It’s hard to overstate the accomplishments of Boston’s sports teams in the 21st century. But that hasn’t stopped people from trying. Each new milestone sends New England into fits of self-referential (and self-reverential) hyperbole. When the Bruins stunned the Maple Leafs during the opening round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, becoming the first team in NHL history to overcome a three-goal deficit in the third period of a seventh game, the Twitterati groped for the appropriate comparison. Was it a better last-gasp comeback than the Red Sox’ ninth-inning rally against the Angels in ’86? The greatest overtime win since the Tuck Rule game? The most dramatic finish to a Game 7 since Havlicek stole the ball?
Already up to my bleary eyeballs in the research for this book, I immediately thought of a parallel that was both obvious and obscure. In the 2009 NCAA men’s Division I hockey championship, Boston University trailed Miami of Ohio 3–1 in the final minute. With their goaltender off for an extra skater, BU scored twice in 40 seconds to tie the game, then won it in overtime. Terriers coach Jack Parker called it “the greatest championship game ever played.” In college towns across America it would have become an instant legend.
In Boston it barely survived a news cycle.
There were a couple of reasons for that. First, Boston has set an absurdly high standard for sports drama. Second, not all “greatest games” are created equal. In one sense, it’s hard to argue with Parker: Combine the implausibility of the BU comeback with the stakes—an NCAA title—and that probably was the greatest championship game ever played. Not just in Boston but anywhere, in any sport, at any level.
Still, it would be ridiculous to suggest that a college hockey game deserves to be ranked as the greatest game in Boston sports history. In terms of influence, NCAA hockey just doesn’t compare to the NHL variety. (And nothing compares to the NFL’s influence.) If you purport to rate the significance of a particular sporting event among a specific population, the percentage of that population that cares about the outcome ought to factor into the equation.
But it shouldn’t be the only factor. If you appreciate sports at a fundamental level, instead of just as a series of mass-media conversation pieces, then you have to admit it would be hard to top that BU game for sheer drama. So is that reason enough to include it among the 100 greatest games in Boston sports history? To me, that’s a legitimate question.
And it’s the sort of question I asked myself as I refined the methodology for the rankings in this book. I used a loose formula, but it was a formula nonetheless, incorporating the following criteria:
On June 18, 1961, the Red Sox trailed the Washington Senators 12–5 in the last of the ninth with two outs and a runner on first. Despite one of the weakest lineups in club history—four starters that day were hitting less than .240, and no one was even close to .300—Boston scored eight two-out runs to win, 13–12. It was, in all likelihood, the greatest one-out-away rally in major league history. And yet, because it involved two bad teams bumbling through a Father’s Day doubleheader, the game had little significance beyond providing an afternoon’s entertainment at Fenway Park. So it didn’t make the cut for this book. To crack the top 100, a game had to mean something. The tiniest ninth-inning rally in October trumped the largest ninth-inning rally in June.
That’s not to say I restricted the list to playoff games—although I could have. Collectively, Boston’s four major pro franchises have won almost 750 postseason games. The Celtics alone have won almost 350. Not all of them were spine-chillers, of course. Remember that 113–88 dismantling of the New York Knicks in Game 1 of the 1974 Eastern Conference Finals? Of course you don’t (unless you’re Bill Simmons). That’s because it lacked the next ingredient:
Close games are more exciting. Pretty simple.
Level of Play
A game can be both significant and suspenseful—and still kinda suck. The Celtics’ 66–64 win over the Pistons in Game 3 of the 2002 NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals is Exhibit A. (Actually, call it Exhibit D. It didn’t deserve an A. “We were playing bad. They were playing badder,” was Celtics point guard Kenny Anderson’s summary.) When pressure brings out the best in an individual player, or an entire team, the results can be transcendent. Larry Bird’s series-saving steal against Detroit in 1987. Tim Thomas’s overtime save against Montreal in 2011. Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary against Miami in 1984. The 2001 Patriots’ collective performance against the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. David Ortiz’s grand slam against the Tigers in October 2013. It’s just more satisfying when somebody makes a great play to win the game than when the opponent makes a hideous gaffe to lose the game.
