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A thrill in the air in '86

The conversation lasted 10 months.

It was a strange dialogue in a fractious city -- not harsh, not hostile, not negative at all. That's what Ray Flynn noticed.

Boston's populist mayor would take the T to work in 1986, and he could hear the difference from other years. Now the rush-hour ride on the Red Line -- or the Green or the Orange; pick a color -- was something else. Civil.

"People who never talked to one another before," says Flynn, "were talking now."

The theme was always the same. It was unavoidable. Sports.

The subtopics were delightfully varied, changing with the seasons.

"How about those Patriots?"

"The Celtics are doing it again, aren't they?"

"Can you believe those Red Sox?"

Pennant fever gripped the Hub. Pigskin furor, too. And parquet frenzy. The well-dressed man or woman wouldn't step out of the house without the de rigueur outfit. Shoulder pads. Batting gloves. Black high-top sneakers. And, of course, a proprietary smile.

"It was almost as if their own kid was on the team," says Flynn.

It was the Boston sports year of our lords 1986, and two decades later, it resonates.

The Patriots in the Super Bowl. The Celtics in the NBA Finals. The Red Sox in the World Series. Does it get any better?

Never. Only one other city in one other year can make the same claim -- Baltimore in 1971 -- and two of its champions (the Colts and Bullets) later fled.

Calvinists will counter gleefully that there is no such thing as invincibility, and 1986 provided a sampling of sadness, too. The Celtics won the championship, but didn't they always? The Patriots got stomped by the Bears in the Super Bowl, 46-10. The Mets beat the Red Sox in the Shuttle Series in seven -- some would insist six -- games. In two of three instances, despair was the aftertaste of euphoria.

You could tell by the laughter.

"People are going to be most receptive to comedy in two cases," says Boston comedian Steve Sweeney. "When they're happy or when they're depressed and need a laugh.

"That was a good year for comedy."

Bada-boo, bada-bing. A sick joke ended two of the Boston sports routines in '86. And for some, those are the lasting memories.

"If that's the case," says former Bruins general manager Harry Sinden, whose team was the only onlooker that year, swept in the first round of the playoffs (by the eventual Stanley Cup champions, the Montreal Canadiens), "then it's a damn shame."

No shame here. No damnation, either. Anniversaries are celebrations, not autopsies. Only a killjoy would dwell on the destination and ignore the joyride. Few did.

"When I spoke at functions in '86," says Flynn, "I would often be introduced as the mayor of the sports capital of the world."

For 10 glorious months, 20 years ago, that was Boston.

The Patriots were the wild cards, and not just because that was their playoff designation. What good could you expect from a woebegone franchise that never had won a playoff game (in only four tries) in its 26-year history and whose signature moment occurred when a new coach almost electrocuted himself at the microphone during his introductory press conference -- which was the high point of the Clive Rush administration.

"Boston is a baseball town," says Steve Nelson, a Pro Bowl linebacker on the Super Bowl team, "and the Celtics and Bruins were always doing well. The Patriots were always a stepchild."

They became favorite sons with an implausible run that began with no civic momentum.

"The Celtics and Red Sox didn't affect us," says Nelson, "since we were the first."

It didn't seem they'd be anything except the usual mediocre as they started the season 2-3. But in the locker room after a 24-20 loss in Cleveland, Pro Bowl linebacker Andre Tippett tossed around furniture and challenges, and the team responded.

Under inscrutable coach Raymond Berry -- who before a crucial home game late in the season addressed this crisis: "We've got to get our people in this stadium to understand when to wave and when not to; that's the critical thing this week" -- they went 9-2 the rest of the way, earning the second and last wild card.

"We had a core group of really good players," says Nelson. "It was a mixture of veterans and kids who blended well."

