Celts, Sox and the Church: Strange Days in Boston

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Beans, cod, pols, Catholicism, Bruins, Pats, Celts, Bosox — things are strange in Boston these days, by turns horrific and wonderful, often downright weird or at the very least unusual. The lame duck working-mom governor threw in the towel when the pretty boy Olympic chief announced he was returning to the state to challenge her, another fine chapter in Boston State House history — not as much fun as Buddy the Wiretapped Mayor down in Providence, perhaps, but still amusing. Cardinal Law refuses to budge even as the Shanley case promises to be as ugly, or uglier, than Geoghan. The laity's screaming for someone's head and is ignored; the scandal has roiled and riled everyone, Catholic or no, from Provincetown to Williamstown.

The sex abuse story, in particular, has been wearying. You can feel it in the air in Boston: People are looking for relief. Almost daily, they're finding it in the sports pages. The Bruins have left the arena ingloriously, bumped in Round One by Les Habs, turnabout being fair play for a vile cheap-shot clothesline. But the other teams. Oh-my-oh-my. The Patriots have eight months remaining in their tenure as Defending Super Bowl Champs, and young Tom Brady is in a position to turn down shameless overtures from the lovely Tara Reid. Good guy Drew Bledsoe landed on his feet in Buffalo, and folks in the Hub are happy about that. Drew, ever classy, took out a full page, four-color ad in the Boston Globe to thank the fans of New England, and that seemed such a graceful way to bid adieu. At Filene's Basement the guy hawking the Southwick suit ("Lessee, wi' the automatic mahkdown yer gettin' it for one-fifty — unbelievable!") couldn't imagine such a gesture from past Boston legends ("Williams spit at the fans, fer goodness sake, and Yaz nevah woulda taken out an ad.").

The Celtics are back in the NBA Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1987 — 15 years, if you can believe that — and are playing exciting roundball in their series against New Jersey's Nets, having already dismissed Allen Iverson's Philadelphia 76ers and the Cinderella Detroit Pistons. Paul Pierce played well in those earlier series even though he's been dicey from the line this past week. Whatever: Pierce has certainly, this year, emerged as one of the league's brightest stars, and Antoine Walker seems to have heeded Larry Bird's advice to seek the paint more often, and pop the three less. That's certainly working; he's playing great, and stoked that miracle comeback from 26-down on Saturday. There are at least 48 minutes to be played in the semifinal series yet, and in the East the Nets are up 3-2, while in the West the Lakers are down by the same, but no one in Boston is unaware that a dream matchup with a nearly-equally-storied franshise is only a step away. Celtics-Lakers with Pierce, Walker, Shaq and Kobe on the floor, and Red, Russell, Bird and Magic in the stands, would be truly something special.

The Celtics are in serious crunch time and baseball's barely in bloom, but when it comes to who's winning the one-on-one for chat time on Sports Radio, not to mention over martinis at the Ritz and lobster at Lockeober's, it just might be the Bosox. Thirty-three thousand have been hastening to the Fens each evening this spring to cheer on a team that is a bracing breath of fresh air amidst all the talk of the terrorism's inevitability and the archdiocese's dirty dealing. Pedro, Derek, Nomar, Manny, old Ricky and young Shea are a pretty fair antidote for whatever might ail New England. Even after Manny made that ill-advised hands-first slide into the catcher's shin guard and wound up on the DL for four-to-six, the Sox wouldn't bow. Friday night they head into their third series in two weeks that is a battle for the best record in all of baseball. They retained the title over Seattle a couple of weeks ago, then split with the Yanks in Boston over the holiday weekend. Now they come to the Bronx for three, and what they're saying in Southie is that if Brian Daubach can continue this Manny-like production in the four spot, all will still be well come Tuesday.

So the sports pages are cheerer-uppers in New England just now.

And yet . . . . and yet.

There are undercurrents. This should all be good news, these Celtics and Sox stories. The miserable Pitino era at the Fleet Center has given way to the sensationally successful Jim O'Brien epoch. Dan Duquette has departed the scene, as have the nasty Carl Everett and all the old coaches, replaced by fan-friendly execs, sparkplug Johnny Damon in centerfield and smiling Grady Little at the helm. Still, something is wrong with the picture. The series with the Nets has turned sour. Jason Kidd did get arrested for hitting his wife a year and a half ago, yes. But that was truly ugly business at the arena on Monday, the fans getting on not just him but her. "Wife beater," rang the refrain, and it was answered last night in New Jersey by a charming sign: SOMEBODY STAB PAUL PIERCE. This was a hardly vague reference to 11 knife wounds Pierce received in a saloon altercation a year ago. Who knows what to expect tomorrow?

And the Sox: This week's steroids story has everyone in the Hub assuming what they've been presuming for months if not years, that some of our guys are taking. Other little things, too. Manny's still not running hard to first base and Grady seems cool with that: "Manny knows when he has to run." What's that all about? Where's the old never-take-a-third-strike, always-run-'em-out ethic? Is the republic crumbling? Plus which, let's say this team is really for real, then surely there'll be a strike in August, the Sox six ahead of the Yanks.

Doomsaying in Boston, nothing new. Well, we'll be at the Fleet or hard by the tube at 7 Friday, you can be sure.

Strange days in Beantown.

Well, in the Garden, the Swan Boats are running on schedule.