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2007: The Year in Review

Stars were aligned in banner year

Email|Print| Text size + By John Powers
Globe Staff / December 26, 2007

The Red Sox, with a couple of kids leading off, swept the World Series for the second time in four years. The Patriots' pursuit of perfection is at 15 and counting, and a fourth Super Bowl crown in seven years may be in the offing. The Celtics, who were without a pulse last winter, are pounding everybody into the parquet for the first time since the original Big Three wore shamrocks.

Not since 1986 - when the Celtics claimed their 16th NBA title, the Patriots played in the Super Bowl, and the Sox were one strike away from winning the Series - has it been so good, so good around here. "All that's left is to win Megabucks," reckoned Mayor Ray Flynn that year, hanging a sign from City Hall proclaiming Boston as the sports capital of America.

Does it get any better than this? It did in New York in 1969-70, when the Mets won the Series, the Jets the Super Bowl, and the Knicks the NBA title. And Philadelphia hit for the cycle in 1980-81 when the Phillies took the Series and the Eagles made it to the Super Bowl, the 76ers to the NBA Finals, and the Flyers to the Stanley Cup finals.

It's rare for the sporting planets to align so magically and rarer still for them to remain that way for long. Within three years after the 1986 synchronization, the Sox and Patriots had both missed the playoffs twice and the Celtics had suffered through their worst season in a decade. Still, the odds of alignment are better if the planets stay in the same orbits for a while.

That's the biggest difference between Then and Now. The Patriots had made the playoffs once in six years before their improbable run to the Superdome. The Red Sox hadn't won the pennant in 11 years. Now, what once was celebrated hereabouts has become assumed.

"With the Red Sox, people expect you to win," third baseman Mike Lowell said this autumn.

Or at least to be playing in October. From 1918 to 1975, the Town Team managed that only four times. Now, they've done it four times in five years.

"It's not a shock that we are competitive with great regularity," club president Larry Lucchino observed.

The Patriots, who reached the postseason only once between 1985 and 1994, have made it in six of seven years, by far the best stretch in franchise history.

The winning formula is nothing new or exotic: drafting and developing young talent, paying a premium to acquire proven stars, hiring and keeping successful coaches, detecting value where others see risk, sticking to a philosophy, and learning from defeat.

Foxborough fanfare

The Patriots' extraordinary run, the NFL's best in 35 years, was sparked by their shattering loss in Indianapolis last January, when they had an 18-point lead less than six minutes into the second quarter and couldn't win. It was the only time in its history that New England had lost a playoff game after leading at halftime, and the reasons weren't a mystery.

Tom Brady didn't have a receiver who could go deep, and the linebacking corps was thin. So the Patriots went on a wideout spree, picking up Randy Moss from the Raiders for a fourth-round choice (and a deep discount) and Wes Welker from the Dolphins for a couple of picks, plus free agent Donté Stallworth, and signed imposing ex-Raven linebacker Adalius Thomas. They were the missing parts for what already was a formidable battle wagon, one that began rumbling on the season's first Sunday.

It was no surprise that the Brady Bunch breezed through a soft division, but nobody expected them to steamroll everybody on the road to January, including division leaders by scores like 48-27 and 38-14, or to come from 10 points down with nine minutes left to squelch the Colts in their rematch.

Maybe the margins were a byproduct of Patriotic resentment at being labeled cheaters in the wake of Spygate, when the club was fined $750,000 and shorn of a first-round draft choice for filming the Jets' signals during the season opener. Not since "Ishtar" had there been so costly a cinematic project with so little return.

With or without cameras, the Patriots likely would have been the class of the league. Brady, enjoying a career season, has had more options, both short and long, than a Chicago commodities trader. All manner of defensive folks, including linebackers, cornerbacks, and safeties, have danced in rival end zones. Stephen Gostkowski set a league record for extra points, while Chris Hanson has become the punting version of the Maytag repairman.

Of course, a little luck hasn't hurt, particularly against the Ravens, when the Patriots had a serendipitous string of breaks - untimely timeouts, penalties (including their own), and favorable touchdown reviews - go their way in the final few minutes of a 27-24 triumph at Baltimore.

"Fourth down, third down, stop 'em, stop 'em, penalties, someone calls a timeout after we stop them again, then they come back," moaned Baltimore cornerback Chris McAlister. "I just never felt like it was going to end."

Nobody since the 1972 Dolphins had won their first 14 games. By beating them, 28-7, last Sunday, the Patriots entered uncharted territory. Now, only one more game at the Meadowlands (where this historic ramble began in September) stands between them and flawlessness - and Bill Belichick reminding them entering the playoffs that they're 0-0.

Joyous Octoberfest

Perfection is all but impossible in baseball, where no club ever has gone 162-0. But the Sox again achieved it where it matters by blanking the overmatched Rockies in the Series, with Bobby "One Swing" Kielty delivering the decisive mile-high blow. Only the Yankees and Reds (with a 14-year hiatus) have swept Series in consecutive appearances, but a gambling man could have bought himself a block of downtown Denver by betting that way on Oct. 16, when Boston was down, 1-3, to the Indians in the American League Championship Series.

