Commentary

The decade debate: Boston vs. L.A.

Updated: December 31, 2009, 12:05 PM ET
By David Schoenfield | ESPNBoston

Editor's note: This story orginally ran on Sept. 14 when ESPNBoston.com launched

Well, Boston sports fans, as you sweat through Jonathan Papelbon's saves and Tim Wakefield's back and the revamped Patriots defense, we're here to offer congratulations on your new ESPN local site.

After all, you deserve it.

Has any city ever seen a decade of success like this?

The Patriots won three Super Bowls and nearly completed the greatest season in NFL history. The Red Sox ended the Curse of the Bambino with the most improbable comeback in playoff history and a World Series sweep. And then they won again. The Celtics went from laughingstock to NBA champions in one season. Heck, even the Bruins are showing life, posting the NHL's second-best record last season.

How unlikely was all of this? Look at where the city's franchises were as the new decade was born. The Patriots had just fired Pete Carroll after an 8-8 season and seemed stuck in mediocrity, especially after going 5-11 in Bill Belichick's first year. The once-proud Celtics had become an embarrassment; the 1999-00 season would be their seventh consecutive losing season. The Bruins would score 73 points in 1999-00, the team's worst showing since 1967. The Red Sox were in better shape, having made the playoffs in 1998 and 1999; of course, they had lost the '99 ALCS to the despised Yankees, who were in the midst of four World Series titles in five years.

What was the high point of the decade?

How about October 2004, when the Patriots had just won their 21st consecutive game and the Red Sox had just shocked the Yankees in the ALCS? Or December 2007, when the Red Sox were reigning World Series champs, the Patriots had just completed a 16-0 regular season, and the Celtics had acquired Kevin Garnett and were on their way to a 29-3 start?

Or maybe it's right now. The Red Sox appear headed to the playoffs. Brady is back to lead the Patriots. The Celtics and Bruins will be starting soon enough and look to be title contenders.

With six championships in three sports and winning season after winning season, was it the greatest decade ever for a city? After looking at various cities, we concluded that only one other city experienced similar success across different sports: Los Angeles in the 1980s. (Only fitting that it's L.A.)

A comparison is in order (from an impartial observer, it is worth mentioning).

Winning is everything

First, a table. Remember, for most of the decade Los Angeles had two NFL teams (the Raiders moved there before the 1982 season) and two baseball franchises. We did not count the Clippers, who moved to L.A. in 1984.

Los Angeles won more championships, eight to six, but it had more opportunities. As a percentage of total seasons, L.A. won eight out of 58 (13.8 percent). Boston has won six out of 37 (16.2 percent).

Of course, there is more to winning than just championships. If we average the winning percentages of all the franchises, Boston comes out on top, .588 to .560.

Percentage of playoffs seasons? Very close: Boston is at 59.5 percent as we await the Red Sox and Patriots of '09; L.A. was 58.6 percent.

Thanks to the ineptitude of the Kings for most of the '80s and the fact that the Red Sox and Patriots have had only one losing season between them, Boston easily has a higher percentage of .500 or better seasons -- 76 percent to 64 percent.

EDGE: Boston.

Now, maybe winning isn't everything. We have other aspects of the decades we must consider.

Signature moment

With apologies to Magic's baby skyhook and Marcus Allen's Super Bowl run, L.A.'s signature moment has to be Kirk Gibson's 1988 World Series homer, right? It was dramatic and unexpected, was the pivotal moment as the Dodgers upset the A's, and has the mythical element of Gibson hobbling to the plate, barely able to stand, let alone drive a ball. It ranks as one of the most memorable home runs in World Series history.

At the time, it seemed even more shocking because of the aura of invincibility around Dennis Eckersley. You know what, though? As good as Eck was in 1988 (2.35 ERA, 45 saves), he was even better in 1989, 1990 and 1992. He allowed a .198 average in '88, nothing to sneeze at, but a figure that doesn't match some of the lights-out numbers we see from today's closers. Still, Eckersley had allowed only nine extra-base hits all season and Gibson had a bad knee and a stomach virus, and even though Vin Scully announced "Look who's coming up!" as Gibson came to the plate (Dave Anderson had been on the on-deck circle as the potential pinch-hitter) … well, even as Gibson ran the count to 2 and 2 and fouled off a pitch and then drew ball three, Eckersley was going to get him. No doubt. Only he didn't.

