When Winning Never StopsPhoto Credit : Illustration by the Sporting Press
“I learned how to fly afew minutes before midnight on Oct. 27, 2004. I always thought I could fly, watching those seagulls drop out of the air to spear yet another French fry from the MDC trash cans across from Kelly’s Roast Beef in Revere, but I never had given it a shot. The Boston Red Sox gave me strength.
‘If the Red Sox can win the World Series,’ I said, stepping from the house just moments after reliever Keith Foulke fielded a ground ball and flipped it to first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz for the final out and the 4–0 sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals, ‘then I surely can fly.’
I flapped my arms as fast as I could, jumped into the air, and I was off. Simple as that. I soon was soaring across Boston Harbor and then downtown and then directly over the celebrating crowd at Kenmore Square. I buzzed a couple of Northeastern University kids climbing a lamppost, startled a TPF trooper into dropping his truncheon, took a hard left at the Prudential Building….”
—Leigh Montville, Boston Sunday Globe, Oct. 31, 2004
CONFESSION: I did not attend the last couple of duck boat parades.
CONFESSION:I can’t remember the last duck boat parade I did attend.
Didn’t go. Can’t remember.
This is embarrassing.
Here I am, the man who tap-danced deliriously across the Globe’s special souvenir sports section 15 years ago, said he could fly when the Red Sox finally won a World Series after 86 years of trying. Did not even work for the newspaper anymore, hadn’t for a while, but was called back. One day only. The sports editor said the special section had grown so fat that it contained over a million dollars’ worth of ads. I was an added part of that happy fat.
Who better to chronicle the Sir Edmund Hillary (and Tenzing Norgay) moment when the Red Sox finally reached the summit? I had kept track of the carnage on the side of the mountain as the paper’s sports columnist from 1968 until 1989, had counted the stitches, weighed the buckets of tears, watched Bucky Dent send a baseball softly into the left-field screen at Fenway Park, watched another baseball roll through Bill Buckner’s legs at Shea Stadium. I had seen the misery. I had seen the spectator pain. I was the historian of this particular hell.
And now this bad time that had stretched across any number of lifetimes was over? Done?
“The Charles River—it appeared to me, at least—had been turned into buttermilk,” I wrote in the Globe. “The John Hancock Building was made out of chocolate. The strings on the Zakim Bridge played a melody when the wind hit them just right. The hospitals all were empty, the churches all were full. A heart seemed to beat in the middle of Fenway Park, right under the pitcher’s mound….”
I couldn’t help myself.
All of New England was caught by this moment, this joy. You didn’t have to like baseball, didn’t even have to like sports. All you had to do was open the door, look at your neighbors. Smiles were everywhere. Radios were loud. Dancing occurred. People were headed to cemeteries to drink a bottle of champagne with departed dads and moms and Fat Uncle Joe. We did it! Finally! The heaviest tables in all of sports had been turned. Everybody had a part in it. The players on the Red Sox roster might have done the final job, but the people of the city, the region, had lived the lives.
I went to the duck boat parade. Damn right I did. I went with my grown son and my grown daughter, who had cried as children when the sad things happened, the same way I had cried as a child when the sad things happened. (Question: Was I a bad parent for walking my kids into this familiar vale of tears? Answer: I had thought so, many times.) All bad thoughts were purged. Feelings arrived that I didn’t even know existed. I had conversations in my head with ghosts from 20 years ago, 30, 40 years ago, people I hadn’t remembered for a long, long time, especially fans of the New York Yankees, both alive and dead. This was bigger and better than I had ever imagined.
It mattered that the Red Sox finally had won the World Series and I was alive to see it. I might never be a millionaire, might never be discovered by Hollywood, might never write that novel—might never do a lot of things on the checklist—but this one was done. Check. The Red Sox had won the World Series.
There would never be a moment like this again.
CONFESSION:I do know I went to the parade to celebrate the Red Sox win in the 2013 World Series. I went with my two grandsons. Bought them those long plastic horns that make those long irritating sounds that make children happy and adults deranged. The grandsons’ mother was not happy.
CONFESSION:I am pretty sure I have been to another parade since then. Maybe the New England Patriots in the snow? Waving at Tom? Tom waving back? Maybe. Maybe not.
Hard to say.
There is a duck boat parade on the second Tuesday of every other month these days. Or so it seems. The duck boat parade has become a regularly scheduled event.
