Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Fighting Words The Director’s Cut: The Patriots Chapter (Part One)

Bill Parcells, as quick with a quote as he was on the sideline, brought relevance and respectability to the Patriots. Photo from this site.

As noted Friday, I’ll be unveiling this week, in two or three parts, the chapter about the Patriots and the media that I had to cut from Fighting Words. Though I still have no regrets about axing this chapter—there was just no way to put this in the book and maintain some sort of flow—it is a little sobering to re-read the chapter and to be reminded of how many edits it went through for something that didn’t make it to print.

Originally, way back in 2004, I envisioned writing about how the Patriots, Celtics and Bruins are all secondary to the Sox in Boston. Once I narrowed the focus down to the Patriots, I recall one draft heavy on Bill Parcells information and another one in which I got bogged down in the minutiae of Bill Belichick’s first two years and the Brady/Bledsoe controversy in particular.

And somewhere along the line I managed to tie together the Patriots’ second Super Bowl run with the Sox’ pursuit of Alex Rodriguez and how Nomar Garciaparra basically pre-empted “Patriots Monday” one week in 2003 by calling in to say he didn’t really want out of Boston.

Hopefully the almost-final product is more cohesive than the drafts. Part one today goes into how baseball lends itself to more thorough coverage than football as well as the Patriots’ pre-Parcells checkered history and how Parcells changed how the Patriots were perceived as well as how they were covered.

(I haven’t done too much editing here, hoping to preserve the chapter as I intended to present it in the summer of 2008.)

The New England Patriots won three Super Bowls in a span of four seasons from 2001 through 2004—no small feat at any time in National Football League history but an especially notable achievement at a time when the NFL’s salary cap threatened to make dynasties obsolete—and were the most successful team in professional sports during the first half of the decade.

Yet they were not the most chronicled franchise in their home market. This contradictory existence was noted by every observer of the Boston media scene except, perhaps, Bill Belichick—the man most responsible for the Patriots’ historic success.

Only in Boston could a record-shattering NFL team play in the shadow of a baseball team that went more than 80 seasons between world championships. On Sept. 19, 2004, the Patriots, who had just won their 17th game--two shy of the NFL record--shared the dominant front page photo in The Boston Globe with the wild card-leading Red Sox, who had just lost their second in a row to the Yankees to all but fall out of contention in the AL East.

The headline inside the box—17 IN A ROW…TWO IN A ROW—made it seem as if the Sox’ losing streak and Patriots’ winning streak were equally significant feats.

This was a remarkably bizarre situation to the rest of the country. “That’s another thing that mystifies people from outside of New England,” Boston Herald Red Sox beat writer Sean McAdam said. “If you look around and look at the numbers—and I’ve occasionally done this exercise with other people in the business—and asked how many markets in America does baseball hold sway over football still, and the general consensus is that, at tops, it’s less than a half dozen.”

If baseball was still referred to as the national pastime, football was the national obsession. A Harris Interactive survey in 2005 revealed that 33 percent of Americans who follow at least one sport considered football their favorite, far ahead of second-place baseball (14 percent).

The Super Bowl long ago emerged as the water cooler moment of the year and America’s unofficial national holiday. The paucity and timing of the NFL regular season schedule—16 games spread out over 17 weekends—lends a momentous feel to even the most mundane game, a feeling none of the other three major sport leagues can replicate.

The game itself is more visceral and telegenic and provides more instant gratification than baseball. It’s also far easier to bet on and the popularity of fantasy football—a less costly but no less addicting alternative to gambling—has surged over the past decade.

In addition, as Boston Globe writer Nick Cafardo—who has been a beat reporter covering both the Red Sox and Patriots—notes, there is a widespread perception the NFL “…is run properly. It’s run right.”

Virtually no contract in the NFL is guaranteed, meaning players are basically auditioning for their jobs on a yearly basis. Players who sign lucrative long-term contracts in the NFL do so knowing they’ll almost surely never see the money on the back end. Seattle running back Shaun Alexander signed an eight-year, $62 million contract after he won the MVP award in 2005 but was cut following the 2007 season.

The salary cap creates the perception that every team is on a level financial field, even though the NFL has had fewer teams win the Super Bowl (14) than Major League Baseball has had teams win the World Series (18) since 1980. And since the NFL’s last labor dispute in 1987—a three-week strike by the players that ended with superstars crossing the picket lines to join replacement players hired by the owners—a strike has killed the 1994 World Series, an owners lockout forced the cancellation of the 2004-05 National Hockey League season and the National Basketball Association played just 50 games in 1998-99 due to a protracted labor dispute.