The youngsters included quarterback Tony Eason, who gave way to gallant Steve Grogan after being injured early in the season, then reclaimed the starting job after Grogan broke a leg in Week 12; 1,000-yard rusher Craig James, who complained at one point about the lack of continuity in the backfield ("You make a mistake around here and they put you in the icebox") as Berry refused to declare either James or Tony Collins his backfield horse; and wide receiver-returner Irving Fryar, who created an uproar before the AFC Championship game when his claim that he'd nearly severed a finger when he was cut by a knife in a kitchen accident was exposed as a cover up for being stabbed in a domestic dispute.

The perennials featured Grogan, guard John Hannah, center Pete Brock, wide receiver Stanley Morgan, and defensive stalwarts Nelson, Tippett, Julius Adams, and Raymond Clayborn.

But the playoff agenda was overloaded with demons. To reach the Super Bowl, as it turned out, the Patriots had to get past three teams that had beaten them during the regular season: the Jets, the detested Raiders, and the dreaded Dolphins. They had to do it all on the road, an unprecedented mandate.

And by golly, they did it. For the fans, it was flabbergasting. For the Patriots, it was fate.

"We were really confident going into the playoffs," says Nelson. "That's when it all came together. There wasn't a team we didn't think we could beat."

New Englanders didn't think the Patriots couldn't beat the Dolphins. They knew it.

They had never left the Orange Bowl victorious -- a span of 20 years and 18 visits -- and Miami had reasserted itself in the penultimate regular-season game, a 30-27 Monday night decision.

Nor did the Patriots beat the Dolphins in the Orange Bowl this time. They dominated them, 31-14, defusing the powder-keg offense triggered by Dan Marino, Mark Duper, and Mark Clayton.

"It was great for us because of the way we beat the Dolphins in Miami," says Nelson. "It was very special for the fans and the team. Even now, people come up and say that was the real Super Bowl."

Good thing, because the Super Bowl was really miserable. Loose cannon Jim McMahon, Walter Payton, Mike Singletary, and Buddy Ryan's stonewall 46 defense vivisected the Patriots.

It seemed even good fortune could haunt this intriguing franchise. Yet the near miss was a giddy phenomenon.

"It was," says Nelson, "the wildest month of my life."

The Celtics bridged the ridiculous and the absurd with the routine. Fifteen banners festooned the rafters of the Garden -- the old Garden -- the most recent in 1984. No. 16 was considered predestination.

"We thought we were going to win in '84," says Danny Ainge, a Celtics guard in '86 who now runs the team. "We thought we were going to win in '85, in '86, and in '87. That was a special team."

Only the best of all time, according to some. It featured arguably the finest first seven in NBA history -- MVP Larry Bird, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale up front, Ainge and Dennis Johnson in the backcourt, Sixth Man of the Year Bill Walton, and instant firepower Scott Wedman off the bench.

Ainge doubts the Celtics fed off the Patriots: "We had a pretty good team from 1981 to '88. How much the Patriots motivated us, I don't know."

It wasn't necessary, anyway. The Celtics were abundantly self-motivated -- "To win the title, of course," says Ainge -- and amply equipped.

They stormed through the regular season with the third-best record ever (67-15), won the Atlantic Division by a mere 13 games, and tacked on a 15-4 playoff record -- which actually represented a slump of sorts. Along the way, they played 50 home games. And lost one. "An unbelievable accomplishment," says Ainge.

Yet records and streaks and awards were all incidentals. "Winning the championship," says Ainge, "validated how good a team that was."

The Celtics didn't win it so much as they stampeded it. They erased the Bulls -- and the ascendant Michael Jordan, who scorched them for 49 points in the opener and a playoff-record 63 in a double-overtime Game 2 -- in the minimum three games. They throttled Atlanta, and the incandescent Dominique Wilkins, in five. Another five and the Bucks were gone. The Celtics' toughest obstacle in that series may have been the litigious Milwaukee attorney who charged that Parish and Bird were inhaling suspicious capsules during a Game 3 timeout; it turned out to be ammonia.

In the Finals, the Rockets could have used a whiff or two. Though with its two skyscrapers, Akeem Olajuwon in his pre-"H" days and erratic Ralph Sampson, Houston won a couple of times, it may have been the most uncompetitive six-game series in history.

