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Despite football mania, baseball still tops in this guy’s book

Four Super Bowl celebrations, including one this February, have helped this become football country.
Four Super Bowl celebrations, including one this February, have helped this become football country.Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff

Once upon a time — I'm talking years, not decades — this would have been an unimaginable discussion.

It was always a given. Boston is a baseball town, arguably America's best. We were an anomaly, that rarest of American sports markets where football was tolerated more than beloved. The Patriots popped up with a good team every once in a while, actually making it to the Super Bowl in 1986, and having done so, then sustained an embarrassing defeat that accentuated their perennial sad sack status. To be a staunch Patriots fan was to be worthy of sympathy and meant one was subject to condescension. "What's wrong with you?" was a standard reaction to the news that your local team of choice was the oft-cartoonish professional football team.

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Ah, but to profess your allegiance to baseball was to establish yourself as a good and proper New Englander. After all, your father had lived and died with the Sox, and, so too, hadn't Grandpa? Every elder had a personal Ted Williams remembrance, whether it was the memory of a mammoth home run ("I was there when he reached the red seat! Swear to Gawd!"), seeing him casting at one of those celebrated "Sportsman" shows, or perhaps a sighting at a stoplight. And the elder might even have been one of the 10 million people claiming to be among the actual 10,000-plus who saw The Thumper hit home run No. 521 in that final at-bat against Jack Fisher.

Make no mistake: As we swung into the 21st century, baseball was the 24/7/365 currency around here. Obviously, the winter belonged to the Bruins, and sometimes even the Celtics, but the overriding concern for more people was whatever was going on with the Red Sox.

Things began to turn around for the Patriots when James Busch Orthwein hired Bill Parcells to coach this football team. One minute the good St. Louis millionaire had people terrified he was intent on moving the team to St. Louis, and the next he was making a decision that would mark the turning point in franchise history. For it was only when Orthwein hired this brash, vain but highly competent coach that we in New England truly became a part of America's football obsession.

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Parcells gave the Patriots legitimacy. Parcells engaged us all and made it mandatory to care.

That's when the shift began, and we all know what has happened in the last 15 years. Messrs. Belichick and Brady materialized, and now we inhabit a vastly different sports environment. The NFL is an unavoidable colossus. Football, once a September to December pursuit with an NFL championship game played the Sunday after Christmas, is now a 12-month pursuit, with free agency, OTAs, minicamps, combines, and a draft that goes on for days and days, and then training camp and before you know it September has come and the first of a million five-hour pregame shows is with us and a new season has begun.

And who is smack in the middle of it? We are. The New England Patriots are the NFL's ultimate lightning rod. Every sports fan in America, not to mention every expatriate keeping touch via the Internet, has a opinion about our New England Patriots, not all of it complimentary.

Great-grandpa would surely never understand.

This local football mania has taken place even as the Red Sox have completely changed their own dialogue. Talk of a curse or drought ended in 2004, and it couldn't have been more dramatic. The Red Sox have added two more championships since, and rank with the Giants as baseball's most decorated franchise in the new century. In one of the great man-bites-dog scenarios ever, the Yankees now envy the Red Sox.

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That being the case, it would have been an easy assumption to make in the abstract that baseball would be more solidified here than ever. But it seems to me there has been more weeping and wailing this past month over the loss of Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, and Shane Vereen than over the state of the Sox rotation or the loss of Christian Vazquez.

Frankly, I can wait until the Patriots open up on that Thursday night next September. The Killer B's are still here, so I'm sure the Patriots will be just fine. But now it's time for the game that has more conversational fodder than the other three put together. I remain steadfast in my belief that baseball, though flawed, as are all our favorite pursuits, is the greatest game ever to spring from the mind of mortal man.

Play ball!


Bob Ryan's column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.