- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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Over the years, this pronounced perception has grown: New Englanders love to revel in the failure of their sports teams. In some quarters, there was a sneaking suspicion that they lived to lose.
As the Boston Bruins' flurry of the early 1970s faded and the Boston Celtics franchise slipped into the mediocrity of middle age in the 1990s, the half-filled glass seemed to become emptier. As the millennium approached, prospects seemed typically bleak. The last Bruins NHL championship came in 1972, 32 years ago. The Celtics were the NBA champs in 1986, representing an 18-year drought.
The Red Sox -- tantalizingly close in 1946, 1967, 1975 and 1986 -- could never quite close the deal in the World Series. The Patriots, who reached the Super Bowl at the end of the 1985 and 1996 seasons, followed the close-but-no-title-cigar protocol.
New England sports fans, particularly those in Boston, met their fate with the stoicism and a stiff upper lip appropriate for their Calvinist forebears. This was, they had come to believe, the way it was meant to be.
And then the Patriots, 14-point underdogs, stunned the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. And then they won again two seasons later, 32-29 over the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII. The Red Sox followed with their incandescent comeback from 0-3 in the American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees, then blinded the St. Louis Cardinals in a four-game sweep for their first title in 86 years. The University of Connecticut, another local concern, made history last spring by winning the NCAA men's and women's basketball championships.
And so, the other shoe has dropped. Euphoria ensued, replacing fear and loathing. Philadelphia finds itself in the same, strange boat; the Eagles are in the Super Bowl for the first time in 24 seasons. They have a chance to bring home a title for the City of Brotherly Love that has had a rough time of it over the last few decades. The Philadelphia Flyers last won the Stanley Cup in 1974-75, the Phillies last won the World Series in 1980 and the 76ers were last NBA champions in 1983.
But some observers of the New England sporting scene -- as shrewd and cynical as anyone in the business -- wondered out loud if the absence of angst would, in some way, have a harmful effect on life in the land of steady habits.
"It's thrown me off my game," Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy said in a perfectly pitched deadpan voice from his Massachusetts home. "It's a whole new bag of tricks."
Losing, if nothing else, was a constant, something you could depend on. If the Patriots and Red Sox were champions, not losers, what other enduring and universal truths were really falsehoods?
Is the world really flat after all? In a related thought, is Lindsay Lohan really just an all-natural girl? Have the rules of gravity -- down now seems to be up -- been suspended? Was Abraham Lincoln a dishonest man? Is Bill Clinton a model of morality? Is the check really in the mail?
In the name of Bucky F---ing Dent, how can New England fans ever trust anything again?
Arnold "Red" Auerbach is the architect of perhaps the greatest dynasty in major professional sports. His Celtics won 16 NBA titles, including a staggering eight straight between 1959 and 1966. Auerbach, still the Celtics president, has been with the organization for 55 years. At 87, he was born the year before the Red Sox won their previous World Series championship. Remarkably, he still keeps regular hours in a second-floor office above K Street in Washington, D.C.
Earlier this week, an earnest scribe -- quick disclaimer: the author of this story was born in Boston 47 years ago -- tried to explain this (shaky) premise to Red on Roundball.
"The fans are going to miss suffering?" said Auerbach, always a straight shooter. "Is that what you're saying? Who's the bright guy who said that?"
Well, uhhhh ...
"Winning does a lot of great things, doesn't it?" Auerbach continued. "But what you're talking about is very comparable to a compulsive gambler who isn't happy unless he's losing. That's not really the case here. Why don't they just enjoy it?
"I think the fans, they're really happy and walking around with their chests high. They're part of the universe again."
Fulfilling the quest
On Dec. 31, Shaughnessy wrote in the Boston Globe: "You don't want it to end. You want it to be 2004 forever, or at least a few more days. Can't it be 2004 just a little longer?
"You are a Boston Red Sox fan and 2004 goes down as the best year of your life. Two thousand four is to you what 1969 is to Neil Armstrong. It is what 1964 is to Paul McCartney. It's what 1776 was to Thomas Jefferson and friends.
"By any reasonable measure, the fulfillment of the Red Sox epic quest was the biggest story of the year in New England, the biggest sports story of the year nationally, and the greatest Boston sporting event of our lifetime."
Today, Shaughnessy adds, "I think extremes are always good. Mediocrity bogs you down. A .500 baseball team can make a liar out of you every day. You write they're going to win and they lose, and then vice versa.
"Now, there is more opportunity for hyperbole, which we like. Extremely good is better than extremely bad, and far better than mediocre."
No one captured the spirit of this palette-cleansing championship like the Red Sox's Theo Epstein, at 30 the youngest general manager in the game. He moved to Brookline, Mass., at age 4, scored in the high 1400s on his SAT and went onto become the sports editor of the Yale Daily News.
