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The Aughts: The Greatest Sports Decade That Almost Never Happened

James Orthwein shakes hands with Bob Kraft, agreeing to sell the Patriots to Kraft for a then record $175 million. (Photo courtesy of The Boston Globe)

On the warm Sunday afternoon of October 11, just before 4 p.m., shortstop Erick Aybar settled under Dustin Pedroia’s pop up, ending the 2009 ALDS in front of a deflated crowd at Fenway Park. The inning was officially scored: 0 runs, 0 hits, 0 errors, 0 LOB. Angels 7, Red Sox 6.

Just like that, without flourish or fanfare, the greatest decade for any American city in the history of professional sports came to an end. (Get the low down on why this was the greatest sports decade here.)

Final tally: Six championships, 23 playoff appearances, and enough big plays, big personalities, and big moments to keep an entire generation of proud Boston fans spinning “Remember when?” yarns for the rest of their lives.

It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: enjoy it New England, because it’s not only likely, it’s probable we’ll never have it this good again.

The proof lies in the not-too-distant past, a time when Boston sports’ darkest hour felt like it would last a lifetime.

The Beginning of the End

Take my hand, intrepid readers, as we journey back to 1979, a year when Boston’s teams were just as bad as the feathered-back hair and awkwardly short shorts. The Celtics were coming off a 29-53 season, the Red Sox finished third in the AL East, the Pats were 9-7, and the Bruins were the only team to make the playoffs, losing a heartbreaker in the deciding game of the semifinals against the Habs.

As sports years go, 1979 was as forgettable as David Caruso’s career as a leading man on the big screen.  But it’s also the year the Larry Joe Bird came to town.

Tangent: Caruso, now the lead on “CSI: Miami,” broke into the biz as Detective John Kelly on uber popular cop drama “NYPD Blue.” After much critical praise for his first season on “Blue,” Caruso’s ego no longer fit the small screen. He left the show four episodes into its second season to pursue a career in film. Ironically, his first role as an ill-fated leading man was in the movie “Kiss of Death.”

For all the talk of Boston being a baseball town ever since the Pilgrims used Plymouth Rock as home plate, the ‘80s belonged to one Boston franchise: the Celtics.

Larry Bird and company not only brought three titles to the Hub, they helped elevate the NBA to its greatest heights. While Boston’s other franchises toiled, the Celtics gave Boston fans pure joy.

Then the bell tolled. To the uninitiated, 1986 simply means the Red Sox, Bill Buckner, and a ball between the legs. But for those that lived through it, 1986 was a complete Boston sports nightmare. It all started in the Louisiana Superdome on the night of January 26, 1986: Chicago Bears 46 – New England Patriots 10.

Humiliating is an apt description. The Pats managed a laughable 123 total yards before a worldwide audience at the Super Bowl, including just seven rushing yards. Seven. The Bears added a kick to the groin when they gave William “The Refrigerator” Perry the ball at the goal line in the fourth quarter. The monstrous, gap-toothed defensive tackle barreled into the end zone to put the Bears up by 41 points. Tears still stain the “Berry the Bears” T-shirt tucked away in my closet.

Boston pinned its hopes on the Bruins in April, but archrival Montreal swept Ray Bourque and crew out of the Adams Division semi-finals without breaking a sweat.

The Celtics were there to save the day yet again, putting what is considered by many to be the best basketball team ever on the court in 1986. That team beat the twin towers of the Houston Rockets to bring sweet 16 home in June.

Then, just a few weeks later, Len Bias died. The second pick in the NBA Draft—the athletic phenom who would take what was already the best team in basketball to new heights and extend the careers of Larry Bird and Kevin McHale—was gone.

Without blinking, Red Auerbach called it Boston’s worst tragedy since JFK’s assassination. The Celtic’s 16th championship suddenly felt like it happened in the distant past. And in our worst nightmares, we never imagined the Celtics—the best team in the NBA—wouldn’t win another title for 22 years. At the time, life for Boston fans couldn’t possibly get worse.

Four months later, a Mookie Wilson grounder found its way through Bill Bucker’s wickets in Game 6.

Oh, the humanity.

If it wasn’t for the Celtics winning the title in 1986, the line to jump off the Tobin would have stretched all the way to Braintree.

The Big “What if?”

The fickle hand of fate flipped Boston off in 1986, jump-starting a dismal, 14-year championship drought. But what if it didn’t?

What if the Patriots actually showed up to play in the Super Bowl? What if the Bruins beat the Canadiens? What if Len Bias didn’t die? And what if Bill Buckner lowered his glove two more inches?

