The games abound. They rage as never before. There’s hysteria in the streets. A breathless hush descends on the mob awaiting the resolution of the madness with a desperate yearning for a merciful result ringing like a deep cry in the night. As the late Paul Gallico used to like to say, “Gee whiz, ain’t it grand!”
Sure it is, if it’s your town that’s the center of the furor. If it’s the other guy’s bandwagon that’s running wild you may consider it vaguely silly and immature and ask how come some people can’t get a life. But when the circus comes rolling down your street—as it has again this pixilated New England Spring—it’s so easy to find in the mere games the stirring mandates of a collective invincibility and the pure redemption of civic pride.
Comparable emotions are sweeping the routinely hardened burgh of Dallas and its hardscrabble environs as they celebrate their Mavericks vanquishing of the heathen Miami Heat to the apparent everlasting joy of the entire sporting universe. Have you too wondered when it all became so transcendental and pen-ultimate?
Whatever, it has been great fun watching the Bruins at the center of this season’s tumult and shouting because they have been so long the back-benchers denied their just due. Moreover, at its best, hockey connects with the rank and file in ways that are not only emotional and personal but also intimate. The game’s traditional canons and mores—seen as so safe in the custody of its bearded warriors—echo of simpler times, especially when the action on the ice veers into mayhem. Being at a loss to rationalize such striking phenomena, we’ll just leave it there, thank you.
Sweeping our town is the notion that there’s never been a better place to be or better time to be alive if the games are your passion. It can seem a bit boorish to the outside world. But the belief that the new millennium anointed this region as the de facto capital of the Kingdom of Sport is probably harmless in the end. Where I take exception is with the implied suggestion that what came before pales by comparison. As McGreevy Himself might have said, “It ain’t so.” In their often quirky ways “the good old days” of New England sport had just as much merit as these alleged new halcyon times. You could look it up.
It was my pleasure to have a privileged glimpse as a regular on the sports beat from 1967-1983, an era of intense change, growth, and often spectacular melodrama for all the local teams. To have a choice seat in every press box—where if no cheering was then allowed, the conversation was always terrific—and to get handsomely paid for being there was a fabulous lark. There was no better job in the world. Not back then.
For better or worse, and while making no claims to a special relevance, may I list what I deem the top dozen sporting moments I got to observe “up close and personal,” as they say.
XII. Pittsburgh 21, Dallas 17 in 1976 Super Bowl X. No local angle here but it remains in my book the nastiest and maybe best Soupey ever. Unloading the pass that won it, Terry Bradshaw gets pounded by the Cowboys’ Cliff Harris and lies unconscious on the turf as Lynn Swann dances into the end zone. Later that night they had to carry Bradshaw out of the Orange Bowl. It was a gripping scene.
XI. Marvelous Marvin Hagler gets rolled in Las Vegas in 1979. The opponent was middleweight champ Vito (The Mosquito) Antuofermo. The decision was a draw, thereby allowing Vito to keep his crown. The winner was The Mob, or at least that is what Marvin charged, saying he’d been “victimized” in “a betting coup.” Those of us who were there entirely agreed. The entire week was a classic.
X. Celtics 128, Suns 126 in 5th game of ‘76 NBA Finals—in triple-overtime! The second best basketball game I ever saw, before or since, in the heyday of the Heinsohn era, featuring Messrs. Havlicek, Cowens, and White at their finest. The OTs were as ferocious as any middleweight brawl in Vegas.
IX. The Patriots get mugged in Oakland in the ’76 NFL playoffs (a very good year). This was the Patriots’ true coming of age under the briefly brilliant auspices of Chuck Fairbanks. They would have cake-walked through the Super Bowl had not Ben Dreith flagged Sugar Bear Hamilton for a phantom late hit. It remains the most outrageous hosing any local team ever took.
VIII. Bucky Dent levels the Red Sox in 1978. When the national press invades Fenway for the playoff of baseball’s titans, Bill Crowley sticks the local media on the roof of the left field grandstand. We can practically reach over and touch Dent’s pop-up as it drops into the screen. It’s the high-water mark of the Yankees’ fabled persecutions of the local nine. The next day I depart for Rome to cover the papal election that produces John Paul II; an even better gig.
VII. Bruins finish off Rangers in Game Six at Madison Square Garden, 1972. Best remembered for the wild ride home, the riotous reception upon landing, and the rollicking celebration at City Hall. It’s the Big Bads’ second Cup in three years but proves to be essentially their swan song.
VI. Too Many Men on The Ice (1979). It happened in Montreal where such atrocities routinely occurred for 40 years and there was no question about it. There were definitely too many men on the ice. It looked like a marching band out there. It cost the Bruins a certain Cup. The post-game locker room scene was the saddest I ever saw in professional sports.
V. Carlton Fisk’s midnight homer off the foul pole in 1975. It resounded to the accompanying strains of the Hallelujah Chorus all across New England. But later that same day the Cincinnati Reds won the World Series.
IV. Billy Buckner and the 1986 nightmare in Queens. With two outs in the 10th inning nearly all the scribes—anxious to see the Red Sox party—vacated the Mets press box to avoid the post-game stampede to the clubhouse. But Leigh Montville said to me, “Let’s just wait a little longer.” And then the parade of Mets’ banjo hits began. Singles kept falling in like darts as the frenzy of the crowd rose. Finally there was that little ground ball smote by Mookie Wilson in the direction of a hobbled Billy Buckner. “Memorable” is too tame a word for it. But while the Red Sox got crucified, it was really more a matter of the Mets doing something almost impossibly gallant.
III. Celtics Beat Hawks in double-O.T to launch the dynasty in 1957. We were just kids and we walked in off the street for tickets that very morning and got a front row to History. Heinsohn was magnificent. It was just glorious.
II. Big Bad Bruins claim their first cup in 1970. It was not a great game. While gutsy, the poor St Louis Blues never once even held a lead in the Bruins four- game sweep. But what a party Bobby Orr prompted when he soared through the air after tucking the puck past a bemused Glenn Hall. This town has never had a merrier one.
I. The Red Sox beat the Twins the last day of the 1967 season. You can still see Jim Lonborg dropping that bunt that sparked the five-run rally in the sixth that sealed the wonderful flight of fancy aptly called “The Impossible Dream.” To have had the ’67 Red Sox as your first big sports story was to have been profoundly spoiled.
You may note that few of these moments were about the winning of titles and more had to do with ultimate heartbreak. And that is precisely the point.
Anyway, it is my list and I wouldn’t trade it for anyone’s.