The Myth of Complacency in Boston Sports

When the Boston Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 - the team's first championship since 1918 - one of the follow-up storylines held that New England sports fans, having rid themselves of ghosts, demons and "curses," might lose their passion for baseball.

The premise was simple: Red Sox fans had waited 86 years to see their team win the World Series, and now that their suffering was finally over it would never again be fun to go to Fenway Park. Might as well shut the place down and move the Red Sox to Vegas.

The real fun, went the argument, was to spend the winter grousing over the Red Sox' latest ruinous season and then, come the spring, latch on to the newly-formed belief that this is going to be the year. And, lo, there had been plenty of calamitous endings to once-promising seasons over the years - Enos Slaughter's mad dash to home plate to lift the St. Louis Cardinals to victory in Game 7 of the '46 World Series, gin-blossomy manager Joe McCarthy making the preposterous decision to start journeyman Denny Galehouse in a 1948 playoff game against the Cleveland Indians, Jim Lonborg fighting and losing the good fight on two days of rest in Game 7 of the '67 World Series, Luis Aparicio dooming the Sox to a second-place finish when he tripped rounding third base in the last days of the '72 season, Darrell Johnson sending up Cecil Cooper to bat for Jim Willoughby in Game 7 of the '75 World Series, Bucky Dent's home run off Mike Torrez in the '78 playoff game, the ball going between Bill Buckner's legs in '86, Grady Little leaving Pedro Martinez on the mound to get pounded by the Yankees in Game 7 of the '03 American League Championship Series.

And so on.

In his 1985 book, "Beyond the Sixth Game," ESPN's Peter Gammons, who covered the Red Sox for parts of two decades, tells the story about the fan sitting in a bar three months after the '75 World Series, ". . . drinking fifty-cent shots with twenty-five-cent drafts, blankly staring at the television mounted up in the corner of the bar. He had been there for nearly four hours, watching, when he turned for the first time to a group of three men down the bar. 'Why,' he stammered, 'did Johnson bat for Willoughby?'

"'Where were you,' replied one of the men, 'when you heard Denny Galehouse was pitching against the Indians?'

"'How,' asked another, 'could Slaughter have scored from first?'''

But along came the 2004 Red Sox, staging their historic comeback against the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, winning four straight games after losing the first three, and then sweeping the overwhelmed Cardinals in the World Series. And never again would Sox fans have anything to complain about, thus making it pointless to follow baseball.

Well . . . no. The reality is that Boston sports fans - and we're talking about followers of the Bruins, Celtics and Patriots and Red Sox - are a lot like Audrey II, the man-eating plant in "Little Shop of Horrors."

Once Audrey II had that first taste of blood . . .

Beginning with the Patriots' shocking upset of the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI of February 3, 2002, the Boston sports market has gorged itself on six championship celebrations. The Patriots returned two years later and won Super Bowl XXXVIII, and they were repeat champions in Super Bowl XXXIX. The Red Sox, after winning the World Series in 2004, won it again in 2007. And then the Celtics, after acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and joining them with Paul Pierce for a newly-built Big Three, captured the 2007-08 National Basketball Association championship, the team's first since 1986.

And while I may have missed a few places - including the bar in Inman Square in Cambridge, Mass., where Peter Gammons's long-suffering Red Sox fan stewed over Darrell Johnson's decision to pinch-hit for Jim Willoughby in Game 7 of the '75 World Series - I have yet to make the acquaintance of a Boston sports fan who, having witnessed six championship celebrations in a little more than six years, is capable of sitting back and saying, "OK, I'm good."

When I was researching my book "Wicked Good Year: How the Red Sox, Patriots and Celtics Turned the Hub of the Universe into the Capital of Sports," I spent enough time with enough Boston sports fans to confirm what I believed all along: In Boston, as in all rabid sports towns, there is no such thing as too much winning. As for the notion that the demise of the Red Sox' decades-old championship drought was going to empty Fenway Park of its passion, that's a whopper of a miss.

During this past baseball season, the Red Sox won 95 games and qualified for the playoffs as the American League's wild-card. Not only were the Sox were swept in the Division Series by the Los Angeles Angels, the end was horrific: Closer Jonathan Papelbon, who came into the series having pitched 25 scoreless innings in 16 career postseason appearances, gave up three ninth-inning runs.

In the days following the defeat, there was plenty of talk that maybe it's time for the Red Sox to give Jonathan Papelbon the big adios and groom rookie Daniel Bard as the next closer. The Red Sox were criticized for not making a bigger push to sign free-agent slugger Mark Teixeira . . . who signed with the Yankees . . . who wound up winning the World Series. (You can look it up: In Boston, it's illegal to invest in silver linings in any year in which the Yankees win the World Series.) General manager Theo Epstein was especially criticized for some of the free-agent signings he's made in recent years, and for his inability to understand that, gee, shortstop really is an important position.

But here's one topic nobody was talking about: The good old days of 2004 and '07. In fact, a case can be made that the fallout over the '09 season was greater than in seasons in which the Red Sox simply played wire-to-wire, not-good-enough baseball and then simply went away.

It's the same in any discussion of the Celtics and Patriots. As recently as two weeks ago, Patriots coach Bill Belichick had his genius credentials temporarily suspended after his decision to go for first down on fourth-and-two, rather than punt the ball, in the last minutes of New England's nationally-televised game against the undefeated Indianapolis Colts. The Pats didn't get the first down. The Colts got the ball back. The Colts won.

The next day, people were calling Bill Belichick a lot of names. "Genius" was not among them.

Every caller on every talk show was Audrey II. Looking for blood. Same as always.

The Red Sox have sold out every home game since 2003. Since moving into Gillette Stadium in 2002, the Patriots have yet to play in front of an empty seat. The Celtics have sold out every home game for the past two seasons, and will do so again this season.

This is what separates the Bostons, the Phillys, the New Yorks, the Chicagos, from most other towns in America: Folks don't fill the ballparks, areas and stadiums to talk about the good old days. They want the goods.