The odd-looking amphibious crafts, normally full of tourists from places like Iowa and Portugal, everybody off to see the Granary Burying Ground and Paul Revere’s house, cough and snort their way through the Hub of the Universe in a conga line of celebration for yet another local professional athletic team that has won yet another championship. The recorded voice of the late Mr. Freddie Mercury sings that song (you know the one) and confetti is shot out of cannons and people cheer and wave clever signs as each duck boat passes with its famous passengers and someone normal throws a beer to a famous someone and the famous someone chugs it the way a champion would (that’s you, Gronk) and the cheers become even louder. There is a proclamation from the mayor and kids are allowed to skip school and a police estimate of the crowd size is somewhere in the seven figures, even on the cold days, and joy once again is everywhere.
There now have been 12 Boston duck boat parades in the past 18 years. The 21st century has become a championship celebration in Boston in particular and New England in general, from Moosehead Lake to the Block Island Ferry and everywhere in between. Since 2000, the New England Patriots have won the Super Bowl six times. The Red Sox have won the World Series four times. The Boston Bruins have won the Stanley Cup. The Boston Celtics, the sole Boston bright light for most of history, won yet another NBA championship in 2008. The once-in-a-lifetime moment for most cities has become the 10th-, 11-, 12th-in-a-lifetime moment around here.
Celebrations have arrived one after another, after another, after another. They have become choreographed down to the last hurrah. Everybody knows what to do. Fire up the boats. Fire up the population. Let ’er rip the same way we have let ’er rip all those other times. The region is in the midst of an all-you-can-eat statistical anomaly. Dinner never seems to end.
“Considering the fact that each of our professional sports leagues has 30 teams or so—we are leaving Major League Soccer out of this equation because we can—any franchise, statistically speaking, should win a championship only once every 30 years or so,” Norman Chad, a tongue-in-cheek gambling expert for TheWashington Post, wrote this year. “Thus, in an average lifetime, sports fans should see their teams win two or three titles. New England is shattering this age-old, time-honored algorithm.”
A string of near misses has tilted the numbers even more in the local direction. Boston sports professionals have played in the championship game or series for their league 18 times in these 18 years. The Patriots, who started this duck boat business with their electric last-minute 20–17 championship win over the heavily favored St. Louis Rams in 2002, have played in nine Super Bowls, basically one every other year. The Red Sox have played in four World Series, the Bruins in three Stanley Cup finals, the Celtics in two NBA Finals.
No end is in sight. Every team in the city seems to be a certified powerhouse. In late April and early May of this year, there was a reasonable possibility that Boston teams could capture all four major professional championships, hold them all at the same time. This was something that had never been done. The Red Sox and Patriots wins were already in the bank. The Bruins and the Celtics had solid playoff chances.
The sweep did not happen—the Celtics were bounced out of the playoffs by the Milwaukee Bucks, and a month later the Bruins fell to the St. Louis Blues in the seventh and final game of the Stanley Cup—but just the possibility was enough to send the rest of the country into a full-blown dither. Emotions usually seen in movies on the Hallmark Channel were brought to the sports page. Hate and jealousy were the primary choices.
“[T]his has to end sometime. It does,” Mike Vaccaro of The New York Post wrote in a column titled “Stop the Bruins: We’re Sick of This Boston Run of Titles.” “This isn’t just a New York thing either, I hate to tell you. Everyone is sick of Beantown. It’s true. Go to Seattle. Go to Houston. Go to Chicago. Go to Minneapolis. They want you to lose, too. They are sick of you. They are tired of all this.”
And in The Washington Post, under the headline “Why the Boston Bruins Absolutely, Positively Cannot Win the Stanley Cup,” Norman Chad wrote, “If I had to describe the worst of the Boston fan base in 25 words or less, I guess I would say … arrogant, asinine, contemptible, crass, crude, disagreeable, distasteful, disreputable, fatuous, foolish, intolerable, loathsome, loud, obstinate, obnoxious, off-putting, petulant, puerile, spoiled, thickheaded, uncouth, vacuous, vile, and whiny.”
The good people of New England mostly just smiled. A billboard appeared near Boston Garden with the message “End the Drought. 104 Days Since the Last Boston Title.” This was not original. A billboard that read “End the Drought! 95 Days Since the Last Boston Championship” had appeared on the Massachusetts Turnpike in February. That was a request for the Patriots, who quickly fulfilled it.
All things, anything seemed possible.
CONFESSION:I do not know how to handle all this success. Eighteen years, and this still does not feel normal. I still feel like the poor relation at the country club dance. Are my shoes shined? Is my hair in place? What am I doing on this stage with this trophy
CONFESSION:There is a little guilt. I have to admit the fact. I do feel a little guilt.
Am I worthy?
My expertise, of course, is at the other end of the scale. I covered a Patriots team that finished 1–15. Yes, I did. I covered the Bruins when they had too many men on the ice at the Montreal Forum and it cost them a shot at the Stanley Cup. Stood there with my nose pressed against the glass as the whole thing unfolded. I covered the Celtics when Bill Russell retired and a pleasant seven-foot man named Hank Finkel was brought in as a replacement.
