All the hubbub has Boston at the center of the football universe these days, only some three months removed from the Red Sox finally, and convincingly, winning their first World Series in 86 years. In its sporting heart of hearts, with the Patriots about to play in the Super Bowl for a third time in four years, is Boston more a football town than a baseball town?
"Not even close," said Dick Johnson, curator of the Sports Museum, housed in the FleetCenter. "If you were able to do an electroscan of the average sports person here in Boston, well, the beating heart has stitches on it."
Heritage and history also support the horsehide claim, according to Johnson, who traces baseball's roots in the Hub to 1871 -- even earlier if the informal game of "town ball," played earlier in the 19th century on Boston Common, were entered into the debate. Prior to the Patriots coming along in 1960, Johnson also noted, no fewer than four professional football teams, the Braves, Redskins, Shamrocks, and Yanks (later to become the Baltimore Colts), failed to capture the public's imagination and loyalty.
"We are a baseball town, through and through," added Johnson. "But that's not to take away from what the Patriots have been doing. From a professional standpoint, these are the [Bill] Russell, [Bob] Cousy, Jones brothers [Sam and K.C.] Celtics, and the [Bobby] Orr-[Phil] Esposito freewheeling Bruins, and the Tris Speaker-Smoky Joe Wood Red Sox. That's this Patriots team."
Peter Colton, president and owner of The Fours, the popular restaurant and sports bar across from the FleetCenter, agrees with Johnson. He figures Boston is first about baseball and second about hockey. Then it's up to basketball and football to sort out the Nos. 3 and 4 spots in the lineup.
"Right now, unfortunately," said Colton, lamenting the NHL's protracted lockout that has the Bruins and 29 other clubs in a state of dormancy, "there isn't any hockey. And, hey, I love the Patriots, but it's a baseball town, just because the Red Sox are so rooted in the fabric of the community. Baseball just has the greater fan passion, the tradition, the park -- and Fenway's such a big part of that.
"It's just baseball, because of all the games and the heartbreak that goes with it."
In part, said Johnson, the Boston debate is moot, because the Patriots play in Foxborough, a distant 25 miles, give or take one lighthouse, to the southeast.
"I mean, really," said the museum's curator, "do the Red Sox play in Agawam, or Tyngsboro? The Patriots aren't really in Boston."
To that end, baseball's economic impact on the city is far greater than anything the Patriots can create up and down the suburban lanes of Route 1. According to Pat Moscaritolo, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau, the single Red Sox playoff game here against the Angels last fall meant an extra $1.5 million in consumer spending outside of Fenway. The two World Series games against the Cardinals totaled upward of $6 million. A Patriots home game causes barely a ripple in the downtown economy.
"Strictly as a fan, when they went to St. Louis with that 2-0 lead, I was thinking, `Fellas, just win it and get it over with,' " said Moscaritolo, recalling the Red Sox' sweep of the Cardinals in the Series. "But as a businessman I was thinking, `Please, let 'em come back.' "
Although duly impressed by what the Patriots have done in recent years, Moscaritolo also figures the city's love is first and foremost all things baseball. To most people, that would make him a realist. To Moscaritolo's wife, Liz, that makes him one of the hardball heathen.
"She's all football, to the point where she even TiVos the NFL Network -- who's crazy enough to do that?" he said. "But that's what it's all about, right? She's infatuated with the Patriots, and I'm infatuated with the Red Sox. But to me, it's not even close. Why do they call it Red Sox Nation? I mean, it's beyond Boston, beyond New England, beyond the USA. It's the Red Sox. They're worldwide."
Not to be forgotten, too, said Moscaritolo, is that interest in the Patriots had waned dramatically before "Bob Kraft stepped up" and bought the club. Had it not been for the Krafts, he recalled, the franchise might have followed through on what was an impending move to St. Louis. More recently, when the State House balked at helping with the finances to build a new stadium in Foxborough, the franchise currently designated to be a dynasty came close to playing its home games in Hartford. Connecticut's loss has turned into a Commonwealth legacy.
These days, with a glistening state-of-the-art Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, it can be easy to forget the nomadic roots of the American Football League's Patriots and their initial struggles in the NFL.
"Hey, I used to live in East Boston, and they'd practice at East Boston Stadium right over at the airport," recalled Moscaritolo. "Those were in the days of Gino [Cappelletti] and Babe [Parilli], when the Patriots didn't have a home. They played games at Fenway Park and Harvard Stadium, and after practice in Eastie they would all eat at Sablone's. All things considered, it's a baseball town, and maybe this year more than ever."
Steve DiFillippo, owner of Davio's, the popular restaurant on Arlington Street and in Cambridge, said he caters to high-profile customers on both the Red Sox and Patriots. The Krafts are frequent customers, he said, as are members of the Red Sox front office, including Larry Lucchino, Theo Epstein, and Tom Werner. Red Sox Trot Nixon and Mark Bellhorn were frequent visitors during the postseason. St. Louis skipper Tony La Russa and his ex-closer in Oakland, Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley, recently stopped in after the annual Baseball Writers Dinner earlier this month.
"That was kind of weird," recalled DiFillippo. "They went to a dinner, and they were here for dinner."
Ask DiFillippo whether the Hub is a city that favors baseball or football as its main dish, and the answer is: It's a movable feast.
"In the summer, we're a baseball town," said DiFillippo. "And in the winter, we're a football town. How's that? Really, I think it's what time of the year we're in. I mean, how can you say, days away from the Patriots being in the Super Bowl again, that we're not a football town? You go out to Foxborough and see the crowds, and the TV ratings -- it's just incredible. It's the Sox in the summertime, of course. But in the winter? Pats. All the way."
The Red Sox' first World Series victory in 86 years was impressive, said DiFillippo, but in his mind it ranked second to the Patriots winning their first Super Bowl.
"That's how I feel -- I really do," said the restaurateur, who also owns the Davio's in Philadelphia -- home to the dessert of an NFL franchise that awaits the Patriots in Jacksonville, Fla. "No one gave the Patriots a shot in hell."
Don Stirling, who in July became the president and CEO of the Massachusetts Sports and Entertainment Commission, figures the common thread between fans loving both the Patriots and Red Sox is "the hard work, the passion, and the winning" the teams share. But Stirling, who grew up in the Bay Area, rooting the A's to World Series victories in 1972, '73, and '74, figures Boston is most about baseball.
"After those years in the Bay Area, I lived in Los Angeles and experienced the whole Fernandomania thing," said Stirling, recalling the days of Dodgers ace Fernando Valenzuela. "And I was in New York in '86 for the whole Mets thing [beating the Red Sox in the World Series]. But I have to say, I've never seen anything like Red Sox Nation. They're like that first crush -- so singular and so magical. You'll always remember it. It always stays with you. It's always there."