But in Boston, the Patriots’ continued success—in addition to their three titles this decade, their loss in Super Bowl XXXI in 1997 marked the only championship round appearance by a Boston-based team in the 1990s—could not approach the drama engineered by the Red Sox’ epic and seemingly Quixotic pursuit of an elusive world championship.

“The Patriots definitely should get more attention,” Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said in 2004. “But it’s not a meritocracy.”

Actually, it was for the better part of 40 years, during which the Patriots underperformed—on and off the field—and failed to overcome the generational bond created by the Red Sox.

“I’m 41 years old and I don’t have stories from my childhood of sitting on my grandfather’s lap in the summertime listening to the Patriots,” Trish Saintelus, the moderator of The Remy Report’s chat room, said during an interview in January 2005. “I have great memories of sitting with my grandfather [who was] 80 years old, listening to the Red Sox on a hot summer night. And it’s part of my childhood. It’s part of what I grew up with. I think it just has a different place in our heart than football. You live and die with these guys 160 games a year. You’re with them from early April, you hope, right up through late October. It’s part of your childhood, going to ballgames.

“You don’t get that from football. It’s very, very different. Baseball is accessible.”

For the writers as well as the fans. Baseball writers see the players they cover for several hours per day nearly every day from February through October. And while most baseball and football teams allowed writers to travel with the club well into the 1980s (the New York Giants were an exception; Belichick, a former defensive coordinator with the Giants, recalls head coach Ray Perkins barring writers from the flights upon his arrival in 1979), the frequency of the baseball schedule and the long train trips of the pre-airplane era gave writers far more time to bond with the players and established a rapport between the two sides that would last for decades.

The NFL obviously could not match the regularity of the Major League Baseball schedule, but it encouraged open access under commissioner Pete Rozelle—a former public relations executive with the league—during his more than 20-year reign. Gerry Eskenazi, the former New York Jets beat writer for The New York Times, recalls in his book Gang Green sitting poolside with quarterback Joe Namath the week prior to the Jets’ shocking victory over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.

Former Patriots quarterback Steve Grogan remembers playing cards with writers on team flights and buses and said the writers officially had locker room access to the Patriots both before and after practice. The NFL became more corporate in the 1990s under new commissioner Paul Tagliabue, a former league lawyer, and by the turn of the century writers were limited to a press conference with the head coach four days a week and a 45-to-60 minute open locker room period three or four times a week. In addition, players and coaches are not available immediately prior to games.

So conceivably, the baseball writer—who is allowed in the clubhouse three-and-a-half hours before first pitch—could see the players he covers more in one day than a football writer does all week.

In addition, baseball generated coverage year-round. The off-season was far shorter than in football, where even the Super Bowl teams have more than five months off between the end of the season and the start of training camp.

Free agency has fueled baseball’s hot stove league—the term originated decades ago when fans would talk baseball as they huddled around a stove to keep warm—since the late ‘70s, but it was just one part of an off-season staggered so that there’s a newsworthy event almost every week during the nearly four-month period between the end of the World Series and the start of spring training. Free agency did not hit football until the 1990s, and most newspapers did not cover the off-season management meetings.

And while the Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins played their home games at legendary venues—the Celtics and Bruins played at the original Boston Garden until the end of the 1995 season—the Patriots played home games at seven different stadiums between 1960 and 1968, including Fenway Park and, remarkably, venues in San Diego and Birmingham, AL, before moving into Schafer Stadium in Foxboro, MA—45 minutes south of Boston—in 1969.

The stadium saved the Patriots but the locale doomed them to afterthought status. “We were kind of the odd man out in Foxboro,” Grogan said. “I always felt like the teams that played in Boston got more media coverage—the Red Sox in particular—than we did.”

Schafer Stadium—which was re-named Sullivan Stadium in honor of franchise founder William Sullivan in 1981 and christened Foxboro Stadium in 1990, two years after the Patriots were purchased by Victor Kiam—was sparser and decidedly less romantic than Fenway Park and Boston Garden. Most of the seats at Foxboro Stadium were metal bleachers, which gave it all the ambiance of a high school field. It had more than eight times as many portable toilets as actual restrooms. The capacity in the press box was 120.

“It’s been nothing but a horror,” former Patriots spokesman Don Lowery told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after the final game at Foxboro Stadium in January 2002.

