2001: A Boston Sports Odyssey

Bob George
December 28, 2001 at 8:33 pm ET

We’re sorry, but Richard Strauss never promised anyone around here a world championship.

The estimable composer who composed the tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra, which eventually gained more fame as the theme to the movie that bears this year as its title, wrote five other tone poems. One of them is called Ein Heldenleben, which translated means “A Hero’s Life”. Right now, New England is celebrating a hero, and his name is Tom Brady. But Brady is one of many stories this year in New England sports for 2001.

And Strauss never met Brady, nor did he compose his tone poem in his honor.

But this year has definitely been quite an odyssey for this region from a sports standpoint. You have three teams heading back in an upward direction, one of which is heading for the playoffs. And you have another team that made shock waves a few days back by changing owners. It’s been a year of ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies, and a few hits on the sporting Richter scale along the way.

With that, we bring you our top ten Boston professional sports stories for 2001. By this we mean that BC, BU, and UMass are left out of this discussion. So don’t crucify us if we say nothing about the Eagle hoop team, Steve Lappas or 18-7 losses to Miami.

Some notable stories did not make this list. The passing of Patriots QB coach Dick Rehbein deserves honorable mention. So does the firing of Bruins coach Mike Keenan and the hiring of former Needham standout Robbie Ftorek. Ftorek will get some scrutiny in 2002, as he was once fired from a team that went on to win the Stanley Cup that year. Also, anything to do with Carl Everett was left off the list. We were tempted to include the day he went “bye-bye-bye”, but we found ten better stories than that.

That said, here they are, and Happy New Year.

#10 – Bourque’s Stanley Cup party, June 12

To even include this story in a 2001 wrap-up piece is unfortunate. But it underscores everything that is wrong with the Bruins.

This is really as close to the Stanley Cup as the Bruins will ever get as long as Jeremy Jacobs owns the Bruins. Ray Bourque had arguably the most distinguished career of any Bruin in history (he beats Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito and most everyone else in longevity of excellence while still in a Bruin uniform), but begged to leave so he could win a Cup. The Bruin front office was only too happy to accommodate him, and about a year later, he got his Cup. And on his “day with the Cup”, Bourque came back to Boston and actually held a victory rally in City Hall Plaza.

This sort of thing is simply not done unless it’s the Bruins who win the Cup, not some star who happens to do it with another team. But everyone seemed to think that it was a wonderful idea. Everyone was so happy for Ray, that they allowed him to have this “party” and parade a Colorado Avalanche Stanley Cup under their noses.

Lately, Boston teams have been showing a comeback. Both the Patriots and Celtics are in first place as of this writing. The Bruins are also off to a good start. The Patriots will put an end to a long Boston playoff drought in a few weeks. The Red Sox are retooling with a new owner, a new leadoff hitter, a few new starters, and a Carl Everett-less clubhouse.

This is great. But don’t be fooled into thinking that just because they are off to a “good start”, that the Bruins will whet your Stanley Cup appetite.

Byron Dafoe continues to be the best commodity this team has. Joe Thornton and Sergei Samsonov are quality players, but not the “super stud” types that win you Cups. Brian Rolston is still no Ray Bourque. Wilbraham’s Bill Guerin might be that “super stud” some day, except that Jacobs will let him walk away as a free agent at year’s end. And I’d still rather have Jason Allison than Josef Stumpel.

And that is why Bruin Nation will get no closer to a Cup than Ray’s little June bash.

#9 – Red Sox sign Johnny Damon, December 20

December 20th turned out to be quite the little day, didn’t it?
On the same day that the keys of Fenway Park were handed over to John Henry, $32 million and a number 18 Red Sox jersey were handed over to Johnny Damon. Damon gives the Red Sox their best bona fide leadoff hitter in many years. You might have to go all the way back to Tommy Harper to find a decent leadoff man, and Damon’s a lot better in overall talent than Harper was.

It was that great season two years ago with Kansas City that put Damon on the baseball map, but Kansas City wound up trading him to Oakland for fear that they would not be able to pay the kind of money needed to retain Damon beyond his free agent year of 2001. It was not expected in the early going of the free agency period this year that the Red Sox could even think about getting this guy. But Dan Duquette, in what has to be the twilight of his Red Sox GM career, somehow bagged Damon. It is not clear if the Sox got him out of pure diligence, or that other teams were scared off due to his sub-par 2001 season.

Harper holds the Sox record for steals in a season with 54. Damon’s career high is 46 in 2000. Damon is 28 years old and has enough good years left to challenge that record. Damon is a high-OBP guy (just the kind of guy the Red Sox were looking for), who had a .382 OBP in 2000. Damon also gives the Sox a terrific replacement for Everett in center field. He fills so many holes for the Red Sox, such that it seems like it is too good to be true that the Sox actually acquired this guy.

