The South Boston Waterfront is booming, luxury high-rises dot the skyline, and there’s a long stretch of green where an elevated highway used to be. Former Boston mayor Thomas M. Menino, who died Thursday at age 71, was instrumental in these changes and many more in 20 years on the job.
He also, partly to his detriment but mostly to his benefit, botched just about every athlete’s name that came out of his mouth during that time. Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo became “K.J.’’ and “Hondo.’’ He twisted “Gronk’’ to “Gonk.’’ During a dedication ceremony at the Tobin Community Center, in 2010, NBA commissioner David Stern was greeted by the mayor as “Donald Sterns.’’
A lesser politician may have crumbled under the circumstances. Some, like 2010 Senate candidate Martha Coakley, who called Red Sox legend Curt Schilling “another Yankee fan,’’ saw their reputations take a hit for similar transgressions. In a sports-obsessed town like Boston, brushing up on your knowledge of the Sox, Pats, Celts, and B’s seems like a minimum requirement.
And yet Menino saw his popularity increase with each slip-up. Combined with clumsy, everyman speech, Menino’s lack of sports knowledge came off as endearing. A reference to former Patriots receiver Wes Welker as Wes “Wekler’’ wasn’t a sign that the mayor didn’t care. On the contrary, his persistence to get burned and keep sticking his hand back in the fire was a testament that he was trying like heck. After the KG/Rondo gaffe, Menino’s Twitter account made light of the errors:
You know it's championship season when I flub our athletes' names! Sorry KG & Rondo, it's kind of my thing- another Menino-ism! #GoCeltics— Mayor Tom Menino (@mayortommenino) June 7, 2012
Of course, Menino was much more involved in sports here than his knowledge of the city’s big four teams might indicate. After a series by the Globe’s Bob Hohler revealed a lack of support for athletics in Boston public schools, Menino founded the Boston Scholar Athlete program to address the problem. Menino’s “Game of the Week’’ telecast shined a spotlight on city teams.
His presence in and stewardship of the Boston Marathon bombing’s aftermath, and the role he played in helping to coordinate the first responders’ efforts and city’s healing process, cemented his legacy as one of the city’s most important leaders of the past century. Despite all those flubs – real or contrived – he soared when speaking to the city and world during that terrible time.
If you judge the mayor by how well the Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins and nearby Patriots did while he was in office, his rule was an unqualified success. During Menino’s tenure, the city’s pro sports teams won eight championships. He reigned over the opening of the TD Garden (previously the Shawmut Center and Fleet Center, and held firm against the Red Sox building a new Fenway Park, a decision that was vindicated by both the team’s eventual actions and history.
Menino’s final term ended on the heels of the Red Sox winning the “World Series Cup’’ for the first time at Fenway Park in 95 years. Sure, he didn’t score a goal, sink a free-throw or drive in any runs. But it all happened on his watch. He sat through the bad stuff, too. He was no front-runner or political Pink Hat. His support was genuine, even if his knowledge of the roster wasn’t perfect.
For all the grief he got, Menino was never the kid who took his ball and went home. Boston is full of sports know-it-alls. That passion is what helps create the fabric of our city. But what the mayor didn’t know was also refreshing. It humanized him in a way that breaking down Bill Belichick’s third-down defense, or the Bruins power play could not. It made him imperfect.
It made him ours.
This story was adapted from an earlier version.