'Our Boston' Essay: Is Boston Really A Great Sports Town?

Boston lost one of its iconic arenas when the Boston Garden was demolished in 1998, but has the city lost its status as a great sports town? (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/AP)
Boston lost one of its landmarks when the Boston Garden was demolished in 1998, but has the city lost its status as a great sports town? (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/AP)

Published in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, Our Boston: Writers Celebrate the City They Love features a collection of essays about the city by local writers. (For every sale of Our Boston, $5 will be donated to the One Fund Boston.)

In his essay for the collection, Only A Game's Bill Littlefield examines whether Boston is, in fact, a great sports town.

Is Boston a great sports town?

Defenders of Fenway Park can make the case that there’s no more historic place to watch a Major League ballgame, though there are lots of more comfortable places. Nearly all of them. It matters to the defenders of Fenway that Ted Williams hit there, and they’re fine with the fact that Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle hit there, too, because there had to be another team on the premises or it would have been batting practice. Actually, it often was batting practice for the Yankees of Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle.

The old Boston Garden had some of the same sort of charm as Fenway. It also had rats. It matters to defenders of the Old Boston Garden that Bill Russell played there, although Bill Russell has come to matter a lot more to people in Boston some decades after his retirement than he did when he was pulling on a Celtics jersey every night and taking the floor with Sam Jones, K.C. Jones, and various other worthies who didn't fill the building even when they reached the point where their championship rings outnumbered the fingers upon which they could comfortably wear them.

The New Garden, where the Bruins and Celtics have been playing since the Old Garden was torn down, would not be out of place in Indianapolis or San Antonio or Columbus. This is not meant as a compliment. The building feels as if it is part of the same movement that put a Starbucks on every corner. Like Starbucks, the New Garden is comfortable and over-priced, and it feels as if it was designed and built by the same people who designed and built the other places where NHL hockey and NBA basketball are played.

The NFL team associated with Boston plays in a town called Foxboro. Or Foxborough. Their home, Gillette Stadium, sits in the middle of a shopping mall full of restaurants and high-end shops. There is also a cinema complex, which is what movie theaters used to be called, for days when the Patriots are winning by so much that at halftime everybody decides to go to a movie. Or a lot of movies, if they like. There is also a big hotel, in case the traffic jam after the game goes on for so long that thousands of people decide to get a room.

So it could be argued that Green Bay is a better football town than Boston, which has no pro football team, and a better football town than Foxboro, too. Or Foxborough.  It could be argued that Pittsburgh, and the aforementioned Indianapolis - where the stadium is downtown - and New York are also better football towns, because although the New York Giants play in New Jersey, at least they don’t play in Foxboro. My brother-in-law is among those who would make the argument for Pittsburgh. He drives across the state of Pennsylvania to go to games there. He sits in freezing wind. He does not leave early to beat the traffic. He talks about the last time he did this and the next time he will do it with enormous enthusiasm. The presence of people like him is the mark of a great football town.


Part of the reason some people don't consider Boston a great soccer town is that the soccer team associated most closely with the city also plays in Foxboro. They play in the same stadium that is filled for football games. When there’s a professional soccer game there, the building's employees put enormous blue tarps over the acres of seats that haven’t sold, in part because nobody has tried to sell them. This does not make the place look like a soccer stadium. It makes it look like a football stadium foolishly trying to conceal with enormous blue tarps the fact that it's a silly place to play soccer. Probably a great soccer town must be home to a team owned by somebody who cares enough about it to build it a proper workplace of its own, which Patriots owner Robert Kraft, for all his bonhomie and good works, has not done. Perhaps there was no room left when he’d finished with the shopping mall and the cinema complex and the hotel.

Boston is also home to the Boston Marathon, of course, which begins in Hopkinton. Though it finishes in Boston, you can comfortably watch it in Framingham, Newton, Brookline, and several other communities. When my daughters were small, we regularly watched the runners go by from the front yard of a house in Natick, where a friend of mine used to live. My daughters handed out water, oranges, and Kleenex to the runners as they went by. Or to some of the runners. The slower ones. The Kenyans and Ethiopians did not slow down to accept oranges or water or Kleenex. They were focused on winning the race. They probably had their own, pre-arranged water and fluid stops, and apparently they had trained their noses not to run.

Some of the runners who did need to blow their noses were so grateful to see my daughters standing at the side of the road with Kleenex that they said, "thank you," even though they were running the Boston Marathon.

My daughters often said, "You're welcome."

"Good for them," I would think, and that brings me to the recollection of various other personal connections that make for the designation of a place as a good sports city, or maybe even a great one, one story at a time, because concerning all the preceding cranky business, I've just been fiddling and diddling, as the late, great Johnny Most used to say of whichever Celtic had the ball when Most didn't know where the ball would go next.

Anyway, personal connections. At Fenway Park during part of the tenure of manager John McNamara, coaches Johnny Pesky and Joe Morgan, both baseball lifers, could often be found at the end of the first base dugout several hours before games. Apparently they had no pressing responsibilities. They passed the time playing a game in which one of them would toss out some of the characteristics of a ballplayer from their collective past, and the other would have to try to identify the player.

"OK, big right-hander, threw about three quarters over the top, started with Cleveland, and bounced around a lot until somebody taught him to throw a sinker. Then he was pretty good."

"Joe Smith."

"Joe Smith was left-handed."

"Not the Joe Smith I'm thinking of. "

"…and he never played for Cleveland, which this guy did, or maybe it was Cincinnati."