As for Boston, there is no shortage of moments, from Adam Vinatieri's field goals in the blizzard against the Raiders to his kick to beat the Rams to Big Papi's hits to beat the Yankees in the playoffs to Tom Brady's goat. But we're going with Curt Schilling walking off the mound after the seventh inning of Game 6 of the '04 ALCS after allowing one run, his sock bloodied, the Yankee Stadium crowd quiet, stunned and disbelieving. Even the Schilling cynics had to admire his performance that evening.

EDGE: Tie. Two wounded heroes. How can you pick just one? Schilling's outing made it possible to dream; Gibson's homer was something you dream about.

Hall of Fame careers

The Lakers had Magic (twice MVP in the '80s), Kareem (past his prime, but still good enough to be league MVP in '80 and All-NBA first team as late as 1986, when he was 38), and Worthy (the perfect third wheel, albeit overrated -- he received MVP votes just once in his career and made All-NBA third team only twice). The Raiders had Marcus Allen, Howie Long and Mike Haynes. The Rams had Eric Dickerson and Jackie Slater. The Kings had Marcel Dionne, Luc Robitaille and Wayne Gretzky (at the end of the decade). The Angels had Rod Carew and Reggie Jackson (both in their declining years, however) and Bobby Grich (who should be in the Hall, but isn't). Surprisingly, the Dodgers had no Hall of Famers from the decade. Orel Hershiser got hurt and fell a bit short. Fernando Valenzuela burned out. Pedro Guerrero was one of the best hitters for a five-year stretch but didn't sustain the production.

For Boston, Garnett, Pierce and Allen have all accumulated enough Hall of Fame credentials. (Brian Scalabrine has a long way to go.) Tom Brady, of course, but who else from the Patriots? Randy Moss. Adam Vinatieri should become the second kicker to make it. Rodney Harrison? Probably not (only a two-time Pro Bowler). Richard Seymour is a long shot -- five-time Pro Bowler, three-time first-team All-Pro. In Bill Belichick's world, football players are dispensable and easily replaced -- you win with depth and smarts, not stars. For the Bruins, Joe Thornton; it's too early to recommend anyone else. The Red Sox have several candidates: Pedro Martinez is a lock; Manny Ramirez should be a lock but won't be; Schilling has a good case, especially with his sterling postseason numbers; David Ortiz is similar to Guerrero; Nomar Garciaparra sure looked like he was going to be one; and we'll wait and see on Josh Beckett. The other guy with an outside chance is Johnny Damon: He has never been anything more than a minor star and has made just two All-Star Games, but he has more than 2,400 career hits and is still playing well.

EDGE: Los Angeles. Magic and Kareem and two of the greatest running backs of all time trump Pedro, Brady and the Big Three (especially since KG and Allen spent most of the decade elsewhere).

Greatest individual achievement

Eric Dickerson set the NFL's single-season rushing record in 1984. (What's amazing, besides the fact that the record has lasted 25 years and withstood 2,000-yard assaults from Jamal Lewis, Barry Sanders and Terrell Davis, is that Dickerson accomplished this with Jeff Kemp as the Rams quarterback. Defenses knew the Rams were going to run and still couldn't stop him. It's really one of the most underappreciated records in sports.) Kareem became the NBA's all-time scoring leader. Gretzky surpassed Gordie Howe in a Kings uniform. Don Sutton was still pitching with an Afro in 1986. But L.A.'s greatest individual accomplishment has to be Orel Hershiser's 1988 streak of 59 consecutive scoreless innings. As if that weren't enough, Hershiser carried the Dodgers to the World Series, winning three postseason games and allowing just five earned runs in five playoff starts. Over his final 14 starts, Hershiser pitched 124 2/3 innings and allowed 11 runs (nine earned) for a 0.65 ERA. He even saved a game in the NLCS.

Boston has Pedro Martinez's remarkable 2000 season (1.74 ERA, .167 batting average allowed), Big Papi's 54 home runs in 2006, Randy Moss' 23 touchdown catches and Manny Ramirez's record of not running out 36 consecutive ground balls in 2008. But we have to go with Tom Brady's 50 touchdown passes in 2007. He broke Peyton Manning's record of 49, led the Patriots to a 16-0 regular season and amazingly kept this focus while dating the world's most famous model. (By the way, which team had the best 2007 offseason: the Patriots for acquiring Wes Welker for second- and seventh-round picks and Moss for a fourth-rounder; or the Celtics, for trading for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen?)