After winning the AL East for the first time in a dozen years and bringing the wingless Angels to earth in a three-straight Division Series, the Sox were hanging on by one hand going into Game 5 at Cleveland. Fortunately, it was the right hand of Josh Beckett, who throttled the Indians, 7-1, at the Jake and got his mates back to the Fens, where they closed out the suddenly-punchless Tribe.

"Nobody wanted to go home," said second baseman Dustin Pedroia, after his mates had won the final two games by lopsided counts of 12-2 and 11-2. "Nobody wanted to say goodbye to everybody."

The Sox, who've won 15 of their last 18 elimination games, said goodbye to the Rockies after barely saying hello. A 13-1 thumping in the Fens opener set the tone for a Series so abbreviated that many Sox fans found themselves hoping the club would lose one in Denver so they could celebrate at home.

After waiting 86 years for a ring, the Sox had earned two in a trice.

"When our organization started adding pitching, the Curse kind of went away," remarked Terry Francona, the first manager to win his first eight Series games.

Boston's success was all about pitching, as the club posted the best record in the game for the first time since 1946. Nobody had a deeper rotation or a more lights-out closer. The club had so many arms at the ready that it could afford to shut down rookie Clay Buchholz, who pitched a no-hitter against the Orioles in only his second major league start.

The arsenal began with Beckett, who would have won the Cy Young Award if October numbers counted (his were 4-0, 1.20). Daisuke Matsuzaka, the $100 million man, adjusted well to a new ball, a new club, and a new world, ending up with a 15-12 mark and two postseason victories, including the ALCS clincher.

Curt Schilling, after shoulder woes cost him seven midsummer weeks, enhanced his brilliant playoff résumé, going 3-0 after a 9-8 regular season. Tim Wakefield won 17 games before a bum shoulder put him on the shelf. And Jon Lester, who made a courageous comeback from cancer, went 4-0 and won the Series clincher.

With rookie southpaw Hideki Okajima setting a remarkably tidy table, Jonathan Papelbon danced upon it with assertive verve. After a preseason debate about whether he should start or finish, Papelbon settled the argument with a piercing glare and searing heat that held batters to a .146 average and produced 37 saves, plus the ones that popped the champagne bottles.

All of the above will be back next year and Sox may yet land Twins lefty Johan Santana. The key field players, most notably Series MVP Lowell, have been tied up for the next few years, and the rookies (particularly fleet center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who hit .438 in the Series) are among the best in baseball. Yet the front office still has a phobia about pinstripes that goes back nearly nine decades.

"Goliath resides in our division," reminds Lucchino.

Garden comes to life

Time was when the Celtics, who won 11 NBA titles between 1957 and 1969, were basketball's green Goliath. Now, a third renaissance is under way. After their worst record (24-58) in a decade - including a franchise-record 18-game losing streak as a perverse fascination - general manager Danny Ainge finally blew up the roster, trading essentially the equivalent of an entire team (seven players and three first-round picks) for Minnesota power forward Kevin Garnett and Seattle shooting guard Ray Allen.

It was the boldest and most expensive move in the sport's history, and so far it has paid off handsomely. With Garnett, Allen, and captain Paul Pierce averaging 59 points among them and defense back in vogue, the Celtics are off to their best start in 44 years, and the odds of their winning the NBA title have dropped from 90-1 in July to 7-2.

Overlooked amid the Hibernian resurrection have been the Bruins, who are trying to get back into the local sporting conversation after missing the playoffs twice in a row. The spoked-B fraternity still is paying the price for management's miscalculating the outcome of the 2004-05 lockout, when it found itself with a half-empty locker room and had to pay Neiman Marcus prices for Target talent, and for trading captain Joe Thornton (who went on to be league MVP) to the Sharks.

With Claude Julien, the club's third coach in three years, emphasizing a back-to-basics approach, the Bruins have returned to the playoff chase, despite untimely goalie injuries and the indefinite loss of No. 2 scorer Patrice Bergeron to a concussion after a brutal hit from Flyers defenseman Randy Jones. But, as their long-patient fans understand, nothing matters with the Broons until after the New Year.

For now, the spheres are in harmony in Boston. The bejeweled Sox are the hottest thing on both sides of the international dateline. The Patriots have clinched home advantage throughout the playoffs and are 1-5 Vegas favorites to be Super yet again. After more than two decades, the Celtics have their fans counting to 17. For a giddy moment this fall, the Revolution seemed to finally have the MLS Cup in hand. The Boston College football team, with a lofty No. 2 ranking, was dreaming about BCS championships and Heismans. And the unheralded UMass soccer team was one victory away from playing for the NCAA title.

As of this morning, the Hub had one title to celebrate and was well-positioned for two more. But, as Sox owner and commodities wizard John Henry knows, the market can turn against you overnight.

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com

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