We thought the same thing a year ago when Manny Ramirez was signed. Damon needs to stay healthy, get his hitting totals back up to their 2000 levels, and not be fazed by what happens in the Boston clubhouse. And if Pokey Reese is indeed coming to Boston after being non-tendered a few days after being acquired for Scott Hatteberg, it gives the Sox speedsters at the nine-hole and leadoff position.

#8 – Terry Glenn arrested for assault, May 16

This Patriot team is tough. Resilient. Focused.
Because if they weren’t, you’d’ve known by now. Instead of players dismissing it as “Oh, well…” and such, you’d have things like a “polarized locker room”, players complaining about “Gee, we’d’ve won if only Glenn were there” or “Why does Glenn get such special treatment?” or “If Glenn won’t play hard, why should we?”

This writer has lobbied for Bryan Cox to take Terry Glenn out to the woodshed. But Cox won’t hear of it. He refuses to get involved in such “stupidity”. And because the rest of the team has so refused, the biggest Boston sports soap opera since Jimy, Dan and Carl has had zero effect on the Patriots.

Except against San Diego.

Since Glenn’s May 16th arrest for assaulting his girlfriend, Kimberly Combs, Glenn’s world has become one of chaos, bad feelings, bad advice, and very little about playing football. His bust led to a withholding of his signing bonus, AWOL from training camp, a season-long suspension that was overturned, a slew of missed games (eleven games to be exact, you do the math), some of which he was suspended from, a lousy interview on a Boston television station, and a team that has gone on to bigger and better things without him.

Glenn’s loss of his signing bonus wasn’t directly related to his assault bust, but rather from a breach of league drug policies. It did (that’s D-I-D) drive him to go AWOL in August, though. This challenge of a missed drug test is being appealed, which if he wins, he will likely begin to reclaim his signing bonus.

Fortunately, Glenn has resumed playing. He is being used more as a decoy rather than a central focus of the offense. That is largely because the Patriots have two wideouts named Troy Brown and David Patten. Patten is likely to be Glenn’s long-term replacement, and Brown had better be Honolulu-bound as he approaches Ben Coates’ club record for catches in a season. You don’t get two more high quality men than Patten and Brown.

And at the opposite end of the quality spectrum, you have Glenn. Until he realizes that he needs counseling, he will stay right there.

#7 – Rick Pitino resigns as Celtics coach, January 8

With each game, Jim O’Brien demeans the tenure of his former boss as Celtics head coach.

Since taking over for Rick Pitino on January 8th, O’Brien has watched his Celtics become a leader in the eastern conference, in or near first place in the Atlantic Division, and a big man away from the old glory years. In a city full of guys named Jim O’Brien, he stands high and mighty.

And where is Pitino? Back where he belongs. In Kentucky. Coaching college hoop, not pro hoop.

Granted, he’s in Louisville, not Lexington. This is the Kentucky equivalent of Bill Parcells and Curtis Martin heading down to Exit 16-W. But Pitino is back where he will (not can, will) enjoy success. Pitino can bully those college players around and make them play a press defense against other slower college players.

Will you ever forget that gaunt look by Pitino in his final game at Miami? You could see “goodbye” written all over his face. He was practically crying. In a way, you had to feel for Pitino. He certainly gave the Celtics everything he had, everything except enough bang for the buck.

By that we mean the huge contract Paul Gaston gave him when he was hired in 1997, and the expectations that went with it. Much was expected of Pitino, so little was delivered.

And so, O’Brien took over. The Celtics are 17-8 right now. Enjoy the bluegrass, Rick.

#6 – Patriots clinch playoff berth, December 23

Some of you might put this at number one. And for one simple reason. Whoda thunkit?

You have Drew Bledsoe going down with a near-fatal injury late in the Week 2 game versus the Jets. Tom Brady, a second-year, unproven, sixth-round draft pick, comes in at quarterback, and brings the team just short of a comeback win. The Patriots are sitting at 0-2, and without Bledsoe for perhaps the rest of the year.

And here they are at Christmas time, at 10-5 and in the playoffs. They may still win the division, and are still alive for a two seed. Fans and experts around the NFL look at the Patriots, and wonder “How?”

Remarkably, Brady has led the Patriots on a 10-3 spree since Bledsoe’s injury. The losses are a stinker at Miami, four picks at Denver, and slowing down, but not stopping, the vaunted Rams offense at home. Everything else has come up aces for Brady and the team.