Now the municipal steamroller was being wheeled out, and even the stars could not evade it.

"I don't remember what it was like being an athlete that year," says Ainge, "but I remember what it was like being a sports fan."

The Red Sox bore the burden of the past -- all that 1918 business, still franchise stigmata -- and the present.

"The Patriots and Celtics doing well put more pressure on us to do well," says Lou Gorman, general manager of the '86 Sox. "The effect of them doing well rubbed off on the fans, the enthusiasm of the fans."

It didn't figure to rub off on the Sox, who were projected for third place at best in the American League East, another also-ran finish for a moribund collection of aging sluggers who all seemed to be DH-first basemen.

Ah, but there was an injection of marvelous youth. Roger Clemens, a 23-year-old question mark coming off shoulder surgery that curtailed his 1985 season, spun a saga for the ages: a 24-4 record, the Cy Young-MVP parlay, and a 14-win streak to start the season, punctuated by the game of all games -- his record 20-strikeout, no-walk, 3-1 masterpiece against the Seattle Mariners on the dreary night of April 29, when the Celtics-Hawks playoff game across town was the main attraction.

"In the clubhouse afterward," says Gorman, "even the veterans were awed."

The old folks wound up doing their share. Dwight Evans homered on the first pitch of the season, and they were off. Evans, Don Baylor, Jim Rice, and, yes, Bill Buckner hit with authority, fielded when necessary. And the pitching -- heretofore a commodity about as elusive as a Mookie Wilson grounder around Fenway -- was amazingly trustworthy. Clemens was supplemented by Bruce Hurst and Oil Can Boyd in the rotation; Bob Stanley, here and there, in relief; and Calvin Schiraldi, eventually, at the end.

April 29 was the launching pad, and the Sox assumed first place for good on May 15. Then they withstood challenges from the Yankees, the Orioles, and, finally, the Blue Jays -- plus a couple of suspensions for Boyd, starting with his infamous clubhouse hissy after he was overlooked for the All-Star staff.

But they remained a work in progress until Gorman swung the trade with Seattle for shortstop Spike Owen and some guy named Henderson at the deadline.

"I thought when we started putting things together, we might have a chance to win the division, never mind make the World Series," says Gorman. "Owen was steady at shortstop. Henderson was a godsend."

For once, Gorman isn't surrendering to hyperbole. Dave Henderson was literally that.

Few recall that the grandest of Red Sox moments did not clinch a series or even win a game.

Game 5, AL Championship Series. Ninth inning. Two out, a man on, the host Angels up, 5-4, in the game and 3-1 in the best-of-seven series. Two strikes on Henderson. One pitch to oblivion.


"When Hendu hit that homer," says Gorman, "I'd never seen anything like it."

For all intents and purposes, that was the pennant. It rendered anticlimactic Henderson's decisive sacrifice fly in the 11th; the Sox' bloodcurdling dispatch of California in the next two games -- with Clemens pitching the clincher, his only postseason win -- the 3-2 lead they took over the Mets in the World Series. Everything.

Until Game 6.

Now there was heartbreaking role reversal. The Sox were leading, 5-3, in the 10th, thanks partially to Henderson's homer in the top of the inning. Three times one pitch would do it, end 68 years of futility. Then . . . Stanley's game-tying wild pitch, and Wilson's grounder to Buckner . . .

Game 7, the climactic game, metamorphosed into a formality, fated to be a Mets victory.

"To lose the Series the way we did was hugely disappointing," says Gorman. "But it's one of those years when you look back and say, 'I can't believe we were that good after all the questions we had.' "

It wasn't one of those years. It was a one-of-a-kind year, even if it was eventually surpassed in terms of quality by the Patriots-Red Sox bookend championships of 2004.

The year of 1986 was pocked by racial strife and school crises and economic worries in Boston. But for 10 dizzying months, there was surcease from reality, a constant haven of joyous innocence.

" '86 will be the year of Boston sports, no matter whatever happens," says Ray Flynn, still hearing the echoes. "It was the year the city came together."

Bob Duffy can be reached at

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