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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.
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 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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.