We could very well be reminiscing about 1986 as not only the greatest year in Boston sports, but also the greatest year for any city in the history of professional sports.

Alas, between Champion and Chump often lies a crack, not a crevasse—a tantalizingly narrow crack that can be filled (or not filled) by the right player, the right play, the right decision, the right bounce, even the right gust of wind.

Look at The Greatest Sports Decade Timeline, and it’s easy to spot the people, plays, and decisions—big and small, lucky and unlucky, good and bad—that filled the cracks:

  • January 27, 2000: Bill Belichick pulls a fast one on the Jets and becomes the head coach of the Patriots.
  • September 23, 2001: Drew Bledsoe takes a devastating hit from Jets linebacker Mo Lewis, paving the way for unknown sixth-round backup, Tom Brady.
  • December 20, 2001: A group led by John Henry and Tom Werner buy the Red Sox for $660 million.
  • January 19, 2002: The Tuck Rule.
  • February 3, 2002: Adam Vinatieri kicks game winners in the snow at Foxboro and as time expires in New Orleans. Pats win the first championship in franchise history, ending Boston’s 14-year drought. Tom Brady named Super Bowl MVP.
  • September 27, 2002: Boston Basketball Partners LLC, led by Irving and Wyck Grousbeck, buy the Celtics for $360 million
  • November 25, 2002: 28-year-old Theo Epstein named GM of the Red Sox (then the youngest GM in the history of MLB).
  • May 9, 2003: Danny Ainge hired as the Celtics’ Director of Basketball Operations.
  • November 28, 2003: Theo Epstein trades Casey Fossum, Brandon Lyon, Jorge de la Rosa, and Michael Gross to Arizona for Curt Schilling.
  • December 13, 2003: Red Sox sign reliever Keith Foulke to a three-year deal.
  • December 18, 2003: A trade for then-Texas Ranger Alex Rodriguez falls apart.
  • February 2, 2004: Vinatieri kicks another Super Bowl-winning field goal against the Carolina Panthers.
  • April 20, 2004: Patriots trade a second round pick to Cincinnati for running back Corey Dillon.
  • June 31, 2004: Epstein trades Nomar Garciaparra to Chicago. The Red Sox receive a pair of former Gold Glove winners, Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz.
  • October 17, 2004: Dave Roberts’ steals second base in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the ALCS.
  • October 19, 2004: Curt Schilling wins Game 6 of the ALCS pitching on a sutured ankle, aka The Bloody Sock.
  • October 27, 2004: Red Sox win first championship since 1918.
  • February 6, 2005: Vinatieri kicks what would become the game-winning field goal as the Pats win their third ring in four years, 24-21 over Philadelphia.
  • November 27, 2005: Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell traded from Florida to the Red Sox for Hanley Ramirez and other prospects.
  • June 29, 2006: At the NBA Draft, Danny Ainge trades a first-round pick in 2007 to the Phoenix Suns for rookie Rajon Rondo. The Celtics go on to post a franchise worst 24-58 record in the 2006-2007 season.
  • April 2, 2007: Patriots trade a fourth round pick to the Raiders for Randy Moss.
  • May 23, 2007: Hoping to win the first or second pick in the NBA draft lottery (Greg Oden or Kevin Durant), Boston ends up with the fifth pick.
  • June 28, 2007: Ainge trades the fifth pick, Delonte West, and Wally Szczerbiak to Seattle for Ray Allen and the rights to Glen Davis.
  • July 31, 2007: Ainge trades Al Jefferson, Gerald Green, Sebastian Telfair, Ryan Gomes, Theo Ratliff, a 2009 first round pick, cash considerations, and an autographed picture of Larry Bird to Minnesota for Kevin Garnett.
  • October 21, 2007: Josh Beckett leads the Red Sox back from the brink of elimination in the ALCS.
  • October 28, 2007: Boston wins the 2007 World Series. Mike Lowell is named World Series MVP.
  • December 29, 2007: Patriots become the first NFL franchise to go undefeated in a 16-game regular season, beating the NY Giants 38-35. Randy Moss sets the record for touchdown receptions in a single season with 23, while Tom Brady sets the NFL record for touchdown passes in a single season with 50.
  • April 15, 2008: Celtics complete the largest single-season turnaround in NBA history (66-16).
  • June 17, 2008: the Celtics defeat the Lakers to win Boston’s first NBA championship since 1986.

