My very first byline was right here in these pages. It was the summer of 1973, just weeks before my junior year at Boston University, and there was nothing in the world I wanted to be more than an everyday sportswriter for the Globe.
For those who may have forgotten that renowned bit of wordsmithing, it was a game story on the Boston Astros. They played in the American Soccer League and Helio “Boom Boom” Barbosa, a flashy Brazilian striker, was their headliner, their petit Pele. Not that anyone around here paid much attention. The Astros didn’t draw flies, despite the scintillating prose of the Globe’s eager beat man.
John Bertos, a Lowell business owner, was the club’s Mr. Everything. Bertos owned the Astros, managed the Astros, coached the Astros, often even authored the Astros’ press releases. He did just about everything but kick the ball into the goal, and there were times when the compact Bertos paced and stalked the sideline at Boston College’s Alumni Stadium that he looked on the verge of doing that, too.
With the World Cup just under way in Brazil, soccer is getting a lot of talk around here. It gets a fair amount of attention yearround because of the Foxborough-based Revolution, the Kraft-family-owned MLS entry that plays in the Kraft-family-owned cavernous Gillette Stadium. The Revolution typically play to about one-quarter capacity at the 60,000-seat stadium, which makes the game look like a little guy trying on suits at the Tall & Stout Man’s Store, with sleeves too long, pants too baggy, the beautiful sport’s tension and drama lost like so much lint in the pockets.
Ideally, the Krafts would like to move their futbol team downtown, to a new, soccer-specific stadium, one that not only would be better scaled to their current crowds of around 15,000, but one that might entice greater numbers of city residents, those who lack Volvo station wagons for the trek to Foxborough, to become regular ticket-buying Revolutionists.
Part of me says that didn’t happen when the Astros played on a downsized field in Chestnut Hill and, therefore, it wouldn’t happen now. It’s the same part of me that knows that the Astros in 1975 bolted for Worcester — with ex-Celtics icon Bob Cousy as the ASL commissioner — once the NASL’s Boston Minutemen came to town. Nearly 40 years later, with interest in the Revolution hardly robust, it figures to be an empty stadium waiting to happen, right?
Not really. Things have changed. The world’s game is picking up interest throughout the US, and I bet the right stadium in the right part of downtown would be successful. I’ve never bought into the refrain, “No one cares about soccer.’’ Admittedly, as an old Astros beat guy, I’m sensitive to out-of-hand dismissals anyway, especially so after decades of covering the Bruins. If only I had a nickel for every time I heard, “No one cares about the Bruins,’’ I might have enough to fork out the $12,000-plus next season for that pair of lower-bowl season tickets to the Black and Gold.
Right now I guess it’s time for no one to care about the can’t-win Celtics. Oh, and before the Krafts bought the Patriots, for decades labeled the “Foxboro Follies,” surely no one cared about the local NFL entry.
The point is, it’s nonsense to say no one cares, when basing that assumption on what team is or isn’t the flavor of the day. The Red Sox are struggling right now and you can bet, all but eight months after they’ve won the World Series, some nitwit will call talk radio this week and say, yep, “No one cares about the Red Sox anymore.’’ Worse, a host or two might agree.
Look, I don’t much care about the Celtics or the NBA anymore, for lots of reasons, but I’m not so arrogant to believe what I don’t care about goes double or triple for the guy next to me. Had the Krafts bought into the “no one cares’’ mantra, they might have lived up to their ploy to move the club to Hartford, or perhaps they wouldn’t have bought it at all. If so, the New England football team everyone loves today (also not true) might be doing business instead in Oklahoma City, Las Vegas, or maybe even London.
Jonathan Kraft said Thursday, in an on-air chat with The Sports Hub’s “Felger and Mazz,” that the political/sports climate in Boston has changed for the better with the recent change in the mayor’s office. By Kraft’s eye, hizzonah Marty Walsh is open to the idea of a new downtown stadium, and it remains the Kraft family’s “priority to get an arena.’’
Of course, this is the same Kraft, chafed over a recent Boston Magazine report unflattering to the Revolution, who also said during the Sports Hub segment, “We all know what is happening to print publications — they don’t matter anymore.’’
They don’t matter anymore. Didn’t know that. Perhaps we’ve got far bigger problems than our big city and its lack of a little downtown soccer stadium.
The World Cup is going to give us a sensational month of soccer. I’ll watch. Maybe not religiously, but I’ll buy-in as the field winnows, most of all because these are the world’s most dynamic players performing on the game’s grandest stage, in a country that partly defines itself through the game. The setting makes the stage. The drama will build, entice, ensnare.
We once had a similar passion for baseball in America in the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s, and into the ’70s. All that was amid the transition to two cars in the driveway, a million choices on the cable box and handheld devices, an ever-expanding sports menu to capture our imagination, and disposable income. Things changed. Now the NFL is our national sport.
Long gone are those days of Willie, Mickey, and The Duke. I’m confident those times won’t be back, yet I know that a lot of people still care about the game. Don’t look back, the great Negro League pitcher Satchel Paige was famous for saying, because something might be gaining on you. A guy who endured being told no one much cared about what he did throughout most of his career, Paige probably would find both irony and conviction in where soccer stands today.