Now is when everyone starts putting out their “Year's Best” lists. But instead of just summing up the year in Boston sports, let’s go a little further and expand on a constantly evolving bar discussion.
Who would be the all-time icons in Boston sports?
If we were to build a monument commemorating great players in Boston, who would make the cut? Would we have one from each major sport or would someone be left out?
In other words, who would grace Boston's Mount Sportsmore?
Since Boston has long been a city of multiple sports — even in light of the stranglehold the Red Sox held on fans’ affections for years — a visitor from the future would be best informed by seeing a representative from each major sport. After all, Boston has had champions, no matter the venue, and it's worth commemorating.
But that point raises another question: Can an athlete be considered one of Boston's all-time greatest players if he’s never won a championship here? Such restrictions would keep greats like Ted Williams and Ray Bourque out of the discussion, and that hardly seems right.
Perhaps the easiest way to figure out just who belongs up on the Boston sports pantheon is to break it down by sport. Apologies to Revolution fans, but baseball, football, hockey and basketball have long been Boston's four sporting loves, and it seems only fitting that each sport should get a representative.
The representative for football might be the easiest to choose. Sure, John Hannah is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, and Sports Illustrated dubbed him one of the best offensive linemen of all time, but Hannah has the misfortune of playing for the Patriots before anyone really took the Patriots seriously.
Arguments also could be made for wide receiver/kicker Gino Cappelletti or linebackers Steve Nelson and Andre Tippett. But before 2001, none of these players completely transformed the franchise.
In 2001, when the Patriots shocked the world by beating the St. Louis Rams' Greatest Show on Turf to win their first Super Bowl, they did it in large part because of their untested and underrated quarterback, Tom Brady. In the years that followed, Brady has proven that he wasn't simply a flash in the pan and deserves to be included in the discussion of best quarterbacks in NFL history. His play at the helm in New England has propelled the Patriots perpetually to the top of any "best of" discussion, and they are consistently listed as one of the teams to beat. Of course, much of that falls to the coach, but if we're choosing all-time Boston players, you can't go wrong with Tom Brady.
Choosing a hockey player becomes a bit more difficult. The Boston Bruins have been around since 1924 and, since their inception, have had strong roots in the hardworking, blue-collar elements of the area. The list of Boston Bruins in the Hall of Fame is miles long — including everyone from longtime center Milt Schmidt to the hard-nosed Phil Esposito to former right wing and current vice president of the organization, Cam Neely.
But perhaps no one better encapsulates the Bruins’ history of play than defenseman Bobby Orr. Though Orr played for only 10 years in Boston, he won two Stanley Cups with the team in 1970 and 1972. His "flying goal" to score the game winner 40 seconds into overtime in the 1970 Stanley Cup Finals is immortalized in one of the most famous pieces of sports photography ever taken.
Orr's biggest competition likely comes from defenseman Ray Bourque, who played in Boston from 1979 to 2000 before going to Colorado to win a Stanley Cup with the Avalanche. After winning everything, the first thing Bourque did was bring the Cup to Boston for a rally at City Hall. While Bourque certainly has the advantage in longevity, Orr holds the edge in history.
Finding a single basketball player who best represents the 60-plus years of Celtics basketball is no easy task either. With 22 retired numbers, the Celtics have no shortage of greats. Arguments could be made for Robert Parish, forward John Havlicek or the legendary Bill Russell, who holds the record for most championships among professional athletes in a North American sports league with 11.
But when people think of Boston basketball, they think of Larry Bird first. Immediately upon signing with the Celtics in 1979, Bird had an impact. He not only changed basketball in Boston but altered the perception of basketball all over the country. His rivalry with Los Angeles Laker Magic Johnson increased the animosity between the Celtics and Lakers, which still exists to this day (though Magic and Larry became close friends), and Bird led the Celtics to three NBA championships. He also won the NBA MVP three times and was voted to 12 All-Star teams.
Beyond all that, Bird routinely ranks near the top of any list of the best basketball players of all time. They don't call him Larry Legend for nothing.
Finally, Red Sox baseball is the city's lifeblood. People's moods shift with the fortunes of the team, and for nearly 100 years, the Red Sox have been close to New England's heart. Choosing a single Red Sox player who best epitomizes that intense passion of the fans, as well as the franchise’s storied tradition of greatness (if frustratingly futile until recent years), is extremely difficult.
Even if you don't make a championship necessary for immortality, it's hard to ignore the huge impact the Red Sox’ World Series win in 2004 had on the history of the franchise. For his heroics in the 2004 postseason and years of clutch performing, David Ortiz deserves consideration among the Red Sox greats.
But up against Carl Yastrzemski or Carlton Fisk, maybe Ortiz' accomplishments don't stand out so much.
Then there's Mr. Red Sox himself, Johnny Pesky. Never the best player, he played hard and embodied the original dirt dog attitude. At age 90, Pesky still suits up and sits in the dugout during games when he can.
However, Red Sox baseball would never have been Red Sox baseball without the immortal Ted Williams. Williams changed the game of baseball and hitting forever. Williams remains the last player to ever bat over .400 in a single season — a benchmark which seems nearly impossible to surpass — and he is the yardstick by which all players, past and present, are measured. It's not hyperbole to call Williams “the greatest hitter who ever lived,” and for that reason, he deserves a place in immortality.
The choices are debatable, but that's half the fun. It's worth noting that, with the exception of Brady, no current player makes the list, and it's fun to discuss whether that's due to increased competition, free agency or our tendency to romanticize the past.
Whatever the case, Boston's Mount Sportsmore has no shortage of candidates for inclusion, and that alone is something to commemorate.