Charles Dickens gave his first American reading of "A Christmas Carol" at the Parker House in Downtown Boston in 1867. If he were alive today, Chuck could sit at Table 40 in Parker's (where JFK proposed to Jackie) and usher in the New Year in Boston sports by simply reciting the first 85 words from "Tale of Two Cities."
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way...
Indeed, the State of Our Union on the Boston sports scene entering 2013 is one of uncertainty and confidence, hope and dismay, excitement and doom.
It's all a matter of perspective.
It's impossible to slot and separate the Patriots fan, from the Red Sox fan, from the Celtics fan, from the Bruins fan. There is too much crossover and overlap among us and our emotions to say things are potentially Duck Boat-esque (Patriots), so-so (Celtics), dreadful (Red Sox) or completely disheartening (Bruins).
The lack of an NHL season is devastating for those who can't wait to secure Dougie Hamilton and Tyler Seguin on their NHL fantasy league teams if play ever resumes. Unstable chemistry or any ability to play defense is causing fits for Celtics fans pining for Banner 18. Non-existent reliable starting pitching, never mind the absence of the not-so-cheerful Mike Napoli, has left Red Sox fans wondering when it will ever end. Questions about the Patriots' secondary trying to stop Peyton Manning on his new home turf amid 80,000 potentially-stoned but still riled-up Broncos fans are sobering for anyone looking to at a Super Bowl XLVII hat to their championship collection.
Boston fans are a rarity in that their passions intertwine and overlap, shifting with ease from team to team depending not only on the season, but the crisis du jour. The bandwagon was SRO during the Bruins' Stanley Cup run and at the height of "Chicken and Beer Gate." And the timing of the Bruins Cup banner raising - eight days after Robert Andino struck just after midnight in Baltimore - was the perfect overdose of Percocet at just the right time. Of all the markets with teams in all the four major pro sports and longstanding and legitimate passions, Boston is also unique given its extreme highs and lows since the turn of the century. Even during the crazed and historic "Decade of Dominance" (2002-2012), triumphs and epic losses were often intertwined. The Patriots won a Super Bowl in February of 2002 and Red Sox fans were seven deep on the Tobin Bridge 19 months later courtesy of Aaron Boone. Five months after tha, Tom Brady and the Patriots were celebrating another Super Bowl victory in Houston. 2004 brought a zenith of power and prominence, capped off by the Patriots' third Super Bowl eight years ago (boy, that's depressing) next month. The Red Sox 2007 World Series and the Celtics 2008 championship bracketed the 18-1 Patriots. That team was greatest letdown of our generation given the fact that perfection, in addition to another championship, was lost forever.
In the past three calendar years, Boston has lost game seven of a championship series (Celtics 2010), won game seven of a championship series (Bruins 2011) and lost a Super Bowl after giving up a touchdown in the final two minutes. Just to make things interesting, the Red Sox followed the greatest September playoff collapse in baseball history with their worst season since Lyndon Johnson's election as president.
The Red Sox have nowhere to go but up - literally and figuratively. The post-Boone Red Sox bottomed out last August when word broke that only four players bothered to attend Johnny Pesky's funeral. What seemed to members of team and State Run Media as an innocuous slight triggered a nuclear Hellstorm of fan anger than was unprecedented in the lives of Red Sox partisans from nine to 99. That single incident encapsulated everything that was wrong with the team - both on and off the field - laziness, a lack of discipline, integrity, and basic respect for anything and anyone but themselves. It was the Fahrenheit 451 point for Red Sox fans after a year of slovenly play, clubhouse turmoil, phony sellout streaks, bricks and Bobby Valentine. The Great Salary Dump could be the historic benchmark that signaled the turnaround of this franchise.
So much of what ailed the Red Sox is gone. A new cast of characters is supposed to bring "chemistry" to the clubhouse. The problem is that workplace chemistry, much like personal chemistry, is organic. Arranged marriages might work out, but they don't sound like a whole lot of fun on the front end. You either become friends with someone or you don't. Same with your co-workers. Some you like. Others, like Bob, make you want to scream because he's always interrupting you and his lunch smells funny. It doesn't help when so many of those co-workers are No. 5 hitters, utility outfielders or share the same "Iron Man" DNA as J.D. Drew.
