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A football town, too


BOSTON -- For Stacey James, the proof is in the pro shop. If you want to measure the inroads the New England Patriots have made in transforming Boston into more than just a Red Sox-obsessed, baseball-loving town, you have to go all the way back to 1993, the year he first flew here to interview for the Patriots' public relations director job.

James, now the team's executive director of media relations, had promised his then-girlfriend (now wife) that he would bring home to Atlanta a Patriots souvenir of some sort. Magnet, key chain, hat, T-shirt, whatever. He just wanted a little token of the team that he was about to pledge his loyalty to. Easier said than done.

"At old Foxboro Stadium, there was no pro shop like we have now at Gillette Stadium,'' James said this week. "They actually had a trailer that they used as a pro shop on game days, but it wasn't open during the week. I'm on a job interview, so I wasn't going to ask for a freebie from the team. I just figured I'd pick something up at Logan Airport, before my flight home.''

That's where things got challenging. Boston, as it turned out, was mostly a Patriots-free zone in 1993, the year before Robert Kraft purchased the team, saving it from a near-certain move to St. Louis. "When I got to Logan and found a shop, there was this back wall display dominated by Red Sox stuff,'' James said. "Next to it, smaller, was some Celtics and Bruins stuff. Then next to that, where I expected to find the Patriots stuff, it was Harvard and BC souvenirs. There was nothing of the Patriots for sale. Nothing.

"I even asked at the counter and told the woman I'd take a magnet. I couldn't believe it. That's how far down the totem pole the team was around here. And that was after the Patriots hired Bill Parcells as coach and drafted Drew Bledsoe first overall. On the flight home, I kept asking myself, 'If I do get it, do I really even want this job?' It's unbelievable how distant we were on the Boston sports scene.''

Three Super Bowl titles in a four-year span, a sparkling new stadium (Gillette opened in 2002), and one of the game's biggest superstars as the telegenic face of the team (quarterback Tom Brady) sure helps elevate a franchise's profile, even in baseball-mad Boston, where the Red Sox's rich history had a six decades or so jump on the local pro football team.

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Make no mistake, Boston, the city I relocated to more than two years ago, still rises and falls with the success of the Red Sox on a daily basis (at least for half the year). I contend you can walk down the street where I live in Brookline and tell how the Sox did in the previous night's game by the faces and expressions of your fellow pedestrians. And Fenway Park, that jewel of a ballpark just a mile and half from my doorstep, remains the most beloved shrine in this history-soaked town, by far.

It's no longer accurate, however, to say the Patriots truly take a backseat to the Red Sox. There's a pecking order to be sure. But it's more like the beloved Red Sox are No. 1 and the revered Patriots are 1A, with the improved Celtics, the struggling Bruins, and the surging and No. 2-ranked Boston College Eagles football team trailing light years behind the big two.

TV ratings are just one way to take a reading of the local sporting pulse, but the once-bedraggled Patriots more than hold their own when they go up against a Red Sox game. Two weeks ago, the Patriots were at home against the Browns in a game that started at 1 p.m. Sunday. The same day the Red Sox played at the Angels in Game 3 of the American League Division Series.

The Patriots' fifth game of the regular season drew a 25.1 rating, while the Red Sox's series-clincher earned a 22.1. Fans in New England love their Patriots, whose winning reign this decade represents one of the most successful era for any Boston-area team since the Red Sox won four World Series titles in the seven-year run of 1912-1918.

"The ratings for the Patriots in the past 10 years have surpassed baseball on the days we both play, but I'm just happy to be engaged in that debate about whether it's a baseball town or a football town,'' James said. "It wasn't that long ago that even asking the question would have been laughable. The Red Sox have such a generational lead on the Patriots when it comes to growing an audience. But what the Pats are doing now will have a profound effect on generations to come and how they view that baseball-football debate.''

I've lived other places -- the Tampa Bay area, the Twin Cities, and the Baltimore-Washington area -- and nowhere matches the year-round intensity and passion for sports and its local pro teams that Boston exhibits. But like almost everywhere else, it's all about winning. This is truly the golden age of sports in Boston, and from what I can tell, there's room enough on the bandwagon for everyone in these parts -- providing they just win, Baby.

"What we've seen here is that for the teams that have success professionally, the support is overwhelming,'' James said. "To say it's a football town or a baseball town or a basketball town, you're trying to divide the sports fan. I think the right response is it's a sports town. All of the above. The fans here have had other years where a lot of the teams were winning at the same time and doing well -- like in 1986. But this snapshot is pretty special. It's almost an embarrassment of riches.''