This was the trickiest element to factor into the equation. Fair or not, we end up rewarding some teams and penalizing others based on how their predecessors performed. The 2004 Red Sox are the best example of the former and the 2007 Red Sox are the best example of the latter—because of the former. Overcoming a three-games-to-one deficit in a League Championship Series en route to a World Series title is a rare feat—only four teams have done it. But when it happens just three years after the same team overcame a three-games-to-none deficit in a League Championship Series—against their hated rivals, no less—en route to a World Series title that ended an 86-year drought … it’s just not going to have the same impact it otherwise would have. Through no fault of their own, the 2007 Red Sox suffer by comparison to the 2004 Red Sox. (The 2013 Red Sox, on the other hand, inspired comparisons to the 1967 Red Sox, not just because they were so much better than their immediate predecessors but also because they were likable—something that couldn’t be said of the Sox from September 2011 through the Bobby Valentine fustercluck.)
The Russell Era Celtics were also victims of their own success. The more precious metal you accumulate, the less precious it becomes—and Russell’s Celtics stockpiled the most in pro sports history. Trying to grade each of the eleven titles Russell won in that thirteen-year span is like evaluating multiple MVP candidates on the same team. Each teammate’s accomplishments diminish the others’, and the award goes elsewhere—to the Patriots, in this analogy. That brings us to the apples-and-oranges problem. Because the NFL season consists of far fewer games than those of the other major sports, each game carries more weight. This disparity is magnified in the postseason. Every NFL playoff game is win-or-go-home. And that’s why fourteen of the Pats’ 24 playoff wins are on this list, by far the highest percentage of any franchise.
Another challenge was to overcome recency bias. I wanted the list to represent the greatest games of all time, not just our time. I tried, for example, to give due consideration to Harvard’s reign as a national football powerhouse. This was trickier than it sounds. In the grand tradition of BCS chaos, the Crimson can claim anywhere from one to thirteen national championships, depending on which sources you use. How can you say a game was great when you can’t even determine what the stakes were?
I ran into a different problem when evaluating games from the Braves franchise, which won nine titles while in Boston. Most came in an era when the champion was simply the team with the best winning percentage. Win the pennant by 8½ games, as the 1892 iteration of the Braves franchise did, and it’s hard to say that any one win was more important than the others.
Same story with the 1872 Red Stockings, who finished with a record of 39–8 to take the National Association championship by 7½ games over the Baltimore Canaries. Their inclusion would have added a dash of sabermetric cachet to the list because that team can lay claim to Boston’s first-ever pro sports title. But the Stockings’ run to the championship lacked any suspense (at least any that I could detect more than 140 years later). Boston sprinted to a 22–1 start, including a 26–3 win over the Washington Nationals on Opening Day. They won by the same score over the Brooklyn Atlantics—not to be confused with the Brooklyn Eckfords, whom the Red Stockings beat 20–0.
National Association pennant fever! Catch it!
The 1904 Red Sox were another great team that never got to prove themselves in the postseason—much as they would have liked to. (And yes, I know the team wasn’t actually called the Red Sox until 1908, but it’s just too awkward to call them the Americans or the Pilgrims or the Puritans or the Plymouth Rocks or the Somersets or any of the other wacky-ass names that the newspapers hung on them at the time.) Those 1904 Sox were defending champions of the first modern World Series, having beaten the Pirates the previous October. (And I’ve chosen to spell the Pirates’ hometown Pittsburgh in this book, even though it was officially spelled Pittsburg, minus the h, from 1890 to 1911 because of an arbitrary decree from the United States Board on Geographic Names.) The Red Sox repeated as American League champions in 1904, but the National League champion New York Giants refused to play them in a postseason series. Even so, the ’04 Red Sox are in this book because they won the pennant in a tense October showdown with the Yankees (I know—Highlanders). Just like those other ’04 Red Sox.
That’s a roundabout way of saying that a regular-season game had to be pretty special to make the top 100. In general, a regular-season game had to be a steppingstone to a championship (a criterion that also figured in the ranking of postseason games); mark a significant milestone; involve an extraordinary comeback; or feature a record-setting individual performance.
In short: Games that scored high in each of those four categories—Magnitude, Suspense, Level of Play, Historical Context—dominate the top of the list. Games at the other end of the list scored high in two or three categories but not all four.
Oh—and 99 times out of 100, the Boston team won. (There was one tie.) This was not an objective exercise. An impartial observer in Yazoo City, Mississippi might argue that the Bill Buckner and Grady Little games were great, too. But you won’t find them in this book, because….
Do I really need to explain that?
Finally, I drew a distinction between great games and great moments. It was a great moment when Mark Henderson used a snowplow to clear a spot for John Smith’s field goal attempt with 4:45 left in the fourth quarter at Schaefer Stadium on December 12, 1982. But the Pats’ 3–0 win over the Miami Dolphins was not a great game. Unlike BU’s 4–3 win over Miami of Ohio on April 11, 2009.
And, yes, that one’s in here.