The problem with the Red Sox remains the same as it was when your father was swearing at Don Zimmer and Mike Torrez - the starting pitching. Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester are known commodities. The key in 2013 will be - as noted earlier in this space - John Lackey. He's not going anywhere. If Lackey is the running for comeback player of the year honors - or even the 10th Player Award - the Red Sox might have a shot at third place. Otherwise, Boston will remain south of Tampa Bay, New York and Baltimore in the standings, if not geographically, as well as Toronto on both fronts.
Still, there is reason to be optimistic because Valentine is gone, John Farrell is here and 2012 is history. If anyone can get Buchholz, Lester and even Two-Fist Lackey on track, it will be Farrell. Signing Napoli before Patriots Day wouldn't hurt either.
The Celtics are at least playing, if you can call it that. The NBA regular season/preseason will give the Celtics another two or three months to find themselves on defense. The bench has already wilted just two months into the season. The highlight of the season might be the Christmas Day victory over the Nets. Last spring, the Celtics gave us all a fun ride in the spring, overachieving their way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. 2013 still has plenty of Green potential.
The time for the Celtics is now because Avery Bradley returns to the lineup at the start of 2013. The 22-year-old guard can reportedly contribute on offense and Rajon Rondo called him the best defender in the NBA at the guard position. Doc Rivers said Bradley was a top-five on-ball defender and basically would eliminate one guard from the opposing team. And while Rivers himself said he's never said "Just wait until Avery comes back" - Celtics fans have been saying "just wait until Avery comes back" ever since Avery left. Of course, Rondo is nursing an injury. If the Celtics can get their entire starting five together and healthy, they will be able to build from there out and might nail a 6th or 7th seed come playoff time. "Good job, good effort" is all one can reasonably expect.
The Bruins remain frozen in time. If/when the NHL regular season begins, the Bruins are a legitimate threat for a top seed in the East. The team is solid from front to back, and has plenty of weapons on offense with a healthy Nathan Horton re-joining the lineup. The big question remains in between the pipes. Tuukka Rask is untested in the playoffs and is also coming off an injury. The extra time off has only helped. The Bruins remain solid at their core. Again, more optimism, considering literally nothing is going on right now. A premature stumble in the playoffs this season won't matter because this year's Stanley Cup will be adorned with asterisks as well as player names. And if the Bruins were somehow able to capitalize on the shortened season - as opposed to the Capitals capitalizing on them in the playoffs - and win another Cup, we would embrace it as another legitimate championship.
That brings us to the Patriots. They are our real last, best and only chance for a Duck Boat ride in 2013. They have enjoyed a spectacular run of brilliance in the past 10 years that NFL fans in New England will never see again. Tom Brady is a unique and transcendent athlete in Boston sports history. Your grandparents saw Ted Williams. Your parents saw Bill Russell, Bobby Orr and Yaz. Your older cousins saw Larry Bird. You've got Brady. Not too shabby. At 35, Brady's clock is ticking louder than Jennifer Aniston's. This season has been an unexpected journey for Patriots and their Hobbit-sized running back because it has given fans realistic hope for a Super Bowl championship - even if the road goes through the haze of Denver.
All roads lead to New Orleans on Feb. 3
We enter 2013 with a spirit of tempered optimism - in case you haven't noticed. Expect the best but prepare for the worst. That spirit has permeated Boston fandom for all about a few of the past 100 years. Gone is the unchecked foolish belief that the city's team could never lose games that mattered. Most of us never really bought into that. Or were over-medicated if we did. Our in-bred arrogance - Hub of the Universe and all that - doesn't mean we don't fear the Red Sox bullpen or Stephen Gostkowski in the clutch.
Expectations for 2013 are sober, somber and all too realistic. An 84-78 record would mark a 15-game improvement for the Red Sox and probably be good enough for third place. Can anyone reasonably ask for more than that given the lineup taking shape on Yawkey Way - assuming Napoli arrives sometime before the next Mayan Apocalypse. The Celtics might find their way in time to mount a strong run through the first two rounds of the playoffs. If the Bruins manage to play before St. Patrick's Day that alone would be victory enough for abused and desperate hockey fans.
It's only the soaring expectations brought by the Patriots that will leave New England disappointed and despondent without a championship this year.
While 2012 was a year many in Boston would like to forget, a fourth Patriots Super Bowl would make 2013 a year to remember for all the right reasons.
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