It Could Be Worse (1997 Boston Sports)

Today’s Boston sport fans are as spoiled as it gets. Going back to February 2002 the city has enjoyed ten professional world championships. The New England Patriots were a production line of winning beginning with the upset of the St. Louis Rams in Superbowl 36 then ending with the huge comeback win last year over the Atlanta Falcons in Superbowl 51. As of this writing they prepare to make a run at Superbowl 52. The Boston Red Sox ended eighty-six years of misery by winning the World Series in 2004 then won again in 2007 for good measure. The band of bearded brothers then brought the Red Sox and the city of Boston out of personal tragedy to capture the 2013 World Series.  The Boston Celtics ended 22 years of misery by defeating the LA Lakers in 2008 for their 17th world championship. In 2011 the Boston Bruins ended 39 years of management incompetence by taking home the Stanley Cup for the 6th time. No professional city enjoyed as much success as Boston since New York owned the baseball world in the 1950’s (and they did it with three teams).  Unfortunately success breeds contempt. The Patriots are the most hated team in football and every Hysterical Harry claims they cheat to win every single game. The Boston Celtics have become a legit contender to the NBA title a year after falling 3 wins short of the NBA Finals. Adding Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum and building around a core of stable talent has them in position to challenge for championships. The Boston Bruins have caught fire this season and are shockingly making a run to take the Adams Division and the Boston Red Sox are coming off back to back AL East division titles. Not all is right in the world though. The Patriots have lost star receiver Julian Edelman and star linebacker Donte Hightower for the season and it will be VERY difficult to win the Superbowl without both their playmakers. The Celtics lost star Gordon Hayward for the season and may not be able to compete with the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs. The Bruins are perfectly mediocre with almost no talent enough to go on a run to the Stanley Cup Finals and the New York Yankees just took a dump on the Red Sox by trading virtually nothing to get NL home run champion Giancarlo Stanton. Still, it could be worse around here…MUCH worse.

Let us install our flux capacitors in our Delorean to generate the 1.21 Gigawatts, grab a few vials of extra plutonium and its off to the past. Let’s set our destination for April 21, 1997. First lets head over to Foxborro Stadium. The Patriots had just come off a remarkable season where they owned one of the best offenses in the NFL, led by pro bowl quarterback Drew Bledose, tight-end Ben Coates, running back Curtis Martin and tackle Bruce Armstrong. They possessed a rapidly improving defense led by veterans Henry Thomas, Otis Smith, Willie Clay and Willie McGinnest along with youngsters Tedy Bruschi, Ty Law, Lawyer Milloy and Chris Slade. Coached by Bill Parcells (with Bill Bellichick as his assistant), the Patriots  won 11 games and the AFC East division. In the playoffs the Patriots defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 28-3 in a foggy Foxborro Stadium then took the AFC Championship game over  the underdog Jacksonville Jaguars 20-6. The defense had allowed 9 points in 2 games and next on the agenda were the Green Bay Packers in Superbowl 31. Controversy erupted when the Boston Globe ran a story the week leading up to the game saying Parcells was leaving to coach the Jets. While it ultimately didn’t cost the Patriots the game (Desmond Howard did that), it was a major distraction that would prove to be true. Following the 35-21 loss to the Packers, Parcells did resign to take over the Jets. He would be replaced by none other than Jets defensive coordinator Pete Carroll (yes, THAT Pete Carroll). At the time the Patriots had just missed winning it all and in reality were another coaching change and a few key personnel away from getting to the top, strangely losing the biggest game of the year still put the Patriots at the top of the four teams in terms of future prospects.

