Swept up in a Green wave

Fans hot for Celtics in postseason, cooler toward struggling Sox

Glen Davis signed autographs on his way to the locker room after warming up before last night’s playoff game. Glen Davis signed autographs on his way to the locker room after warming up before last night’s playoff game. (Jim Davis/ Globe Staff)
By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / May 23, 2010

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In North Station on a recent night, a middle-age commuter glanced at the schedule board in a Celtics polo, a harried-looking teacher in a Celtics hat shepherded a field trip of middle schoolers, and an Emack & Bolio’s employee mixed smoothies in a Paul Pierce T-shirt and Celtics cap. It wasn’t even a game night. Steve LeBlanc of Gloucester, bound for Fenway Park with his family in Red Sox jerseys, stood out amid the green.

“Right now, it’s a basketball town,’’ he said.

After a decade defined by the Red Sox — with two World Series titles in four years, America’s self-styled “Most Beloved Ballpark,’’ and legions of “Sweet Caroline’’ crooners — some think the sports culture is shifting, if just a bit.

Sox hats still abound around town, but Nielsen says Red Sox TV ratings are down 30 percent from last year, and empty seats dot the stands during announced sellouts. Outside the park, scalpers are working harder to sell their stock of tickets than they have in years.

Meanwhile, at sporting goods stores, Celtics gear is front and center again. On Twitter, frustrated Sox fans are tweeting affection for the Celtics. And the Garden positively crackles with electricity — it certainly did last night — as the ascendant Celtics are making a fast break for hearts and attention.

The home crowd was raucous and rollicking last night, from Pierce’s opening jumper to the “Gino’’ clip — vintage “American Bandstand’’ footage that has become a latter-day victory cigar — that played in the final minutes of a convincing win over the Orlando Magic, the Celtics’ sixth straight victory in the playoffs.

“It’s just been amazing to watch,’’ said Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca, who diplomatically classified Boston not as a baseball or basketball town but as a sports town, appreciative of winners and good stories. The story of this year’s Celtics, he said, is reminiscent of “Rocky.’’

“People are just really excited everywhere I go, and the Garden has never been more loud than it is now,’’ Pagliuca said.

Every team in Boston has had its day in the sun. In the 1970s, Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, and the Big Bad Bruins ruled the Hub. In the ’80s, the Celtics were kings, with children everywhere mimicking Larry Bird’s fadeaways and Kevin McHale’s slippery paint moves. Earlier this decade, the Patriots brought the city its first championship of any kind in 16 years, touching off a run of greatness in what is now the nation’s leading sport. But the Red Sox became a phenomenon unto themselves.

The well-stocked rosters, savvy marketing, and succession of ballpark improvements that followed a 2002 ownership change brought a cavalcade of playoff appearances and turned Fenway into the city’s premier tourist attraction; the Red Sox became a common language in a culturally fragmented age. The 2004 season was as big as anything the city had experienced since the Impossible Dream, the victory parade even bigger.

This season, though, there are chinks in the armor.

“The bandwagon jumpers are jumping off by the tons,’’ said Matt Coleman, a longtime bartender at Sullivan’s Tap, a windowless watering hole near the Garden that bills itself the place “where real fans meet.’’ The 55-year-old former Fenway resident said he stopped hanging on every Red Sox result after ticket prices ballooned and the stands proliferated with “pink hats,’’ the term for Johnny-come-lately fans who appeared only after the team became fashionable. Now those fans seem to be noticing that the Sox — after six playoff appearances in seven years — are in fourth place.

“I feel sorry for them, because they feel as though they’re entitled,’’ Coleman said.

In recent years, it often seemed like nothing — not competing playoff games or miserable weather — kept crowds from Fenway. But this season, even on some nights when the Sox were the only game in town, there have been gaps in the stands. On Wednesday, with a lingering drizzle and temperatures in the 50s, scalpers circled the park with tickets fanned out like playing cards, eager to sell $50 seats for $20.

“Need tickets? Need tickets, guys?’’ one of them implored, leaning on a solar-powered trash can by Gate B, near the Ted Williams statue. “Going cheap.’’

By the third inning of the series opener with the Twins, the scalper — a 48-year-old government employee from Brighton who gave his name only as Steve, because scalping is illegal — still had 12 of the 26 tickets he started with, despite the markdown. That wasn’t the first time that has happened this year, he said.

Steve, who works all four major sports, said he would more than make up for the loss with the Celtics series. He hoped Red Sox tickets would regain value once basketball season ends, school lets out, and tourists return.

Around the corner on Lansdowne Street, the bouncers at the Bleacher Bar, which looks out on centerfield, said the crowds have been noticeably thinner than last year. “I think people tend to go with whoever’s best,’’ Nick Giella, a Bleacher Bar doorman, said after checking the ID of a young woman in a Paul Pierce jersey.

Across town by the TD Garden, the Celtics have been filling area bars on game nights even when they’re out of town, a feat they last accomplished with their championship two years ago. “Winning is good for business,’’ said Steven McCauley, general manager at The Four’s, a sports bar crammed with memorabilia.

At the Garden’s pro shop, business traveler Rick Waritz had been given orders by his wife in Portland, Ore., not to return without a Celtics sweatshirt. She said nothing about the Sox.

With the hometown Trail Blazers out, a cadre of Celtics fans has cropped up in Portland, Waritz said, enticed by the Celtics’ mystique and the heady play that has characterized their postseason. “It’s just an old-school NBA team,’’ he said. “The only thing missing is Red Auerbach chomping on a cigar.’’

Of course, affection is fickle. Just two weeks ago, the Celtics were reeling from a 29-point loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 3, after a regular season in which they stumbled to the finish and lost five of their last six home games. Sports radio callers wanted to dismantle the aging team. Meanwhile, the Bruins held a commanding 3-0 lead on the Philadelphia Flyers. But the B’s collapsed, and the Bruins billboards came down; the Celtics rattled off a string of postseason wins, and the utility box on Causeway Street was repainted with likenesses of Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo.

“Needless to say, everybody’s jumping on the bandwagon, but that’s just the natural way it is,’’ said Mike Rotondi, a Hingham hardware distributor who has held courtside seats for three decades, and who suddenly finds his friends, clients, and employees eager to ask him about the Celtics again. “It’s the way it’s always been, it’s the way it always will be, and that’s why it’s great to win.’’

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