But it isn’t all Brady. The Patriot defense is playing with a fire not seen since 1997. Guys have a fresh, new attitude out there, and are laying mega-hurts on lots of opponents. Mid-level free agents from everywhere have come here and bonded together into one real good football team. Belichick, coordinators Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel, and personnel director Scott Pioli have been the architects, and they are becoming to football teams what HOK is to new stadiums.

And a lot of it is Brady. The comebacks against San Diego and the Jets. The massacres of Indianapolis. The efficiency against New Orleans and Atlanta. The survivals against Cleveland and Buffalo. It all adds up to a quarterback who may drive Bledsoe out of town.

And a quarterback who may drive his team towards a third trip to New Orleans and a date with the Big Show.

#5 – Jimy Williams fired as Red Sox manager, August 16

This writer wishes Jimy Williams all the best in Houston.
Because not too long from now, the good people of Harris County are going to call for his head. His new team is worse in the postseason than the Red Sox are, and Williams’ style of managing won’t whet their appetites for the unthinkable: a playoff series win by the Astros.

Williams was mercifully canned by the Red Sox this summer. Joe Kerrigan’s failures stand as a testimonial to Williams’ nice run here in Boston. But if the new Sox owners do it right, the record will bear out that Kerrigan was a worse manager than Williams, and Williams was let go due to questionable strategy on lineups, platooning, and game management.

Rare is it that you find a man so unflappable in a media circus that tests anyone’s unflappability. Williams took all that the Boston media would toss his way, and just kiss it all off. In his folksy way, Williams would non-speak you and Garrison Keillor you to death, in a way that you couldn’t help but love the guy. And when you throw in all the clubhouse problems, you have to really respect Williams for his resilience and his patience.

But the fact remains that Williams was a poor tactician, and a poor handler of men from a baseball standpoint. While Williams would never publicly rip a player, his overuse of Mike Lansings and Troy O’Learys and underuse of Israel Alcantaras and Lou Merlonis helped define his tenure as Sox manager. Lineups that sometimes featured Brian Daubach, Jason Varitek and Scott Hatteberg in the one or two holes were a bit much to stomach.

Whatever the case, Williams belongs to the Astros now. His Jimywocky will play well down there.

Until playoff time.

#4 – Hideo Nomo tosses first Red Sox no-hitter since 1965, April 4

That lazy fly ball in the ninth inning. You’ll never forget it.
No, not the one to O’Leary which ended the game.

The one right before it, to Lansing in short center field.

Lansing’s diving grab saved an historic night for the Red Sox. Making his initial appearance in a Red Sox uniform, former Dodger sensation Hideo Nomo no-hit the Baltimore Orioles in game number two of the 2001 season. It was the first Red Sox no-hitter since Dave Morehead turned the trick in September of 1965. And it got the Sox off on a fast start to this season.

Nomo would ultimately turn out to be the team’s most valuable pitcher in 2001. He, not Pedro Martinez, continued the tradition of a Red Sox pitcher leading the league in strikeouts (220). He led the team with 13 wins, and was tops in most every other starting pitcher category for the Red Sox.

But his no-hitter electrified New England, and led everyone to believe that this year would be special for the Sox. The Sox stayed in contention until Mr. Pedro and Ramirez could no longer hold up under the strain of carrying the team in the absence of the injured Nomar Garciaparra. Nomo’s no-no jump-started the team, and provided a timeless sporting moment for a region that hadn’t seen a timeless sporting moment in quite some time.

The Red Sox thought so much of Nomo’s no-no that he no-no longer pitches for the Sox. Nomo is back with the Dodgers now, signed as a free agent. The Red Sox were afraid to have to pony up too much for the AL strikeout king/free agent.

And so it goes.

#3 – Red Sox sold to John Henry, December 20

This thing ain’t over.

And don’t be surprised if in a few weeks from now, someone else owns the Sox.

As for now, the soon-to-be former owner of the Florida Marlins is in line to move up to Boston and assume the reins of the most storied sports franchise in city history. Henry and his group, which includes Tom Werner, Larry Lucchino, George Mitchell and Ben Cammarata, were awarded the franchise last Thursday, bringing to an end more than a year of suspense, speculation and possible chicanery.

And it’s the chicanery that might lead to this sale being voided.

The bidding process was rigged all the way for the Henry group to win. Both cable television tycoon Charles Dolan and New York attorney Miles Prentice submitted bids higher than Henry. Local faves Joe O’Donnell and Steve Karp were undercut at the end thanks to a lefthanded concessions deal. Henry and Werner are buddies with MLB “commissioner” Bud Selig, and are pro-contraction.

Meanwhile, the true high bidder, Prentice, is complaining that Boston charities are being shortchanged some $50 million (actually, he’s complaining that he didn’t get the team, but the charity angle sounds nicer). Massachusetts AG Tom Reilly is beginning to investigate this stinky deal. The Red Sox refuse to hand over sale documents to Reilly, making it even stinkier. Bring on the subpoenas, Tom.

