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Sunday, September 13, 2009
Updated: September 19, 11:01 PM ET
A city of passion, history, influence

By Howard Bryant
ESPNBoston.com

For a certain segment of the population living outside the 617 area code, so convinced of a vast East Coast conspiracy to elevate Boston at the diminishment of the rest of the world, today's launch of a site dedicated to Boston sports might seem a tad redundant.

Tom Brady
A new era of Patriots football was forged on that snowy night in January 2002.

Save for its NHL team, Boston has been in the sports world's face rather heavily during this recent stretch of history, and there is little doubt the city is enjoying quite a run. During the past 10 years, Boston teams have produced four Super Bowl appearances (three victories, and the one defeat coming for a team that had completed an undefeated regular season) from a franchise once better known for defining mediocrity, two World Series wins from another outfit whose trademark had once been spectacular defeat, and a surprising NBA title from a dynasty that had been in hibernation for nearly 20 years.

The city is riding a sports wave in terms of success, rivaling the big 10-year run of Los Angeles in the 1980s and, to a far lesser extent, the dominance of New York baseball in the 1950s. But there always has been something outsized -- beyond the city's opinion of itself -- about the way the games are played in Boston, win or lose. Every city has its moments, the exhilaration and the pain of a Cleveland fan not so different from the higher-profile events in Boston, but few have ever combined heartache and bliss on such a Promethean, literary -- and in the age of Internet, hyperbolic and scandalous -- scale.

Maybe you had to live it to feel it: 2002 divisional-round playoff, Tom Brady drops back, sacked by Charles Woodson, fumbles ball, season over ... but wait ... a replay, a reprieve and a dynasty, karmic payback, perhaps, for getting robbed by those same Raiders (roughing the passer on third-and-17, way back in '76).

There was 2003, Yankee Stadium (I was there), where Pedro Martinez, Grady Little, Tim Wakefield and Aaron Boone headlined the playbill. And then 2004 (I was there for that one, too) ... Game 4 ALCS, pre-Bloody Sock: Sox beaten 19-8 the night before. I had four tickets to Game 4. No one wanted them. I gave them to strangers ... and, well, you know the rest. The Red Sox haven't been the same since that night, and neither, for that matter, have the Yankees.

Around the country there is New York fatigue, and Boston fatigue is not far behind, for at the core of the Boston sports experience is first a rabid fan base and a penchant for the dramatic. Neither the recent history of basketball nor baseball has been at its very best without Boston being part of the story at some important juncture. You'd have to go back a long way to find a more intense rivalry than Red Sox-Yankees from 2003 to 2006, and Celtics-Lakers -- before the miracle of Jordan -- redefined the NBA.

And there always was something cruel about when the underdog Boston teams (other than the Celtics) reached the finals: Boston teams always had to face a dynasty.

The sport did not matter. Since their last title in 1972, the Bruins played the 1970s Canadiens and Flyers, and the Gretzky-Messier Edmonton Oilers, in the Stanley Cup finals. Each is considered among the handful of greatest teams ever.

The Red Sox not only lost in bizarre and frightening ways but also had to face the 108-win Big Red Machine in '75 and the 108-win Mets in '86.

The Patriots' first trip to the Super Bowl resulted in a matchup against arguably one of the best NFL teams ever, the mighty 1985 Bears.

And it should be noted that passion does not always equate to a happy ending, for the postscript of the Boston Celtics of the 1980s is that by decade's end, the Lakers were clearly the better team, Magic Johnson the better player, even by Larry Bird's own admission.

David Ortiz
The Red Sox haven't been the same since the 2004 ALCS -- and neither have the Yankees.

All sports cities aren't equal, but Boston's second characteristic that gives it its special power is history -- a necessary, but not always welcome ingredient of the city's makeup. It is a common lament that sports don't matter much anymore on a social scale. The money is too great. The players make so much that they are no longer a part of us. Their children do not go to public schools anymore. The players live behind the velvet rope, sealed away from us. Their problems are no longer ours.

This, of course, was not always the case, and the reason sports resonate in Boston as strongly as they do today is because yesterday, the sport and society meshed here as in few other places.

The Baltimore Orioles play in Baltimore but do not reflect in any way the historical characteristics of the city. Boston is different. The Red Sox, historically, served as an unfortunate mirror for the city with its unprogressive racial attitudes toward a changing America, and just when the Red Sox seemed to have turned the corner with their diverse winning clubs of the 1970s, the city reciprocated by revealing its ugliest side during its wrenching, embarrassing debut of school desegregation.

Yet on another side of town when the country was confronting itself, it was a Jewish coach, Red Auerbach, and an African-American player, Bill Russell, who changed history in their own way. The Red Sox were the last team to integrate when they could have been the first, with Jackie Robinson, no less.

But in the same city, with far less attention, the Celtics were the first team to play five blacks on the court at the same time, the first professional sports team to hire a black coach. And even earlier, the old Braves, before moving to Milwaukee, integrated Boston baseball in 1950 with Sam Jethroe.

Then there is the business of caring, which Boston fans do as well as anyone in the country, and the city's place in sport history as well as a final element: the immense power these franchises carry within their sports. Boston is also home to some of the most powerful figures in sport, and they must be held accountable to the public that spends its disposable income on sports teams and transparent to the readers who care to understand how power actually works.

This is less a compliment and more a fact. Despite the Red Sox's clever construction of an "Evil Empire" in the Bronx, making Boston, by default, the good guys of this marketing fiction, the Red Sox, in truth, have not been underdogs -- financially or influentially -- since before the Great Depression.

For the first 50 years of the NBA, the Celtics were the dominant force on and off the court, the late Auerbach the formidable figure in the game. As the Celtics resurge into the public eye, the new owners, Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca, will no doubt see their power increase.

The Patriots have been a great football team, but make no mistake of who the power players are in that other more important game: the one being played off the field. Of the new breed of owners, only Philadelphia's Jeffrey Lurie and Dallas' Jerry Jones rival the power and influence of Robert Kraft, the owner of the Patriots. On the business side of the game, few initiatives -- especially in the area of allocation of non-television-generated local revenue -- are in place without input from the Kraft family.

John Henry, Larry Lucchino and Tom Werner of the Red Sox are formidable figures in Major League Baseball, and the Red Sox are an American League flagship. The Boston Bruins have not won a Stanley Cup in 37 years, but Jeremy Jacobs always has been one of the league's more powerful owners.

The sports fan and reader interested in the power beyond the throne as well as the final score on the field would do well to understand the place of the Boston owner in how their respective sports leagues are run.

In the end, Boston has always found itself at the center of the action, spectacular in victory or defeat, influential in power, pioneering or infamous historically. The combination of these components gives the city's sports scene its special vibrancy and burdensome responsibility.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. He is the author of "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42.