Boston-sized personalities


Jun 26, 2009

We’ve heard all the platitudes and cliches. “Boston’s a tough place to play.”

“It’s hard to make it here with fans like these.”

“You have to have a thick skin to play in a town like this.” And the truth is … it’s all true.

Ted Williams famously maligned the Boston media by referring to them as the “knights of the keyboard” while venting in frustration. Many have followed suit. Boston sports history is littered with players who, for whatever reason, never could make it work in this town. Edgar Renteria, Joe Thornton and Manny Ramirez come to mind (though we certainly gave Manny more than a fair chance). Be it nerves, performance anxiety or a prickly relationship with fans and/or the media, not everyone can cut it. Of course, that just makes us appreciate players who can. We have good memories in this town but our affections also run deep. We’re loyal and if we love you, we love you for life. Herewith, some athletes — both past and present — who’ve managed to execute that most rare of things: a two-sided love affair between a player and his city.

Former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel comes to mind for a number of reasons. In addition to the fact that he was a Pittsburgh castoff who went on to set linebacking records during his eight years in New England, he also became a bit of a local folk legend as a touchdown catch specialist. Time and time again, Vrabel tricked the opposition by lining up on offense and catching touchdowns from quarterback Tom Brady. Twice in Super Bowl victories. But beyond his hard-nosed play and willing attitude, Boston can surely identify with Vrabel’s sarcasm and playful personality. Constantly wagering with Brady over the outcome of games between Vrabel’s Ohio State Buckeyes and Brady’s Michigan Wolverines, Vrabel has proven himself a jokester who never took anything too seriously. And if there’s one thing we appreciate in Boston, it’s poking fun at the matinee idol in the spotlight. Vrabel can likely be credited with keeping Brady grounded. Of course, there’s also that artfully sculpted facial hair to consider. In a city that boasts roughly 200,000 college students, the frat boys in residence surely respect Vrabel’s skills with a mach three.

Sometimes, of course, you just need a larger-than-life personality — combined with some legendary clutch hits and postseason performance — to make a hungry town love you. David Ortiz obviously fits that bill. When Ortiz started smacking home runs and began his climb to the top of Boston’s own Mount Sportsmore, the city was more than ready for someone to carry them to the promised land. Ortiz, all six feet, four inches and 230 pounds of him, was more than willing. Combined with his uncanny ability to produce when it mattered, Ortiz also possesses a gregarious personality and genuine joy that endear him to the fans and media alike. Ortiz’s recent slump troubled the Boston sports-obsessed population primarily because our love of Ortiz runs deep and we desperately needed him to do well. After all, he’s our Big Papi.

For a few seasons, Ortiz had a partner in crime. No, not Manny Ramirez. I speak of Kevin Millar, former Sox first basemen, occasional designated hitter, and all-around goofball. Sometimes a quirky personality and a catchy slogan are all it takes. While we never really took to the attempts to force Johnny Damon on us as the team’s mascot, Boston embraced Millar from the start. Those endless foul ball home runs, occasional baserunning shenanigans, questionable tonsorial decisions and unbridled enthusiasm for playing in Boston in front of “the best fans in the world” never seemed to grow old. Especially when Millar drew the walk from Mariano Rivera that would serve as the catalyst for the 2004 Boston Red Sox “shocking the world.” What can you say? We’re easy in this town and if someone tells you they love you enough, you start to love them back. Of all the professional athletes in Boston, Millar was perhaps closest to the fans in that he seemed as though he loved playing so much, he’d genuinely do it for free. Who among us wouldn’t agree with that sentiment?

On the ice, Boston has grown increasingly fond of that young phenom Milan Lucic. While perhaps center Marc Savard has a name seemingly tailor-made for the South Shore accents of the region, “Looch” has captured the vicarious desires of Bostonians to mercilessly kick butt and take names. At a mere 21 years, Lucic embodies the take-no-prisoners mentality Boston fans — especially Boston hockey fans — love in their players. He refuses to back down and he leaves his heart on the ice after every shift. He also happens to be extremely talented, leading teenage girls and middle-aged sheet metal workers alike to don his number t-shirt and nurse crushes on him. Finally, something we can all agree on.

But perhaps no current athlete better represents all that it means to be a Boston sports fan than Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. Lilliputian in stature, Pedroia approaches everything he does with a sizable chip on his shoulder. Surely Boston fans who’ve long lived in the shadow of teams from New York and nursed an inferiority complex because of it can relate to that. Likewise, Pedroia refuses to back down, no matter the ways in which the opposition tries to intimidate him. He absolutely refuses to lose and won’t take no for an answer, despite the odds being perpetually stacked against him. Sound like a fan base you know?

Surely there are other athletes in the pantheon of Boston sports who’ve captured the imaginations and hearts of the city’s diehard fans. And surely there will be more to come. Provided they follow the Pedroia and Lucic badass model and stay away from the Renteria shrinking-violet track, all future Boston performers should be fine. Just remember, we’re easy around these parts. Tell us you love us and play your heart out for us, and we’re yours forever.

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