"This is for anyone who ever played for the Red Sox, anyone who ever rooted for the Red Sox, anyone who has ever been to Fenway Park," he said.
Callers to the club's main switchboard are greeted by a phone message: "Thank you for calling the 2004 world champion Red Sox."
Three months later, it still doesn't seem right. And now the Patriots are favored to beat the Philadelphia Eagles by a touchdown in Jacksonville.
Remember the cloud that followed Phil Mickelson as "the best golfer never to win a major" until he broke through to win last year's Masters? That was the cloud that left Boston when the Patriots won in 2001 and 2003 and the Red Sox followed in 2004.
The 15 year-span that preceded this Era of Good Feeling was as dry and dusty as the Sahara.
Bill Simmons, the wildly popular Sports Guy on ESPN.com, is a thoroughly Boston guy, but he's written so often about the anxiety that comes with being a sports fan with roots in Beantown that he's trying to cut back to avoid the continuing torrent of criticism.
Simmons says that this recent black hole goes back to 1986, when Len Bias, the first-round draft choice of the Celtics out of Maryland, died of a cocaine overdose. Bill Buckner's classic faux pas came later that same year. The Bruins made the Stanley Cup finals in 1988 and 1990, but lost to the dynasty-in-the-making Edmonton Oilers. Wade Boggs left the Red Sox for the dreaded Yankees after the 1992 season, Celtics star Reggie Lewis died in 1993 and Roger Clemens left the Red Sox for the Toronto Blue Jays (and later, the Yanks) after the 1996 season.
"See?" Simmons said. "The [stuff] adds up after awhile. I definitely think people were affected by it.
"When the black-sheep Patriots won the Super Bowl, the Red Sox World Series seemed possible. The karma was too overpowering. The Red Sox fundamentally changed the entire region and that's not going to go away."
Simmons couldn't resist a parting shot at the city that sends its football team against his beloved Patriots.
"The fans in Philly are definitely more tortured than Boston fans," Simmons said. "In fact, they're right behind the Jets' fans."
The (suddenly) surreal world
Dr. Alan Goldberg is a sports psychologist, whose Amherst, Mass., company, The Competitive Advantage, helps athletes perform up to their potential.
From a psychological standpoint, Goldberg said, New England fans have had to make an adjustment.
"With the Celtics of Red Auerbach and Larry Bird it was accepted that basketball and hockey, with the Bruins, would always win," Goldberg said. "But baseball and football were different. On some level, you have fans that are a little bit in shock -- in a nice way.
"There's no question it's unbelievably disorienting. It's like you don't have your equilibrium. You're in a different world. It's surreal. The Red Sox coming back from three down ... we're supposed to steal defeat from the closing jaws of victory, not the other way around."
Alan Klein, a professor of anthropology at Northeastern University, is a huge sports fan. Klein, who won the North American Society for Sport Sociology's Book of the Year Award for "Baseball on the Border: A Tale of Two Laredos," has always had a unique perspective.
"It's so fundamentally a part of the mystique and identity of Boston that I think some people wondered if success would ultimately be worse than the curse," Klein said from his home south of Boston. "There was such a cohesion in the Red Sox Nation's search for that elusive championship.
"I guess it's sort of like the CIA and KGB after the collapse of the Soviet Union -- the CIA has no identity any more. Next year was something we could always anticipate as losers. Now, what are we looking at?"
Klein, like so many Boston fans, felt the joy of the moment when the Red Sox beat the Cardinals. He ran to wake up his two young children and they watched the final inning together. It was, he said, "an orgiastic outpouring of jubilation."
But Klein, ever the purist, feels that something that was lost during the journey.
"Here's my problem with the Boston sports fan," Klein said. "They got their championship, but I don't think they appreciate the process. The championship was not everything it should have been because they gave up Nomar. He should have been the cornerstone.
"The 2003 season was perceived as a monumental failure -- in fact, it was a colossal season. As a fan, all you can expect is drama, and that whole series was a Greek drama. Pedro Martinez and Don Zimmer. Grady Little's decision to keep Pedro in. It's the process, not just the end result."
Super Bowl aside, Klein thinks he know how the New England sporting landscape will look in the future -- as soon as pitchers and catchers report next month in Florida.
"What does it all mean?" Klein asked. "Pedro's gone, a lot of guys are gone. You know we're not going to repeat. Once that parade was over and everybody had consumed every possible piece of merchandise. Then what do you do? You float back down to earth.
"All we're left with is a big pile of merchandise."
And, perhaps, the (welcome?) return of angst and anxiety.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.