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Original Issue

A Surge of Patriotism

On the brink of losing its football team, Boston fights—finally—to keep the Pats

I've never seen anything like this. The end of the world was approaching in Boston. The sky was falling, falling, inching closer every single day, and nobody gave a damn. Then, all at once, everybody seemed to notice. The New England Patriots were on their way out of town.

"What do you think will happen?" the good citizens of Beantown, the Hub of the Universe, the Athens of America, asked one another over and over again. "Will the Pats go? They can't go...can they?"

What could compare to the local atmosphere? I don't know. I am young enough to have missed the buzz surrounding two world wars, and I've only read about the American Revolution. One if by land. Two if by sea. I can see the Old North Church, but I can't summon the urgency. What do I use to conjure it up? Hurricanes? Blizzards? The grim business with the Boston Strangler? The announcement that Cheers was going to end? I don't know. I've never seen such panic.

The governor of Massachusetts, William Weld, went on TV to assure his constituents that the Patriots would leave the state "over my dead body." Does that rank up there with "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes" at Bunker Hill? I don't know. The state legislature, a perpetual debating society often touched by scandal, suddenly seemed to be mobilizing to hurry through a bill that would clear the way for construction of a $700 million "megaplex" to be built in downtown Boston, although no one seemed quite sure what a megaplex was. ("It's easy," one man explained. "You go to the roots of the word. Mega. Plex. It's a big plex.") The conventional thinking was that a megaplex would ensure that the Patriots would stay. Then again, no one was sure that the conventional thinking was right.

The villain was James Busch Orthwein, the florid-faced beer baron from St. Louis who owns the Pats. He had come to town only two years ago to rescue the team from financial ruin. The deal was supposed to be that Orthwein would own the team until a local buyer was found, and then he would sell gracefully and move on to head an NFL expansion team in his hometown, where a big plex already was under construction. But after the NFL awarded its new franchises to Charlotte and Jacksonville, the sky began to fall in New England.

The descent was unnoticed for a while because the Pats, traditionally a Monty Python troupe of football bumblers, were in their usual spin, losing 11 of their first 12 games. In the final weeks of the season, however, a number of strange things happened. First, New England won four straight to close with a 5-11 record. Second, people noticed that Bill Parcells, former coach of two Super Bowl champions and now the coach of the Patriots, seemed to have a pretty good idea of what he was doing. Third, people also noticed that some kid named Drew Bledsoe, first pick in last year's draft, was starting to look like a quarterback for the ages. Suddenly—whoa!—the darkest clouds were sighted about a foot and a half over the John Hancock Tower, the tallest structure in town, and falling fast. The St. Louis guy could move his team, sell his team, do whatever he wanted with his team. Whoa!

Has there ever been a quicker change of any community's heart? It was as if the plainest Jane in the secretarial pool suddenly had removed her glasses after 33 years on the job and now was an unbelievable object of attention. Flowers? Romance? Marriage? One if by land. Two if by sea. Columnists who two months earlier had taken the position "The Patriots? Let 'em go. Who wants 'em?" now demanded that something be done, starting with a small nuclear device being dropped on the Gateway Arch. Talk shows, long devoted during winter months to conversation about whom the Red Sox could obtain as a solid backup catcher, now were filled with angst about the Pats. The headline on the lead story in The Boston Globe on the day after Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill, 81-year-old native son, died following 50 years of political service that included 10 years as Speaker of the House and much time spent as adviser to a variety of presidents read, BIDS MAY DRIVE PRICE OF PATRIOTS TO NFL PEAK. The story said that groups from Baltimore, Hartford and St. Louis, as well as two others who said they would keep the team in Boston, were bidding for the Pats and that the price might go as high as $200 million.

The atmosphere was flat-out craziness. It was public extortion. Pay or say goodbye. I have seen this scene played out so many times with so many other teams in so many other cities—owners invoking the image of a moving van taking the Colts from Baltimore to Indianapolis, the North Stars from Minneapolis to Dallas, the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, saying, "It could happen here, too"—that I shouldn't have been amazed at any of the things that were happening.

I don't know. It's different when it happens in the place where you live, when you see the gun placed directly at the heads of neighbors and they suddenly act quite strange. It's personal and sad and a little bit frightening and more than a little bit sick, the sports page spilling over to create this communal fret.

I don't know. Sick. That is probably the best word. Sick.