Sports in Boston: tradition is the biggest winner

Other cities might challenge Boston's claim to being the best sports town in the country. Bostonians, however, can be tenacious arguers, whether the subject is politics or the value of a sacrifice bunt, so debating the point is never easy.

The city unquestionably has a lot going for it sportswise, including:

* Three top-flight pro teams -- the baseball Red Sox, basketball Celtics, and hockey Bruins.

* The boston Marathon, one of the world's most revered footraces.

* The Longwood Cricket Club, a venerable old tennis club that hosts the US Pro Championships and has produced many of the sport's movers and shakers.

* A hefty number of sports heroes, both active and retired, ranging from Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Bill Russell, and bobby Orr to US Olympic hockey captain Mike Eruzione and goalie Jim Craig.

Most important of all, though, are the natives -- the ones who jam Fenway Park and the Boston Garden, line the river banks for the Head of the Charles Regatta, tune in to the rush-hour sports talk shows, or drift off to sleep listening to late-night radio sports roundups.

Unlike the fans in some cities, Bostonians tend to be purists, preferring and appreciating sports in an unembellished state.

Consequently, Boston's pro teams have never had to resort to wacky promotions , outlandish uniforms, hysterical mascots, or any other similar gimmicks designed to attract and hold the masses.

Bostonians like their sports laced with history and tradition rather than infused with show biz. Thus it is that staid Fenway Park is the town's most cherished athletic sanctuary.

Fenway is, in a sense, baseball's answer to the Old North Church. The park's only glaring concession to the changing times is a computerized scoreboard above the center-field bleachers. Otherwise, the cozy brick stadium, the smallest in the majors with only 33,500 seats, is a living reminder of an earlier era. The field is a beautifully manicured pasture of real grass, a roof overhangs the grandstand (constructed in 1912 and rebuilt in 1934), and a manually operated scoreboard, with huge metal numbers, is still used in left field.

This is also where the "Green Monster," one of baseball's most famous landmarks, lurks. The Monster is the towering wall that rises up a mere 315 feet from home plate at its closest point. Thirty-seven feet tall and running between left and center field, the fence gives the park a special character that's missing in today's modern symmetrical stadiums.

Though inflation has pushed ticket prices up, attending a Red Sox game is still one of the most affordable entertainment buys in town. Two dollars will get you into the outfield bleachers, where the crowd behavior ranges from animated to raucous.Those interested in a closer vantage point should be prepared to plunk down $4.75 for the better reserved grandstand seat.

A word to the wise, though: good seats -- especially those for games against contending teams -- go quickly. the Red Sox have a large following throughout New England, which is certainly part of the reason they drew a club record 2,353 ,106 spectators last season, sixth best in the majors. The club's penchant for chasing pennants (though seldom winning them) also contributes to the ticket demand.

One event that spectators are never turned away from is the Boston Marathon, the traditional Patriot's Day race that falls on April 21 this year. Once a diversion on the local sports scene, the marathon is today virtually an epic happening. Seven thousand official entries are expected for this year's run, and quite possibly a million spectators will line the route that begins 26 miles west of Boston's Prudential Center finish line in Hopkinton.

There's no charge for watching, of course, and the larger the throng the grander this collective celebration of athletic achievement, for each finisher is a winner to some degree.

Some of the top striders in the world live in the greater Boston area, including America's premier long-distance man, Bill Rodgers, the proprietor of two thriving runners' stores, one in Quincy Market downtown. The three-time Boston Marathon winner may be the leader of the running set, but thousands more practice this discipline, many along the Charles River. The river also lures a thriving population of rowers. Intercollegiate crew is quite competitive with three universities -- Harvard, Boston University, and MIT -- situated right on the Charles. In October teams from these colleges, plus hundreds more representing schools and clubs from across the country, enter the Head of the Charles Regatta, one of crew racing's greatest spectacles.

Hockey is another sport that has always been stronger here than in other regions. SEveral years ago Boston was supporting three professional teams -- the Bruins, Whalers, and minor-league Braves. The hockey craze has subsided somewhat, yet the sport is still every bit as popular as basketball.

The caliber of the college game is traditionally high, a fact born out by the presence of four former Boston University players on the US Olympic squad. The top collegiate showcase has traditionally been the Beanpot Hockey Tournament, which pits BU, Harvard, Boston College, and Northeastern against each other during February in the Boston Garden.

The Garden, not to be confused with the flowering Public Garden, is something of an institution in its own right. Constantly referred to as "the ghastly garden" by one local columnist, the aging arena is an anachronism existing in the midst of train tracks and traffic arteries at the city's northern tip.

Ironically, the team that has made the Garden famous, the Celtics, now want to move out. They have hoisted 13 championship banners to the rafters in the past three decades while playing on a parquet-style floor. Having survived a few lean years, the team has now been rebuilt into a title contender with the acquisition of Lary Bird, last season's College Player of the Year.

Professional football was once played in Boston proper, but in 1971 the club moved to a new stadium in Foxboro (25 miles south of the city) and adopted the name New England Patriots. The Patriots have historically been one of the National Football League's more turbulent franchises, and like the Red Sox, a frustrating one to root for.

Boston College is the area's only big-time football school. Harvard, meanwhile, plays an ever-interesting Ivy League schedule in a classic atmosphere of tailgate picnics and class reunions.

Boston offers a rich diversity of sports pleasures, the depths of which few begin to plumb. Visitors, however, can garner more than enough enjoyment from even the quickest sampling of the city's sports cuisine. If nothing else, a glimpse of the marathon or the inside of Fenway Park should do the trick.

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