Bowls in New Orleans had the Patriots as the AFC representative.
This would be no different. The St. Louis Rams were 14 to 17 point favorites. The Greatest Show on Turf would shred the Patriots worse than the 1985 Bear defense did. What chance did the Patriots possibly have?
The seeds of this victory by the Patriots were sown in the huge coaching advantage the Patriots had with Belichick over the Rams' Mike Martz. Martz was an offensive coordinator and nothing more. His stubbornness in not utilizing Marshall Faulk as much as he should have, to go along with the near-perfect defensive game plan by Belichick and Romeo Crennel added up to the skull-imploding win the Patriots would eventually pull off.
A Ty Law pick-six and a Brady touchdown pass to David Patten gave the Pats a 14-3 halftime lead. An Otis Smith pick led to a Vinatieri field goal as the game headed into the fourth quarter with the Pats up, 17-3. The defense finally tired, and Kurt Warner led the Rams to two fourth quarter touchdowns, and a 99-yard fumble return by Tebucky Jones was wiped out on a holding call on Willie McGinest.
It was 17-17 with 1:21 to go, and the Patriots were on their own 17 with no timeouts left. Conventional wisdom had the Patriots taking a knee and getting the game to overtime. But Brady and Charlie Weis had other ideas. Brady completed three passes to J.R. Redmond for 24 yards, then Brady hit Troy Brown on a slant route for 23 yards to get the Patriots to the St. Louis 36. Brady hit East Boston's Jermaine Wiggins for six, and then spiked the ball with seven seconds left and the Patriots at the Ram 30.
Out came Vinatieri to try a 48-yard field goal. The Rams were out of timeouts also, so Adam would go out and just kick the ball. That he did, straight as an arrow. Long enough? Just as time ran out, the ball passed through the uprights. Patriots win, 20-17. The Rams were stunned and stupefied. They had just lost the Super Bowl, and slumped off the field in a fog.
The Patriots, on the other hand, went completely bonkers, as did their fan base. The Patriots won a Super Bowl. NFL champs. First title ever for the Patriots. First Super Bowl win on a walkoff field goal. First everything. You saw it, you screamed, you shouted, you celebrated, but you perhaps didn't believe it happened. Maybe you still don't.
It was true. The Patriots were world champs. This was the first of the decade, the first since the 1986 Celtics, the first time the duck boats were broken out for this reason. But for a franchise which had been an NFL laughingstock, it was an unbelievable sight to behold. The Patriots were NFL champions. You had to pinch yourself.
Belichick and Brady were officially off and running to the high pedestals they stand on today. Belichick was trying to shake off thoughts of him being the defensive equivalent of Martz, and Brady was an unproven kid suddenly transformed into a wunderkind. It was a great game in the abstract, one of the best Super Bowls ever. But what it meant to this region cannot be understated. It changed the Patriots forever, including the public perception of the team here and everywhere.
Rest easy, Billy Sullivan. Your guys finally did it.
#1 -- Red Sox win 2004 World Series, first in 86 yearsOctober 27, 2004. The greatest night in Boston sports history.
This World Series win by the Red Sox cut very deeply into the inner psyche of most every New Englander. This win was more than just the breaking of a proverbial curse. It was about generations of families and loved ones who care very deeply about a baseball team, and the sweetest of all vindications ever seen in this area.
Not too many people remembered 1918. Grandparents remember Enos Slaughter's mad dash. Parents remember the Game 7 loss which followed the great Game 6 win and Dent's home run. Some more folks remember Billy Buck's error. It all added up to 86 years of frustration while the Yankees won 26 World Series. It all began with the sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees, and Red Sox fans endured four score and six years of disappointment, frustration, low self-esteem and the feeling of second-class citizen status.
Red Sox fans are perceived by many as taking their team way too seriously. But that's just the way things go in New England. There is something about Fenway Park, the heritage, the role of the Red Sox in the community, the romance of baseball in general which brings out the emotional connection Red Sox fans have to their team. This connection became intertwined in families as generation after generation felt the same feelings for the team; adulation and affection along with sadness and disappointment from one failure after another.
Everyone's prayers were finally answered in 2004. To make it all come about, the Red Sox set the stage with the greatest comeback in the history of baseball, coming from down three games to none against the Yankees in the ALCS to win four straight and capture their first pennant in 18 years. It made the end even sweeter that, to get to that sublime moment, the Yankees became the first MLB team ever to cough up a 3-0 series lead. The Red Sox and their fans celebrated mightily, but as Terry Francona said, "There's more baseball to be played!"
So right he was. Next up were the St. Louis Cardinals, who beat the Sox in 1946 and 1967. The result was, thanks to superior scouting, the first annihilation by a team in the World Series since 1989 (meaning that at no time did the Red Sox ever trail in any game). The Red Sox swept the Cardinals in four straight, won the World Series, and triggered an outpouring of celebration and catharsis that will never be equaled anytime or anywhere.
It wasn't just the duck boat celebration, which travelled on both land and sea and was witnessed by several million fans (yes, we did say "million"). It was people laying flowers on ancestor's graves. It was people wondering how their grandparents felt. It was grandparents thanking their Almighty for being alive to see it.
The most satisfying element of this win, other than family concerns, was the fact that Johnny Pesky, the perceived goat of the 1946 series, was there in St. Louis to see it live and firsthand. He was right there in the very same city the Sox lost the '46 classic, right there in the celebrations with the players. Curt Schilling kissed him on the forehead and told him that he would now be remembered for the great player he was. Fans at Busch Stadium chanted his name several times. Pesky got a ring like all the other players did. It was Pesky who was at the epicenter of the play which literally started all this curse nonsense, and it was fitting that he was there to witness the exorcism of any remaining bad karma from that one play 58 years prior which really wasn't his fault.
It was the defining moment of this great decade of Boston sports. The Patriots came of age, the Celtics regained their winning swagger, but the Red Sox made everyone stand tall by day and sleep well by night. It was, without question, the best of times. The great thing is that everyone knew it as it was happening, instead of bards and writers remarking about it several years after the fact.
The next decade begins with a hockey game at Fenway Park. Take that for what it's worth, but maybe the Bruins will receive this adulation at next decade's end.
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