Let us motor up I-95, curse at the rush hour traffic on the Mass Pike and stop over to the Fleet Center where the Bruins and the Celtics concluded their miserable seasons. The Bruins have just missed the playoffs for the first time in thirty years. Coach Steve Kasper was an above average player when he played for the Bruins a decade earlier but was out of sync as a coach by 1997. At that time the Bruins were (mis)managed by Mike O’Connell and his brilliant idea was to torpedo the team on March 1st , trading aging cornerstone Adam Oates along with goalie Bill Ranford and forward Rick Tocchet to the Washington Capitols for goalie Jim Carey (no, not the comedian) ,  Jason Allison,  Anson Carter and a 3rd draft pick. The Bruins won just 3 more games the rest of the season and Kasper was fired on April 19th . At the time the Bruins had some young talent in Alison and Carter but no one would knew when they would ever be good again. Which brings us to the other team inhabiting the Fleet Center, the once mighty Celtics. The deaths of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis along with the retirements of Larry Bird and Kevin McHale crippled the Celtics and by 1997 they were in dire straits. Head coach ML Carr was in way over his head as coach and general manager, leading the team to franchise and NBA worse fifteen wins and sixty-seven losses.  Local fans compared the team to the movie Major League where Carr (playing the role of Rachel Phelps) brought in all sorts of wacky guys nobody had heard of in order to tank the season so bad, which would lead them to draft Wake Forrest superstar Tim Duncan first overall in the upcoming draft. Names like division 2 walk-on Brett Szabo, former UCLA star Tyus Edney, former Providence star Marty Conlon, etc were responsible for the worst finish ever. The Bruins and Celtics had almost no talent in April of 1997, butt-heads.

Motoring down the Pike again, let’s head over to Fenway Park to catch today’s Red Sox game where Aaron Sele would allow one run in 6 2/3 innings while Wil Cordero’s two run bomb would be all the Sox needed in a 4-2 win which put the team at 8-8 overall. That doesn’t sound so bad does it? Well put in that extra plutonium because we’re heading to the future…CENTURIES INTO THE FUTURE! Just kidding, only a month and a half later to June 8, 1997. After their 8-8 start the Sox plummeted out of playoff contention without an ace pitcher. Today their record stands at 23-35 and its kids day at Fenway Park, isn’t that nice? Not so fast! Fenway Park in 1997 was a lot different than today. Back then there were no monster seats, right field roof seats, no endless promotions and commercials and no Wally…until today. A near sellout crowd of 32,000 (which would still be counted as a sell-out today by today’s mis-management) were on hand for Kids Day where two folks dressed as Bert and Ernie danced on the field prior to the game to a smattering of boos from the crowd. The coordinators of the event then grabbed the mic prior to the game and formally introduced “the green monster living in the green monster” Wally to another chorus of boos.  The big, goofy looking Wally was the team’s new mascot which aggravated the fans since the team needed a number 1 starter, not a mascot. After the shenanigans were over, the Sox went on to pound the Cleveland Indians 12-6 thanks to offensive firepower from John Valentin and Wil Cordero. Before the game was over there was still the 7th inning stretch. The coordinators, Bert and Ernie brought Wally back where they all sang Take Me Out To The Ballgame to THUNDEROUS boos from the crowd. Yes, the crowd BOOING Wally during his debut, it happened. Woah, this is heavy.

Also, in the month and a half following the Bruins firing Kasper, they hired former successful Montreal head honcho Pat Burns. 2 weeks after today’s Red Sox game, the Bruins front office picked Joe Thornton and Sergei Samsonov in the NHL entry draft. The Celtics hired college czar Rick Pitino, who replaced the entire front office, coaching staff and even people in marketing…..only to miss out on Tim Duncan in the draft a few weeks later. More bad luck in Boston. Such was life during 1997. The Patriots were still a laughingstock in the NFL, the Bruins and the Celtics had fallen on hard times and Red Sox fans were a rowdy, unforgiving bunch. Let’s get out of here before someone steals the Delorean. Good thing we brought that extra plutonium, otherwise you’d have to wait 5 years before someone finally won a championship. Back to the future we go to 2017 where it is safe to be a Patriots fan, the Sox fans don’t boo their mascots (although they should boo their front office) and the Celtics look like they’re on the road to greatness…..great scott!

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