The same could generally be said for the Patriots, who hosted one playoff game in their first 25 years. Much of the news the Patriots made was of the embarrassing variety: Cornerback Raymond Clayborn was slugged by sportswriter Will McDonough in 1979.

The team was at the center of an ugly sexual harassment scandal in 1990, when several players made lewd comments and gestures at Boston Herald reporter Lisa Olson. Owner Victor Kiam initially shrugged off Olson’s charges, said she strolled into the shower area the previous season and reportedly called her a “classic bitch” in private.

Even the Patriots’ successes were overshadowed by ineptitude. Coach Chuck Fairbanks directed the Patriots to their first division title in 1978 but was suspended for the regular season finale after it was learned he’d already accepted the head coaching job at the University of Colorado.

In 1985, the Patriots became the first team to make the Super Bowl by winning three straight road games. “I think it was the first time I really felt like football was appreciated around here,” Grogan said. “I think for a short period of time there we caught the imagination of the sport fan around here. A lot of people jumped on the bandwagon and wanted to be associated with the Patriots.”

A win over the Chicago Bears and their legendary defense would have been the biggest upset in football history. Alas, the Bears were as good as advertised as they destroyed the Patriots, 46-10. Two days later, any remaining positive feelings the Patriots had built up over the previous month disappeared when it was revealed more than two dozen players failed drug tests during the season.

“Who knows what would have happened had we won that game?” Grogan said. “We certainly would have been in the forefront for a little longer than it was.”

The Patriots were a picture of instability and uncertainty in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The franchise won 14 games in a four-season span from 1989-1992, had three owners between 1989 and 1993 and was moments away from moving to St. Louis when Robert Kraft, who owned Foxboro Stadium, bought the team from James Orthwein.

“The Red Sox cut across all demographics—racial lines, age, gender, it doesn’t matter,” McAdam said. “If you lived in New England, the Red Sox are part of the fabric. And if you’ve lived in New England until the last 10 years, the Patriots were mostly a bad joke. And that kind of thing doesn’t get erased overnight with people who have developed a decades-long affiliation with the Red Sox.”

Even Kraft could not deny the seemingly irresistible lure of the Red Sox: According to The Boston Globe, when a fellow NFL owner poked fun at Kraft for being pictured in a Red Sox jacket on national television, Kraft said he was a Sox fan long before he was a Patriots fan.

The Patriots surged to respectability under Kraft and coach Bill Parcells, who was hired prior to the 1993 season by Orthwein. And it was Parcells’ charisma—as well as the success the Patriots enjoyed under him; their loss in Super Bowl XXXI following the 1996 season marked the decade’s only championship round appearance by a Boston team—that finally turned the Patriots into the clear number two “beat” in Boston.

In December 1996, Channel 4 sports anchor Bob Lobel told the Boston Herald Parcells was “…by far the greatest sports personality in my 20 years here.” Parcells could be secretive, bullying and combative with the media, particularly those who second-guessed his decisions or asked what he believed were ill-informed questions, but he seemed to enjoy interacting with reporters and his sarcastic wit and biting commentary—in 1996, he called rookie wide receiver Terry Glenn “she” in an attempt to fire him up—made his press conferences can’t-miss affairs.

Few coaches were more consumed with winning or more miserable in defeat than Parcells, who once said winning the Super Bowl was better than sex. But unlike so many of his brethren whose lives seemingly did not extend beyond the gridiron, Parcells has a litany of off-field interests and hobbies.

Parcells had a particular fondness for horse racing—he owned several thoroughbreds and bet a pair of writers that a favorite horse of his would win a 1996 race; when it did, the writers could not ask Parcells a question for a week—and baseball. Parcells is a lifelong fan of the game who often said he’d love to own a minor league team upon retirement. He’d often talk about the game and swap trivia questions with reporters in off-the-record sessions following press conferences.

“He was an interesting guy in his press conferences,” said Cafardo, who was moved from the Red Sox beat to the Patriots beat when Ron Borges was promoted to NFL columnist in 1996. “He wasn’t afraid to say things about players. He would go off on the writers. He was just very entertaining and he would always fill up your notebook.”

Filling up the notebooks of reporters was the last thing on the mind of Bill Belichick, a Parcells disciple and the man who would lift the Patriots to unimaginable heights.

(Part two tomorrow)

Email Jerry at jbeach73@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jerrybeach.

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