"You can't – Cincinnati? How do you change it to Cincinnati now?"

The guessing and the derision that followed featured the language of the clubhouse, and the esteem in which Pesky and Morgan held each other was evident, as was the affection these two baseball men had for each other, which taught me something about the world in which they lived that I'd not have experienced if I hadn't been in the dugout several hours before game time. The dugout was in Fenway Park, which is in Boston, and Boston was the place where that privilege was mine.

So there was that, and there was also the aftermath of the fifth game of the 1986 World Series, which also occurred in Boston. By winning it, the Red Sox put themselves in a position to win their first championship since 1918 if they could beat the Mets in Game 6, which they didn't, or in Game 7, which they also didn't, though by that time it didn't really surprise any of us. It did make us all feel more like a community than ever before, albeit a community of the doomed. This was not such a bad thing, because a community based on something sad is better than no community at all, and it was harmless. And it was also kind of fun in a perverse sort of way, so that some of us have actually been a little nostalgic about that time and place since the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004.

Football, hockey, and basketball fans more passionate than I am about the teams that play in Boston (or in Foxboro, or in Foxborough) could compile lists their own experiences as evidence of the traditions both great and grim that accrete like barnacles in any place that claims it's a great sports town.

Then there are the soccer fans, of which I am surely one and proudly so. As I've suggested, Boston is not a great soccer town when compared with, say, Barcelona, Rome, Munich or London. (If it's an exaggeration to say that every block in London has a professional soccer team of its own, it's not much of an exaggeration.) But Boston has been home to a team in each of the three incarnations of the women's pro soccer, and each of those teams has been called the Breakers. They have wondered like nomads from Nickerson Field on Commonwealth Avenue to the cavernous and ridiculously inappropriate Soldiers Field across the river from Harvard Square to Dilboy Field in Somerville, which, like Foxboro (or Foxborough) is not really Boston at all, and which, according to song-writer Jonathan Richmond, has a sub shop on every corner… essential if you're trying to make it on a female pro soccer player's salary. The first two incarnations of the Breakers featured Kristine Lilly, who has represented her country a preposterous 352 times. This is a record that will not be broken until weird science has created a bionic soccer player impervious to age, injury, or the impulse to do something other than play soccer, such as start a family.

In their second incarnation, the Breakers were coached by Pia Sundhage. At press conferences, she sometimes sang. Energetically. Lots of people employed in the games industry have said they loved their work so much that they'd do it for free. Almost all of them are full of beans and bananas.  I never heard Pia Sundhage say she'd have coached soccer for free, but if she said it, I'd believe her.  While she was in Boston, she went a great distance toward making Boston a great sports town all by herself, at least for the fortunate people who took notice of her and her team.

Sundhage went on to coach the U.S. Women's Team that won the Olympic Gold Medal in 2008, and then the Swedish National Team. My favorite Pia Sundhage story emerged when U.S. National Team star Megan Rapinoe announced that she, Megan, was gay. The question arose whether that would matter to her coach, and Rapinoe shrugged and said she didn't think so, since Sundhage had come out years earlier.

On the men's side, Boston soccer gave us the irrepressible Alexi Lalas in the first year of MLS's New England Revolution (aka the Foxboro Revolution). The league subsequently shipped him from town to town, figuring his flamboyance would scare up interest wherever it went, but I will always consider Lalas a member of the Revolution, since he told me once while we were standing beside a noisy bus in New York City that it hadn't been his idea to leave the Revs, and I believed him. He said Boston was a great sports town.

And it is.

The tunnel between the dugout and visitors' clubhouse in Fenway Park stinks and leaks, and the water would swirl around the ankles of opposing players trying to reach the field if the groundskeepers didn't plunk down a temporary boardwalk each time the sky over Back Bay gets dark. What the hell? For all the renovations, additions, and up-scale advertising signs, Fenway's an old ball yard. But it's our old ball yard, and most Bostonians who've seen a couple of games there feel pretty good about it, especially if they don't know that Ted Williams sometimes used to shoot pigeons off the girders over the grandstand.

They feel good about the Marathon, too, even if they've only watched it on TV and never handed out tissues to the plodders, because for years the quirky race has been a part of the identity of the place where they've chosen to live. Other cities have marathons; Boston has Heartbreak Hill and its lesser siblings, and among the hills it has Johnny Kelley, preserved in a piece of statuary that has him running as the young man who won the race and as the old man who seemed as if he'd never stop running. What a brave and vainglorious idea for a statue. Maybe there ought to be one like that for Bill Rodgers, and one for Joan Benoit Samuelson, too.

Other cities have NHL teams, but none of them have Bobby Orr at his peak, then and now and forever. In lots of Boston bars and lesser places, he still soars across the crease, arms raised, young forever, after beating the Blues of St. Louis 43 years ago so the Cup could come home.

The great risk here is that I've left out your favorite character or characteristic of the Boston sports world. Check that. It's not a risk; it's a certainty. So, John Havlicek, Larry Bird, Bud Collins, Dom DiMaggio, Cy Young, Wade Boggs, Derek Sanderson, John Hannah, and Tom Brady. Am I still missing somebody? Of course I am. So complain to the sports radio call-in show of your choice. We're Boston.  We've got them in numbers, too.

This program aired on November 22, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Headshot of Bill Littlefield

Bill Littlefield Host, Only A Game
Bill Littlefield was the host of Only A Game from 1993 until 2018.



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