If Henry does indeed wind up as owner, Red Sox Nation is in for some real sweeping changes, most of it good. From fresh money to an upgrade of NESN to actually doing something about Fenway Park, Henry’s group seems poised to do all the right things. Lucchino is the key man here, who has a good reputation as a CEO and should impact the club immediately.

And if the sale is voided? You couldn’t get any better stuff from General Hospital. Prentice wins the club with the high bid, then the angry MLB owners who wanted Henry as Sox owner proceed to vote down Prentice in the vote to approve the sale. Then what?

Such as are the Red Sox. It wouldn’t be the Red Sox if the sale went down perfectly, now would it?

#2 – Drew Bledsoe seriously injured, September 23

We said it back when it happened. Wouldn’t it be something if the entire Patriot season turned upwards thanks to a massive hit that Mo Lewis laid on The Franchise?

Nobody really wanted it this way, let alone Bledsoe himself. But as Bledsoe stands solemnly on the Patriot sideline, watching Brady cement himself as the true Patriot quarterback of the future, you have to feel for the veteran from Washington State. He looks totally forlorn and helpless, but at the same time he has been nothing but professional all the way.

The injury to Bledsoe, depending upon which report you believe, was nearly fatal. He suffered cracked ribs, one of which punctured his lung. He lost lots of blood internally, but thanks to the equipment at MGH, the blood was pumped back into his body. Bledsoe pulled through okay, and was back on the sidelines a lot faster than other men who aren’t as tough as he.

But Bledsoe can’t get his job back, and perhaps never will.

Because his replacement is 10-3 and will soon see playoff action.

The Lewis hit stands right now as the most pivotal moment in Patriot history since Super Bowl XXXI. It has literally changed the direction of the franchise. That’s about the only way a second-year quarterback can unseat an established, multi-million dollar veteran, and make it stick.

Now, if Lewis could have that hit back, would he take it? Brady is now 1-0 against the Jets (in a starting role), and may lead the Patriots into greater playoff glory than Vinny Testaverde will. Bledsoe has had horrid luck and very little success against the Jets since Bill Parcells left town. Lewis’ hit has turned the Patriots into a solid, winning team.

Of course, there are those who will tell you that Bledsoe would do better than Brady if he had the offensive line Brady has, plus Antowain Smith.

You might say that we will never know if that were correct.

#1 – Terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, September 11

This dastardly act postponed one Patriot game and seven Red Sox games.

But more important, it put into perspective what is really important in life, and where sports really ranks on the importance and significance scales.

That horrid morning, when jetliners hijacked from Boston plowed into the World Trade Center twin towers and caused them to tumble to the ground in a cataclysmic spectacle, changed this country forever. We’re more careful now, we don’t trust people and the country like we once did, and we hug our loved ones a little more often and a little more tightly than we used to.

And it transformed the sporting world from a luxury into a badge of honor. It also changed players from overpaid whiners to eager helpers. And it turned ordinary games into national celebrations, with God Bless America more of a national staple than the Star Spangled Banner.

The sporting world took time off to grieve, and to reassess the safety factor in flying. When it came back, it helped show the world that America is tough, resilient, and not afraid of any lowlife punks who perpetrate these acts in the blasphemous names of the Gods they worship. Playing the games really was important, if for nothing else, to show the world that America will not be changed by terrorists.

This is a solemn holiday season for many Americans. Loved ones who died in the September 11th tragedy leave behind friends and families who aren’t handling this time of the year too well. Making merry at some households this year isn’t in order. Instead, it’s time for reflection, remembering, and a lot of sorrow and hurt.

The Red Sox and Patriots took their time off. Patriot guard Joe Andruzzi had three FDNY brothers at Ground Zero, one of whom just barely made it out of a toppling tower. The Sox had to travel back to Boston from Tampa on bus and train because it was not safe to fly. They were in New York City on the eve of destruction. Nerves were frayed, and for once it wasn’t because of Duquette or Everett. David Cone lost friends in the World Trade Center, and could never regain his focus on pitching for the rest of the year.

When they came back, they were part of a national regrouping. The Patriots took off on a storybook season. Maybe the Red Sox will in 2002. But New England needs these two teams, and the other three, to continue to occupy their special role in the psyche of the northeast corner of the USA.

Life is the most important thing of all. Quality of life is also important. Disruption of such by terrorists must never be permitted. The games, if safe, must go on.

If the Sox never win another World Series again, let it be because of Bill Buckner errors or interference non-calls or lob throws from Leon Culberson, and not because of cancelled games due to terrorism.

And here’s to a heapin’ helping of world peace for 2002.

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