“Well, the good thing is that I finally have a Jewish player on the roster,” general manager Red Auerbach said, trying to make a positive out of the situation.
This was before Finkel’s first practice. The first time he was fouled, he went to the line, breathed deeply, and made the sign of the cross.
I spent a number of long, long nights at the old Yankee Stadium, hearing more than 50,000 people singsonging the phrase “Boston sucks,” and they were right. I remember when I was a kid, a Red Sox fan, and I would start a scrapbook every year to memorialize the season. I would cut and paste, put in the standings and statistics and major stories through spring training, through the month of April and maybe the first two weeks of May. Then I would be done, the residents of Fenway Park a dozen or more games out of first place. No hope. I remember typing almost a whole early column about the Red Sox’s amazing World Series championship in 1986 on that fateful night in Shea Stadium, and then one thing happened after another on a tiny black-and-white television in the press room, and the column never was sent. I remember that well. Kept the column in my computer for more than a calendar year before I finally highlighted the whole thing and pressed the button that said “Delete.”
The Patriots could never win in Miami, no matter how they tried. The Patriots could never win in a lot of places. I remember the time Irving Fryar left the field with a concussion, departed the stadium, and was involved in a car crash before the game ended. I remember blocked kicks, bad fumbles, and a million dropped passes. Money was short. I remember I covered Patriots home games at Boston College, Fenway Park, Harvard Stadium, and Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama. (You can look it up.) I remember when the toilets didn’t work after the first new stadium was built in Foxborough. I did cover one Patriots visit to the Super Bowl. The Patriots lost, 46–10, to the Chicago Bears. William “the Refrigerator” Perry scored a touchdown.
My son remembers going out to the front lawn to cry about a Celtics loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. He hated the 76ers. My daughter remembers crying a bunch of times. Mostly for the Red Sox. I remember the Bruins could never win in Montreal. I remember the night Kate Smith sang and the Philadelphia Flyers beat the Bruins, 1–0, to win the Stanley Cup. There were some bright spots, especially in basketball, with the work of Mr. Larry Bird for the Celtics, but those were balanced by some work by Mr. Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers. I interviewed Jack Nicholson during the Lakers’ celebration in their locker room at the Garden. He was quite happy.
It all seems like ancient history now.
“Have the kids ever had to cry about a sports event?” I asked my daughter about those horn-tooting grandsons, now 13 and 10.
“Not once,” she replied. “They were a little mad at Kyrie Irving after the Celtics playoffs, but no….”
Success is pretty much all these kids have known. There have been very few dark days. Is this good for them? How much success is too much success? How much winning is too much winning? How much cheesecake is too much cheesecake? Shouldn’t a good salad, or maybe a few Brussels sprouts or a side order of spinach, be inserted into the operation here and there? How long can a human being smile before their face starts to hurt? How many nights in a row can a contestant win on Jeopardy! and stay humble and kind?
The duck boats keep coming. The sight of local champions on parade, trophy held high by the captain or owner or some team functionary, has not become boring—no, nothing like that, but it has become … familiar. Is that the proper word? Familiar?
Our passion has been muted by our experience. Take us to Paris once and we will grow dizzy at the sight of Mr. Eiffel’s tower and the Champs-Elysees. Take us a dozen times or more and happy we will be, but our first concern will be checking into the hotel and getting a hot shower. The latest championship is the fifth or sixth, 10th or 12th child in the family. The first words and the first steps and the first trip to the junior prom are firsts no more. They are wonderful, for sure, but we have seen them before.
“How do you do all this?” I asked columnist Dan Shaughnessy, who has my old job at the Globe and has chronicled these good times—every one of them, all 12 championships—after chronicling a significant number of bad times.
“I remember 2003, when Aaron Boone hit that home run in the seventh game at the stadium to kill the Red Sox yet again,” he said. “It was late, that night, and I wrote a column in a hurry and people were sort of amazed that I could do it that quickly. I told them it wasn’t hard at all. I had rehearsed for this many times. I covered sports in Boston.
“Now … they wanted me to start typing in the third quarter of the Super Bowl against Atlanta because the score was 28–3 and the game was late. I said, ‘No, I don’t want to miss the comeback.’ I’d seen too much of this, too many comebacks. I was rehearsed the other way.”
CONFESSION:I guess I can live with the guilt. There’s a lot guiltier guilt than being happy because your local sports team won a championship. I can adapt.
CONFESSION:I would have gone to the parade for the St. Louis Blues in a heartbeat if I lived in St. Louis, Missouri. A first Stanley Cup after 52 years of trying? Brilliant. That’s the way it used to be around here. But maybe there’s someone there who now knows they can fly. Once in a while, I can live with that.