Commentary

Back to reality for Boston fans

After a decade of unprecedented riches, a market correction seems inevitable

Updated: February 2, 2010, 10:08 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPNBoston.com

Editor's note: This is the first installment of a week-long series looking at the next decade in Boston sports.

Quite a decade for Boston, it was. Two teams underwent complete transformations, one team an overdue resurrection, and Boston sports fans were invited to rent high-rise office space that had previously been out of their collective price range. Boston sports paralleled the housing bubble and, like the real estate market, it enters the new decade facing inevitable realities and yes, even some uncomfortable market corrections.

If you were born anytime before, say, 1985, the New England Patriots were the ne'er-do-well uncle who showed flashes of talent but more likely showed up to the house drunk. Expectations of him were high once, but experience had taught the family not to dream too high, not to think too big, or else risk being disappointed yet again.

In their first 33 years of existence, the Patriots appeared in exactly two title games, the 1963 AFL championship and the 1986 Super Bowl, losing by a combined score of 97-20.

In between, they lived the vagabond's existence while the NFL's respectable citizens -- the Steelers, Dolphins, 49ers, Cowboys, Raiders and Redskins -- lived in a separate, exclusive community. But in 1993, the uncle sobered up. Got himself a shave, went back to school, met a woman who grounded him and actually applied himself.

In the current narrative, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady receive credit for reviving the Patriots franchise, and it is partially true. But the quartet of Robert Kraft, Drew Bledsoe, Bill Parcells and later Curtis Martin are comparable to the most important figures in the history of the franchise.

[+] EnlargeRobert Kraft
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images Robert Kraft helped transform the Patriots franchise in a way that can never be duplicated.

Kraft bought the team in 1994 and kept the Patriots from moving out of town. Parcells represented credibility, the first time the Patriots had hired a Hall of Fame-level coach still at the height of his powers. Bledsoe and Martin (and later Terry Glenn) combined to give the Patriots young, top-level skill players, something they'd never had. The key game was Dec. 18, 1994, a 41-17 demolition of the reigning four-time AFC champion Buffalo Bills, in Orchard Park, N.Y. The Patriots, for the first time in history, were in the act.

Two years after Kraft bought the team, they were in the Super Bowl. A decade of riches soon followed: the snow game, beating Pittsburgh on the road, beating the Rams, three Super Bowl titles and an undefeated regular season.

The Patriots have won at least 10 games in seven consecutive seasons. Today, they are totally transformed. The uncle is now a model citizen, a pillar of the community. The Patriots are in the mode of the Pittsburgh Steelers: respectable, competitive, fortified by success and history.

Respectability brings a different challenge, the challenge of maintaining their position. There will never be another decade like the one the Patriots just completed. You can only go from nothing to something once.

IN A CHANGING WORLD, reinvention is an operative term. You hear it everywhere: We have to reinvent the way we do business. We have to reinvent the way our children are taught. We have to reinvent ourselves.

The Boston Bruins, nearing extinction as a relevant franchise both in their city and in the league (despite their august position as an Original Six club), must embrace reinvention. The rinks are bigger. The game and the players are faster. The rules are different. The NHL is now a skater's league, which forces the Bruins to change the way they've done business since before Wayne Cashman took the captaincy for Johnny Bucyk.

[+] EnlargeMilan Lucic
Brian Babineau/Getty ImagesThe old-school style of the Bruins, including Milan Lucic, may be out of place in today's NHL.

The Bruins are the hard-hat union man working the docks at a time when progress and technology are about to render him obsolete. Soon machines will do his job. Toughness is still a cherished virtue, but he is a yesterday man. Dump-and-chase hockey is over. It doesn't score enough goals (hell, it didn't score enough goals back then). The Bruins chose not to pay Phil Kessel -- a modern skill player whose finesse game never fit the Bruins' prototype -- and are in the process of undoing the great surprise season of 2008-09.

Kessel is less important than exploring the value system behind the move. The Bruins are in the critical position of having to unlearn virtually everything they've known organizationally about building a hockey club. In the land of 4-on-4 overtimes, shootouts and no more two-line passes, skating is more important than ever. The Bruins' ideal of a guy who can punch, check and score -- Cam Neely, Phil Esposito, Bucyk and now Milan Lucic -- is, for the most part, dead as a primary way of doing business. The Bruins must decide if they will reinvent themselves or die along with it.