EDGE: Los Angeles. Tough call, but Brady's individual accomplishment was a team effort (and don't forget those games where New England shamelessly ran up the score) and Hershiser accomplished his feat in the heat of a pennant race.

Coaching titan

With apologies to Tommy Lasorda and Terry Francona, this is Pat Riley versus Bill Belichick. The slicked-back hair and $2,500 suits versus Supercuts and gray hoodies; Riley guaranteeing a repeat versus Belichick admitting he "made a mistake" and drawing a $500,000 fine for spying. Hmm. There's only one way to settle this. Let's go to amazon.com.

Riley has written two books, "The Winner Within: A Life Plan for Team Players" and "Show Time: Inside the Lakers' Breakthrough Season." (The breakthrough season in question was 1987, which came two years after they had won the 1985 title.) I can find only one book about Riley, Mark Heisler's "The Lives of Riley," which came out in 1994.

Not surprisingly, Belichick hasn't written a book but has penned two forewords, one for a book called "Football Physics" and one for Nick Saban's book on how to lead and succeed at work and life, which I haven't read, so can't confirm that Belichick actually endorses Saban's rules for success. Famed author David Halberstam wrote "The Education of a Coach," and there have been many books written about this decade's Patriots, including Michael Holley's "Patriots Reign: Bill Belichick, the Coaches and the Players Who Built a Champion." Belichick is pictured in his gray hoodie on the cover.

EDGE: Boston. You know you've made it big when Halberstam writes a bio about you.

Memorable sort-of brawl

Kurt Rambis/Kevin McHale, 1984 Finals, versus Pedro Martinez/Don Zimmer, 2003 ALCS.

In this corner, we have McHale clotheslining Rambis as the Lakers forward charged to the basket midway through the third quarter of Game 4 of the '84 Finals. If it happened today, McHale would be suspended for the rest of the series, the blogosphere would self-destruct, Shaq would send out 20 Twitter posts in three minutes, and Lakers fans would probably storm the court and start swatting Celtics players with their sunglasses. Then? McHale got called for a personal foul.

In the other corner, we have notorious headhunter Martinez nailing Karim Garcia in the back after Hideki Matsui's double broke a 2-2 tie, Garcia shoving Red Sox second baseman Todd Walker after a hard slide, the benches clearing, Roger Clemens throwing in the general direction of Manny Ramirez's head, the benches clearing again, and Zimmer charging Martinez like an enraged old man with a metal plate in his skull (wait, he actually does have a metal plate in his head). To top it off, Garcia later injured his hand while joining a fight between the Yankees relievers and a member of the Boston grounds crew.

EDGE: None. Each team lost the game and the series. The Celtics rallied from a 76-70 deficit to win the game and the series in seven games. The Red Sox lost 4-3 and dropped the series in seven games.

Shocking trade involving a superduperstar

The Kings acquire Wayne Gretzky. The Celtics acquire Kevin Garnett.

KG delivered a championship. Most excellent job, KG. Gretzky actually turned the Kings into legitimate Stanley Cup contenders and made L.A. care about hockey (sort of).

EDGE: Los Angeles. Heck, an entire city cried in shock when "The Great One" was traded. The only thing shocking about Kevin McHale trading Garnett to his buddy Danny Ainge was that they didn't consummate the deal over drinks at Ainge's summer house on the Cape. (Of course, that very well may have happened).

Eyewear versus hair

Amazingly, the Lakers had three goggles/glasses-wearing regulars in Kareem, Worthy and Rambis. Eric Dickerson also wore goggles. Was it all the smog?

Boston counters with Johnny Damon's beard; Kevin Youkilis' goatee; Kevin Millar's plethora of styles, goatees and dye jobs; Manny's dreads; and Tom Brady's perfect coiffure.

EDGE: Boston. By a hair (sorry).

Dramatic playoff comeback

In 1982, the Kings pulled off the greatest single-game comeback in NHL history in the ""Miracle on Manchester." Trailing 5-0 after two periods, the Kings rallied to defeat the Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers 6-5 in overtime. The Kings later upset the Oilers in Game 5 to win the series.

As dramatic as that was, it doesn't compare to this, this, this, this and this. Which, of course, led to this.

EDGE: Boston.

So in the final tally, Boston edges Los Angeles, 4 to 3. Congrats, Boston, on the greatest decade ever.

David Schoenfield is a senior editor for ESPN.com.

David Schoenfield | email

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