Growing up outside of Boston, I’ve seen more than my fair share of sports stories slide across the kitchen table. One could say I was born in the golden age of Boston sports, where winning was treated almost as an expectation, and in the winter when the Pats, Celtics, and Bruins were all playing, if one team was losing, all I had to do was change the channel and one of the other two teams were more than likely winning.
I’ve been fortunate enough to see some of the best players in sports history wear a Boston uniform, and some of them have built their legacy here and gone onward, some have established an all-star status and celebrated their success with the city, and for an especially unlucky bunch, some were sent packing with no desired return.
In core sports environments, the location and the overall energy of the crowd can mean a lot which will be very interesting to observe just how much it matters. With the average sports fan starving for some sort of entertainment, the leaders of sports associations have been toying with the idea of resuming gameplay without the presence of fans. The reemergence of sports on television would provide those who have been starving for sports entertainment something to chew on, but the majority of fans would agree that enjoying a game at a ballpark, a stadium or a rink is much better than enjoying it from the living room. Before I go on and on about my memories from the various sporting events I have attended, I would like to discuss a few examples of players and how their careers were fashioned by the crowds that supported them.
The Boston Red Sox have housed all walks of life when it comes to talent, and the variance is even more skewed when it comes to the crowd’s reaction to this talent. For example, let’s take a look at Pablo Sandoval. To many Red Sox sports fans, that name brings little joy to those who know the back story.
Pablo Sandoval was brought into Boston with open arms given that his resume with the San Francisco Giants was very impressive. He was a two-time all-star, three-time World Series Champion and a world series MVP. However, once he put on the uniform, his gameplay had clearly deteriorated while reports of an eating disorder had started to reach the surface.
The Red Sox have indeed had a history of over-inflated contracts, some that they are still paying off and will be for some time, including Pablo Sandoval, but that resume surely warranted a good portion of that contract. This may be seen as an unfortunate error, but Sandoval’s tenure is Boston was short-lived before he was traded back to San Francisco. He belonged there, he was beloved by the people of San Francisco, and the crowd in Fenway couldn’t have been bothered to have him as an active member of the team.
Rafael Devers would go on to replace him on the team in some way given that he is a power-hitting third baseman, but Rafael is much younger and has a very bright future in this league, and his potential is absolutely recognized within the Red Sox organization. Sandoval will be sure to go down in history as a mere waste of time in the eyes of fans as well as being an even bigger waste of money for the organization.
On a brighter note, let’s shine a light on two individuals who had either some or no spotlight placed on them until they came to Boston and were universally loved by the public, and frankly would have been regardless of winning the 2018 World Series or not. At the beginning of the 2018 season, it was announced that J.D. Martinez would be coming over from Arizona to be an additional power hitter in the Red Sox lineup. The season went on and J.D.’s unconditional chemistry in the dugout was obvious as he quickly built a relationship with Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi, and once Hanley Ramirez began producing below expectations in the batting order, J.D. quickly filled that void. Going forward, the Red Sox began acquiring serious buzz around leading analytics, and their statistics behind their wins and their talent began creating a narrative of Boston being the team to worry about.
I remember coming home from class and turning on a game to see the Red Sox, and if they were down by four in the top of the fifth, I wasn’t worried because I knew that they could still more than likely come away with the win. However, something was still missing. They picked up Steve Pearce from Toronto midway through the season as another weapon to add, and it was during the series with the Yankees that the Red Sox went from being treated as a team that was interesting to a team that was a problem. Pearce would go on to win the World Series MVP in Los Angeles, and I don’t think that the Red Sox ownership core even knew what kind of offensive weapon they acquired.
My point in expressing the stories of these two athletes is that in the teams that they had previously been a part of – Toronto and Arizona, respectively – they had decent numbers, certainly enough to gain attraction from Boston. When they came to Fenway, they were welcomed with open arms and universally celebrated. Is it the power of the fans and the energy Fenway Park can provide that gave these two the grounds to flourish? In my opinion, absolutely.
In the Celtics locker room, there are several similar stories that require a slight history lesson. In the 2016-2017 season, the Celtics were a very strong team. The playoffs were incredibly contentious, the chemistry was binding, the talent was young, hungry, and focused on getting the finals. Isaiah Thomas was a strong leader of this squad, Jaylen Brown was an up and coming rookie whose potential level was seriously doubted up until everyone was proven wrong. Al Horford was a top center in the league with an innate ability to shoot the three-ball effortlessly, and Brad Stevens had developed a gameday routine that had been proven to be very strong.
