For all its pockets of effete, blueblooded-snobbery, high tech yuppiness and Ivy League elitism, Boston is still a blue-collar town to the core, especially when it comes to pro sports. For every cardigan-sweatered intellectual with a Kindle full of 'George F. Will baseball-as-a-metaphor-for-life' books you can show me, I can produce 50,000 guys who are regular vistors to hockeyfights.com.
And to that end, there’s one quality Boston fans respect and admire in our athletes and in our teams above all others: Toughness.
Regardless of which sport we’re talking about, toughness beats all other character traits and it’s not even close. We respond to it more than we do natural talent, charisma, grace, poise, personality, brains, or even when it comes right down to it, productivity. When it comes to all possible facets of a ballplayer’s personality, toughness is our Secretariat, blowing by the others and leaving them its dust.
Think about it. Who was the last athlete that was truly beloved in this town without being a confirmed badass? The bow tie-and-red-glasses crowd can watch Ken Burns documentaries and read John Updike’s “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” for the 10,000th time, and wax poetic about the arc of Ted Williams' flawless swing. But what made Boston embrace post-retirement Teddy was that he was a real life John Wayne. He was arrogant and cocky and crash landed his jet after killing a bunch of communists. And he was also bellicose and profane, busted everyone’s balls and probably couldn’t complete a sentence without dropping more F-bombs than he ever did on North Korea. We loved him because he was an older version of us.
I could cite a bunch of examples:
1. Bobby Orr was as the savior of the Bruins who burst into the league and immediately started setting records and winning awards. But it’s well-documented that the moment he was really embraced by the city (and the hockey world as well) was when he proved he wouldn’t back down from a fight. Even if it meant being on the receiving end of the occasional ass-kicking.
2. The Sox of the '70's had Fred Lynn, a graceful outfielder with a lefty swing that looked like an angel brushing a unicorn’s mane with a magic wand. But fans never really loved him. We saved the real affection for Carlton Fisk, who once tried to jam his fist down Craig Nettle’s windpipe. And Bill Lee, who got a separated shoulder in a melee and still tried to take on the whole Yankees’ team like the Black Knight saying “‘Tis but a scratch” in “Holy Grail.”
3. The ‘80s Celtics fought everybody. Bird fought Dr. J and Kareem. Larry and Parish both fought Laimbeer. McHale fought Rambis. Danny Ainge almost got his finger bitten off fighting Tree Rollins.
4. Not to suggest that toughness is always defined by fighting. The ‘87 Celtics were so banged up they looked like the front row at a faith healer’s revival meeting. But they struggled and clawed and willed their way to the Finals where they were a Magic Johnson sky hook away from winning the damn thing. And everyone I know wore the Celts logo t-shirt with the leprechaun in a sling leaning on a crutch instead of his shilelagh and the words “One damn proud Celtics fan” on it.
5. Take the championship era Red Sox. While Manny Ramirez was putting up incomprehensible numbers, he was never really loved in this town, mainly because he’s a Froot Loop. Whereas some guys who didn’t have a fraction of Manny’s production were embraced, because they were seen as gritty, scrappy, blue-collar types. Dirt dogs in the mold of Trot Nixon or Bill Mueller. Obviously the most beloved figure to come out of this era is Big Papi, who’s tough in the only way a DH can be: the mental toughness to come up big when it counts.
6. But just to suggest that toughness really IS defined by fighting, there’s not a sports pub in the Commonwealth that doesn’t have that picture of Varitek feeding A-Rod a catcher’s mitt sandwich. Without it, you get your liquor license revoked, that’s a fact. Because again, we like the hardasses.
7. Your most recent generation of Bruins have had some talented players come and go, but the truly appreciated ones, the retired number-worthy guys, have all been fearless, bloodied-knuckle types: Terry O’Reilly, Ray Borque and Cam Neely.
I bring all this up because over the weekend I sat down at a suburban radio station and talked Bruins with three serious, hard core Hockey Krishnas. Or more to the point, they talked Bruins, I mostly listened and threw in the occasional casual fan, pink-hatter obvservation. But the gist of the conversation was us trying to figure out exactly what this current Bruins team is all about.
Are they (here’s the word again) tough? Are they a collection of bad mamma-jammas, one of those nasty, physical teams that strikes fear into every opponent? In other words, are they the kind of legendarily tough club we’ll be sitting around twenty years from now still talking about like the ones I mentioned above?
Lord knows they’ve shown flashes of it. That epic game against Dallas was one for the ages. Three fights in the first four seconds, which immediately produced two goals. It seemed a mortal lock that it was a defining moment. That they’d finally found their identity and that they were going to cut a swath through the NHL, fists first. Big, Bad 2.0.
Annnnd ... two days later they got shut out by San Jose. Then came the unforgettable Blazing Saddles bar fight against Montreal. The rough stuff there sparked them to eight goals, and it seemed like the Sharks game was just a glitch. That the Bruins we saw against the Canadiens were the real thing. his is what they were going to be going forward. Razors that would fight their way to the playoffs, one broken nose cartilage at a time if that’s what it took.
Annnnd ... they proceeded to lose their next three, including Tuesday night’s embarrassment at the hands of Phil Kessel. And in those three games they’ve shown as much balls as a Cairo mob ganging up on Anderson Cooper.
Speaking strictly as a casual Bruins fan -- a reformed hockeyaholic who used to love the Bruins and wants to again -- I seriously wonder if this is one of those teams this city can rally behind. Are they, frankly, tough enough for our liking?
Does this mean I want to see every game looking like the Charleston Chiefs against the Syracuse Bulldogs the way those Dallas and Montreal games were? Hell no. Too much of that would be an abomination.
I suppose I’d be satisfied if I was convinced the current Bruins were more like the current Celtics. It’s not a great analogy because they’re very different games. But there’s not a man on the Celts roster who hasn’t shown he’s willing to play a physical a style as the league will let him get away with. Whether it’s take a charge, throw an elbow, take an elbow, throw a fist, or bleed profusely from the head. It’s the very thing that makes the rest of the league hate the Cs, and what makes Boston love them.
Because above all else, Bostonians are tough. Not me, by any means. My last fight was 3rd grade. (I told Jimmy Stickle he smelled like a pickle and he took offense. Granted I shouldn’t have said it, but in my defense he really did.) Since then I’ve managed to avoid pissing anybody off enough to start anything. But as a whole, we’re a tough breed who respond to tough athletes. Because our life sucks. The weather is awful the city is laid out terribly and the place is run by crooks so every day is an ordeal. We have to be Massholes just to function. I’m not saying being a Massholey like us is the only way to get us to warm to an athlete, but it helps.
What I AM saying though is that before I’m willing to get emotionally invested in this current edition of the Bruins, I need to know that they’re more than just occasionally tough. As it stands we’re 56 games into the season and there’s not a serious puck head in the city who really can say what kind of team this is.
Follow Jerry on Twitter at @jerrythornton1