Consider just a few pieces of the timeline, and it’s easy to see how deeply a single player, play, or decision can impact an entire organization—for better or worse—for years. Just as easily as we can play “What if?” to transform 1986 into a dream sports year, we can make the aughts a sports nightmare:

  • What if Bill Belichick decided to stay with the Jets?
  • What if Drew Bledsoe never got injured?
  • What if officials ruled Brady’s fumble against the Raiders in the 2001 playoffs a fumble?
  • What if Vinatieri missed even one of his big kicks?
  • What if Henry, Werner and crew never bought the Red Sox?
  • What if Theo never traded Nomar?
  • What if the Celtics won the first pick in the 2007 draft?

The “What ifs?” go on and on. They serve as a reminder of just how lucky Boston sports fans have been over the past decade, and also lead to a sobering realization: The Greatest Sports Decade almost never happened.

That’s Mister Kraft

Rarely in the annals of sports history can you point to a single individual making 100% of the difference for an organization’s success or failure. The Greatest Sports Decade Timeline clearly illustrates how a number of people, plays, and decisions contribute to a championship outcome. With the New England Patriots, the Team of the Decade, however, you can point your finger squarely at one man—Brookline’s own Bob Kraft.

Here’s why:

In 1992, St. Louis businessman James Orthwein bought the Patriots, who were coming off a dismal 6-10 year, the team’s third consecutive losing season. The Pats were in Corey Feldman free-fall mode, and fans were groping for the lack of a light at the end of the tunnel.

Orthwein, great-grandson of Anheuser-Busch founder Adolphus Busch, didn’t hide the fact he bought the team with the intent to move the franchise to his native St. Louis (the Rams didn’t make it to Missouri until 1995). Orthwein only had to wait for the team’s big-ticket lease at Foxboro Stadium to end.

Orthwein grew restless, and in 1994, decided to pay off the remainder of the team’s lease so he could ship the Pats to the Midwest, making the St. Louis Patriots the most inappropriately named sports franchise since the Utah Jazz. Fortunately for New England, the man holding that lease was Bob Kraft.

Kraft not only refused Orthwein’s generous $75 million buy-out bid, he made a ludicrous counter offer: sell me the franchise for a then-NFL record $175 million.

It’s easy to look back now, after a decade of dominance, and say Kraft was making a wise investment. But at the time, the Patriots were among the NFL’s least valuable franchises—the team was Pittsburgh Pirates-bad and empty Sullivan Stadium was an aluminum-bleacher relic. Kraft’s wife stood on solid legal ground to have her husband committed.

But Kraft did it. He bet everything and won big. Thank the Sports Gods he did, because:

  • If not for Kraft, there would be no New England Patriots, period.
  • If not for Kraft, there would be no Bill Parcells in New England.
  • If not for Parcells, there would be no Bill Belichick in New England.
  • If not for Belichick, there would be no Tom Brady.
  • If not for Tom Brady, there would be no Super Bowls and no Team of the Decade title.

Kraft created an organization with the best, brightest, and hardest working people at all levels. It’s an organization that broke the 14-year funk the city had been under since 1986, and more than that, Kraft and the Patriots got every other Boston franchise thinking, “Hey, maybe we should try doing things like them.”

The Patriots created the blueprint for running an organization that’s competitive at the highest levels every single season, and the Celtics and Red Sox front offices have admittedly followed it. If not for Bob Kraft and the Patriots, the aughts in Boston sports would have unfolded much differently.

Make no mistake Boston fans, in the aughts, we had it better than any other city has ever had it in professional sports. After 14 years of flipping us the bird, the fickle hand of fate finally gave us the thumbs up. Cherish it, because people like Bob Kraft and success like this is not likely to come along again for a long, long, time. Perhaps not ever.

About Sharkey

I was 11 years old when the ball scooted through Buckner's wickets, a moment that is laser-etched in my mind: In my living room, on the floor in front of the TV, ready to burst as the Sox needed just one more out, one more strike, to become World Series champs. Mets players sat with slumped shoulders and dejected looks in the dugout. Even the scoreboard operator recognized the game, and the series, was over, posting on the jumbotron: Congratulations to the Boston Red Sox, 1986 World Series Champions. "They did it!" I said, unable to contain myself. "The Sox won it all!" My father, sitting behind me on the couch with a furrowed brow, knew better. "It's not over yet." And so it was. Having watched the Sox, Celts, and Pats for the past three decades, I truly feel like I've seen it all. I hope to bring that type of perspective as I write about the three teams I love.

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