I just got back from a few days with in-laws in Massachusetts. I’d forgotten. Or maybe I thought that those seven titles between 2001 and ’11 by the Patriots, Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins had somehow altered a sports-addicted culture where defeat and guilt are intertwined in a unique way.
For generations, New Englanders have used the losses of their teams as a coping mechanism. If the Patriots lose, you vent your anger. If the Bruins blow it, you bond over the shared loss. If the Red Sox revert to their time-dishonored character, you use it as material for comedy.
Boston fans have developed a cheerful kind of dyspepsia that I’ve never encountered anywhere else. They turn heartbreak into mere heartburn then, like last Friday’s 100th anniversary of Fenway Park, into deep, heart-felt bonds that ignore generations of actual results. I observed it for four years in college, then 28 years since marrying into a family of Boston sports addicts.
For New England fans, no matter what misery they mime, everything is turned to their advantage in a way that does more good than harm, adding to their sense of community and interconnectedness. They’re not nuts — just the opposite. However, their attitude is often an anchor to their teams.
When I returned home, I wore a ballcap given to me by my father-in-law, an ex-pro athlete. It had a Red Sox “B” on the front but was done in Bruins colors, linking and mingling the identity of the two teams.
“Probably won’t do either of ’em any good,” said one of my father-in law’s elderly buddies. Later, at a bar in Andover, I sat next to a young Boxford cop and his friend. The Bruins had just lost to the Caps in Game 5 and, minutes before, the Red Sox had turned a 9-0 lead into a 15-9 loss to the Yankees just one day after losing at their own 100th anniversary party.
The two guys looked at my hat. “What is that, a joke?” said the cop. “The Red Sox [stink] and the Bruins are dead,” said his friend. I didn’t feel chastised. I felt included, approved and ready to boo Bobby Valentine.
Moods change. The Bruins won Game 6 in overtime. And, last season, the Bruins became the only team to win three Game 7s in a Stanley Cup trek. But in New England, optimism is measured in teaspoons while gloom comes in buckets and doom arrives in its own 18-wheel rig.
If the Bruins start well Wednesday, get ahead and have the Caps on the ropes, then the TD Garden crowd will boost them even higher. However, if Game 7 is as ridiculously close as every other battle in this series, then the nervous energy and mounting frustration in the Garden should work to the Caps’ advantage.