For New England sports fans, it is just another weekend of what could have been. What should have been. What may not be ours again any time soon.
Remember Title Town? Remember when Duck Boat parades seemed an annual rite?
Eight Super Sundays removed from the last Patriots championship, fans are starting to get all too familiar with season-ending disappointment. You know, the way it used to be. Only now, it is different. Boston’s unprecedented parade of seven championships in four sports in 10 years did not make losing easier. For some, it made it harder.
It was always the moments when victory slipped from our grasp — destiny skittering through Buckner’s wickets; Grady leaving Pedro in; too many Bruins on the ice in Montreal — that shined brightest in memory, their retelling a kind of community glue.
Somewhere, in all the winning, we forgot about that.
“Everyone takes it personally. It’s almost personal that the Patriots aren’t in the Super Bowl,” said Rusty Sullivan, 47, a lifelong Boston fan and executive director of the Sports Museum, a nonprofit educational institution in TD Garden.
That first Duck Boat procession in 2002, for the first of three Super Bowl wins in four seasons, was a salve for a fandom that had prided itself — defined itself — by its unrequited love for teams that never won it all. An annual Duck Boat debauch felt like something we had earned after cheering on the Bruins in vain for a generation, the Patriots for a lifetime, and the Red Sox forever. Even the Celtics, with all those banners, had fallen into a prolonged drought.
Now we feel jilted whenever our four major sports teams lose. That is especially true of the Patriots after tantalizing near-misses in 2008 and last year.
“It’s pretty heartbreaking. I feel like I’m watching the same episode of a bad TV show each year,” said Marc O’Brien, 38, a bartender at Anchovies restaurant in Boston’s South End. “I can’t believe we haven’t gotten at least that fourth ring. I think we should have five, minimum. They could have been the best team ever.”
The Patriots were not alone on that path to historical greatness. Not in our minds, anyway. The Red Sox, having won cathartic titles in 2004 and 2007, and nearly making it back to the World Series in 2008, looked like a dynasty in the making. (As recently as 2011, at least one insider thought they could win 100 games.) The New Big Three Celtics, ring-winners in 2008, were going to extend their lead in NBA championship banners over the hated Lakers (and came agonizingly close to it in 2010).
Now we have an aging Celtics team whose drive for mediocrity has been crippled by the loss to injuries of their star point guard and their promising rookie big man. Speaking of injuries, how about that Red Sox slogan in the wake of last year’s 69-93 debacle: “What’s broken can be fixed.” Have fun rooting for that.
Our hopes now rest with the Bruins, Stanley Cup winners in 2011 and among the favorites this year. And one dynasty is not enough for fans who expect four — like Sullivan’s sons, ages 14 and 11, who grew up believing that rooting for a team is only about championships and success.
“Look at Cleveland,” he said. “How would you want to live in Cleveland? How bad would it be to a Cleveland fan?”
It would be this bad: Cleveland has not won in any major sports since their Browns won the 1964 NFL title (before there was a Super Bowl). The only major sports city with a longer futility streak is San Diego (whose 1963 Chargers crushed the Boston Patriots to win the AFC title), and they at least have good weather. Naturally, Clevelanders think we are spoiled brats.
“How dare any New England fan complain about anything? Where does this sense of entitlement come from?” asked Mike Polk, a diehard Cleveland sports fan and comic, who answered his own question. “It’s ingrained in the fan base and in the city. They’re predictably inconsolable. Life has taught them that they’re supposed to win at all forms of sporting, and this has made the majority of them horrendous losers in many walks of life.”
Such words would sting if they did not contain an element of truth.
“We think that the sun rises and sets on both sides of Interstate 495,” said Sullivan.
“It’s not just in sports,” observed Bill Zeoli, 47, who has held Patriots season tickets since 1994 and would have been in New Orleans now if the team had made it to the Super Bowl. “It’s a self-important-Boston thing: We’re better than everybody else because we’re the Cradle of Liberty and we have all these educational institutions and we know better than you. That sort of thing.”
Zeoli, who attended last year’s Super Bowl in Indianapolis, experienced such disbelief at the Patriots’ loss that he barely spoke to anyone from the moment Tom Brady’s desperation last-second pass fell to the ground until he flew home from Chicago the next day.
Like many of us, Zeoli recognizes that it is unrealistic to expect such sustained success from professional teams. He recalled how all seven championships over the past decade involved close calls and lucky breaks. The Bruins, Celtics, and Red Sox all had to survive grueling seven-game playoff series on the way to each of their championships. The Patriots never won a Super Bowl by more than three points.
A few bad bounces and Boston might have known the agony of Buffalo, the city with the third-longest streak without a championship, whose Bills suffered four straight Super Bowl losses from 1991 to 1994.
Daniel Britton, 31, founder of a group of Buffalo fans in the Boston area, rankles at what they perceive as New Englanders’ sense of entitlement after our teams, as he puts it, “hit the lottery.”
“No longer forced to peddle in the streets, you move directly into the largest house on the block,” he said. “We remember when you were dirty, poor and hungry just like us. We feed off your every failure . . . taking comfort and joy out of your anger, sadness and bitterness.”
But it is hard for a Patriots fan to be too bitter, said Gerry McCarthy, 52, of Sandwich, whose group of diehard friends and family have turned tailgating into a spiritual art form. Sure, McCarthy’s plans to attend this Super Bowl were dashed by Baltimore’s Jan. 20 defeat of the Patriots.
Then again, he said, “We’re still in the mix.”
Two days after the loss, he said, “Vegas came out with the odds. The Patriots are the favorites to win the Super Bowl next year.”