However, the headline of this team was Isaiah Thomas for sure. He had been doubted ever since being drafted last in the 2011 NBA Draft because of his height but then came to a place like Boston where the phrase “Heart over height,” came to have meaning once again. Every game, every shot, and every minute was played intensively, and he gave every ounce of try each and every night in the TD Garden.
A prime example of Thomas’ tenacity and mindset is when tragedy struck his family when his sister unfortunately was killed in a car accident. He turned on the jets during the playoff game that was happening later that night and won the game in spectacular fashion. The season came to an end, and the Boston Celtics made an incredible move to acquire all-star Gordon Hayward from Utah for a very sizeable contract. Soon after, posts were being made about ‘Boston’s New Big 3’ in Isaiah Thomas, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford. Thomas even released a video dancing in his apartment from the excitement of his new teammate but received some disappointing news shortly thereafter.
I remember listening to the radio live while I was at work, and the topic of discussion was an interpretive phrase Thomas used in an interview about his upcoming contract in which he stated something along the lines of wanting to “back up the Brinks truck,” or in other words, he’s looking to get paid. Did he put the last nail in the coffin with that statement? No, but it certainly didn’t help his case. A few days later, it was announced that Kyrie Irving was incredibly unhappy playing with LeBron James in Cleveland, and there was an unsurmountable amount of speculation as to why.
Some said that the relationship between Irving and James had gone sour, others implied that he had been a key cog in the Cavalier machine and wanted to be the star of the show rather than LeBron’s sidekick. Kyrie asked for a trade, and Danny Ainge, the current owner of the Celtics, saw that opportunity and jumped on it. Isaiah was traded to Cleveland in addition to having a season compromising hip injury in exchange for Kyrie. The aftermath for both of these all-star point guards in their own right could not be any more different, as well as being a very strange footnote in Celtics history.
Isaiah would go on to be traded to three other teams after Cleveland without receiving significant playing time in the slightest. He would move from Cleveland to the Los Angeles Lakers, then to Denver, and then to Washington to pick up the slack from John Wall’s season-ending injury. In conclusion of the Isaiah Thomas saga, he went from producing all-star numbers to being traded four times without being a starter. Is this because of the fallout from being traded out of Boston, or perhaps a looming injury with lasting effects? Perhaps both, or maybe something else.
The fact remains that Thomas still talks about his time in Boston and would more than likely return in no time to be reunited with his former teammates. In the case of Kyrie, he was the talk of the entire NBA for months and released a variety of Nike ads claiming that he would retire in Boston if given the chance, and was even the cover of the NBA 2K’s upcoming game cover in his brand new Celtics jersey. He got along with the team very well, and Celtics fans were in the mindset that Kyrie was here to stay, considering he came out publicly stating so. As time went on, some minor injuries plagued his performance, but something began to be seemingly fishy in the locker room.
As luck would have it, Irving was traded to the Brooklyn Nets, which was correctly speculated by leading analysts across the NBA, and Kevin Durant would be soon to follow. Irving would go on to campaign in press conferences as advocates for the young Celtics core that in my opinion, was abandoned by Irving, not because of “Leadership” in his own words, but personal goals that he felt would have been accomplished with the creation of a super-team caliber squad with the help of Kevin Durant. Durant and Irving were clearly in contact about playing on the same team, and the remaining Celtics core responded with a tenacious start to the season, as well as being rewarded with the added offensive weapon in Kemba Walker, the all-star point guard from the Hornets.
Lastly, the New England Patriots certainly have a passionate bunch of fans who let their opinion known about the players they choose to support, but frankly, I cannot think of any players that have been overtly disapproved of rather than an obvious and swift exit from the team. The combined list of Eric Decker, Tim Tebow, Chad Ochocino and Antonio Brown, just to name a few, are all phenomenally talented wide receivers that held a position on the Patriots for an almost comical amount of time.
These eyebrow-raising names joining the team would be a point of discussion for a week or a month or so, but no expectations were placed on these athletes because they simply don’t fit the narrative that is Bill Belichek. If a player comes to New England, there are expected to work towards a team goal and not a personal goal, and if a player has personal goals, they are well known far before the wear the jersey. The same goes for when a player is cut from the team. Although the reason never may be stated outright from Belichek or the organization as a whole, no one is ever surprised when a player gets cut or traded.