BOSTON -- Jimmy Walsh leaned in close, his head tilted sideways in mock seriousness and his hand flat against the bar for balance. He had wisdom to impart, he said.
"Here's a hot tip for you," the 43-year-old construction worker stage-whispered, more than loudly enough to reach his buddies planted on nearby stools. "Put some money on the Patriots this weekend. Maybe then you can ree-ty-ah!"
For once, winning has gone hand-in-hand with Boston sports fans, whose teams won the World Series and play in the Super Bowl.
(Andy Lyons -- Getty Images)
At least one thing was clear from the peals of laughter that burst from the afternoon crowd at Sullivan's Tap, a windowless pub plastered with posters hyping Sunday's Super Bowl: Boston sports fans, once rendered sullen with torment, have rediscovered their swagger.
With it, the psyche of a city that perhaps more than any other defines itself in relation to its teams has been inexorably altered. Indeed, the National Football League championship game in Jacksonville, Fla., on Sunday, in which the Patriots play the Philadelphia Eagles, will cap a year in the national spotlight for Boston: It hosted to the Democratic National Convention over the summer and gave rise to presidential nominee John F. Kerry, the senator from Massachusetts.
It has been a rare and transformative run for a city that bills itself as the Hub of the Universe, but never seems to quite believe it.
The inferiority complex that long has marked Boston's relationship with New York remains. But it softened considerably when the B on Bostonians' baseball caps, once a scarlet letter and a magnet for taunts about curses, became a badge of honor when the Red Sox beat the Yankees and went on to win the World Series in October.
Now, if the Patriots beat the Eagles, Boston's two top teams will have accomplished something that has happened only twice before, in any city. In 1979 and 1980, fans in Pittsburgh feasted on a sandwich of Steelers' Super Bowls around a Pirates World Series victory; in 1969, the Mets and Jets won for New York.
"So many of my friends from other states wish they were from Boston now," said Heather Telford, 18, who grew up just outside the city and studies at nearby Endicott College. "Even though we didn't do anything, it just makes you so proud."
Boston fans were shut out in the 1990s, the only decade in the 20th century when no local professional team won a championship. The Celtics collapsed in the wake of basketball legend Larry Bird's retirement. The Bruins defined middle-of-the-pack hockey mediocrity. The Patriots, whose home is 30 minutes south of Boston in Foxboro, Mass., played the part of punching bags for the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl in January 1997. And the Red Sox? Well, everyone knows their story by now.
But for the legions of fans famously described by a former Celtics coach as the "fellowship of the miserable," those days have given way to glory days.
Even before Sunday's game, this region has enjoyed an embarrassment of riches when, on the heels of the Patriots' Super Bowl wins in two of the previous three seasons, the Red Sox finally won their first World Series since Prohibition. There's more. While the Celtics are far from championship caliber, they are in first place, albeit in the NBA's worst division. The Boston College men's basketball team is 19-0, one of two undefeated Division I programs in the country (Illinois is the other); it has reached No. 5 in the latest Associated Press poll. And the BC men's hockey team sits atop the national collegiate rankings.
With so many distractions, no one around here seems to care that the Bruins are sidelined amid a labor dispute that threatens to cancel the NHL season.
"We've all had to suspend our disbelief around here. It's been too good to be true," said Richard Johnson, curator of the Sports Museum at the FleetCenter, the arena where the Bruins and Celtics play. "We all sleepwalked through October watching the Sox, and as soon as that was over, the Patriots were in their playoff push and setting an NFL record for most consecutive regular season wins. It is quite an historic run, is all I can say."
Until this year, the most recent landmark period in Boston professional sports was 1986, when Bird's Celtics won the NBA title and the Red Sox lost a heartbreaking World Series to the Mets. Two years later, the Bruins reached the Stanley Cup finals, losing to Edmonton.
"We felt like the center of the world then," said Skip Perry, manager of Cyberphoto, which has sold dozens of framed copies of the Boston Globe's front page from Oct. 28, the day after the Red Sox won the World Series.
"Look outside there," he said, pointing at the remnants of last week's blizzard, piled several feet high along the sidewalk. "It's been like that for a week, and the temperature is in the single digits at night. It's dreary. It's miserable. But, oh my gosh, is all this winning good for the psyche. Good for the soul. When I think about what's coming on Sunday, it all melts away."
Ironically, until recent years, the Red Sox and the Patriots had long been the least successful Boston franchises. Before sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals last October, the Red Sox had not won a World Series since 1918; and the Patriots, who joined the AFL in 1960, didn't win their first Super Bowl until February 2002.
Now, the doomsday pessimism that once dominated talk-radio discussions has disappeared, replaced by thoughts of another all-night celebration, another congratulatory banner hanging from the statehouse and city hall, another victory parade with a million or so lining the streets.
"The only problem with all this is that if anything, it's too perfect. We like to have something to complain about," said Craig Berkel, marketing director for WEEI, an all-sports radio station whose daytime call-in programs dominate their timeslots. Lately some of the most heated debates have surrounded questions unlikely to make anyone's blood boil, such as whether Patriots Coach Bill Belichick is a genius or the Patriots should be considered a dynasty.
"People keep asking what are we going to do after the Super Bowl celebration," Berkel said. "Luckily, it is almost spring training."
An unscientific sample of predictions for this weekend reveals that confidence is not in short supply. But those annoyed by the sudden smugness of the local fan base say Boston is due for its comeuppance, perhaps at the hands of the Eagles, who play for a city that last won a major sports title in 1983.
"I don't like to brag about my teams," said Walsh, who lives in Medford, a suburb north of Boston. But before he delivered a prediction sure to contradict that statement, bartender and New York Jets fan Matt Coleman decided he had heard enough.
"All you guys do is brag. They are the most arrogant sports fans in the country," he said. "All I know is I am going to church this Sunday for the first time in 30 years, not counting weddings and funerals, and I am going to pray for the Patriots to lose. I just can't take it any more."