The skateboard punks used to have a slogan that applies desperately to the Bruins in a changing NHL: Go Skate or Go Home.

IF THE PATRIOTS were the drunk uncle of the family, the Celtics were the polished older brother who never lost -- Ivy League, Wall Street, top of the class -- before ultimately seeing it all go "poof" in the stock market.

When the Celtics won their 16th NBA title, in 1986, the league had been around only 40 years. That's quite a ratio. In the NBA Finals, the Celtics held a record of 16-2. In the following 20 years, the Celtics went to the finals once.

Perhaps no team in Boston has more at stake than the Celtics entering the next decade. After the 1990s of M.L. Carr, Pervis Ellison, Xavier McDaniel and Rick Pitino, they climbed back to dominance in the past few seasons. Boston is again a signature franchise fighting with glossier rivals in a very different NBA. The challenge is to not let the title of 2008 become an aberration.

[+] EnlargeKevin Garnett
Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty ImagesWhile Kevin Garnett has embraced the city after agreeing to come to Boston, will future stars follow his lead?

The dirty little secret about the Celtics is not poor management or the devastating deaths of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis (although each remains a contributing factor). Instead, it's free agency. Since being forced in the mid-1980s to compete for players with other cities and franchises on the strength of their product, the Celtics have not been the same franchise.

Even the recent resurgence was predicated upon general manager Danny Ainge's two blockbuster trades for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. While both had to agree to come to Boston, the fact is that the Celtics have never acquired a top-level, unrestricted free agent who could have chosen any city, any team in the league, but settled on Boston.

And unlike the Red Sox, who can attract players by simply paying them more money, the Celtics are hampered by a hard salary cap.

That is the challenge. In a league in which the Lakers can offer sun and entertainment deals, Phoenix is the ballplayer's mecca, and places like Miami and New York will always be attractive, the Celtics must rely on something more than tradition. To the kids today, talking about Celtics tradition is the same as talking about the seven blocks of granite. It's Greek mythology.

AND THEN THERE ARE THE RED SOX, who are in the best position of all the Boston sports teams. They have the biggest following (the Patriots will always dispute this claim) and the friendliest financial rules. During the past decade, they escaped the hammer-and-nail relationship with the Yankees and returned the favor with a vengeance in 2004.

The past decade saw great changes in Boston baseball. The Yawkey dynasty sold the club. The Sox won not one precious championship, but two. They are no longer underdogs (in truth, they never were) and the challenge ahead will be with Theo Epstein and the type of team he chooses to field.

[+] EnlargeTheo Epstein
Mitch Stringer/Icon SMIWith a strong fan base, financial flexibility and ownership that is willing to spend, Theo Epstein is well positioned for years to come.

As long as there has been a Red Sox franchise, the city has never been without a star -- Ruth, Foxx, Williams, Yastrzemski, Clemens, Vaughn, Martinez, Garciaparra, Ramirez, Schilling -- but Epstein seems less interested in that history.

The Red Sox will always be competitive because they are one of the richest teams in the sport. They can pay to retain players, pay to obtain new ones. They are at the epicenter of the game's power -- virtually everybody wants to be a part of Sox-Yankees -- and all management must do is make good decisions.

The problem for the Red Sox lies with the fans. While the Patriots' fan base hungrily absorbed the team's success, the Red Sox fan saw his team win big while he lamented yesterday, when going to a ballgame was affordable instead of being an event. The Red Sox fan seems most ambivalent about the cost of winning. Fans feel priced out, both along financial and class lines. They asked for it and received, but seemed to feel less whole.

Eventually, perhaps as quickly as the upcoming decade, the familiar Red Sox chapter will end, giving way to a new one. Fenway Park turns 100 in two seasons and at some point it must be replaced. The transformational decade is over. Pedro, Manny, Lowe, Damon and Schilling are gone, while Ortiz is trying to engineer a last stand. The old narrative is over, the future awaiting.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston", "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron", to be published in May. He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com or followed on Twitter.

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