By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
It can’t be said enough, 2020 was a year unlike any other. That sentiment doesn’t exclude the traditionally dominant teams of Boston, which is why this list is ‘biggest’ moments and not ‘best’ moments.
Even before the pandemic set in, it was shaping up to be a rough year for sports fans in the region. And despite having almost five months with no teams in action, the year crammed in enough events to alter the trajectory of all four teams for years to come.
Honorable Mentions: The Revolution’s playoff run, Celtics’ 2OT win over the Clippers, David Pastrnak’s hat trick vs. Montreal, Bruins beat Hurricanes in first round, Red Sox score 16 runs on Opening Day, Patriots’ loss to Titans in Wild Card round
10. Celtics reach Eastern Conference Finals
Going into the NBA’s shutdown, the Celtics were struggling. They held the third seed in the Eastern Conference, but had lost four of their last six games when the stoppage hit on March 11.
On top of that, injuries were proving to be a major issue. Kemba Walker missed six of the final 10 games before the shutdown due to his knee, while Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward were also on the shelf.
Mostly healthy in the bubble, the team finally got a chance to recognize some of their potential from early in the season. They won five of their eight seeding games, before sweeping Philadelphia in the first round of the playoffs. That set the stage for an epic series with the defending World Champion Toronto Raptors.
It looked like the Celtics were on their way to another easy series win, but a OG Anunoby buzzer beater in Game 3 flipped the switch. After a double-overtime Game 6, Boston was able to hold on late in a close Game 7 to reach the Eastern Conference Finals, a spot most has expected them to be in when the season started in October.
9. Patriots COVID outbreak
It’s easy to forgot how promising the start of the Patriots’ season was. They had convincing wins over Miami and Oakland, sandwiching a toe-to-toe shootout with the then-red hot Seattle Seahawks.
Things really started to go off the rails on October 3, the day before the Patriots matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs, when it was announced Cam Newton had tested positive for COVID-19. The Patriots were forced to play without Newton, and lost when the offense slowed to a crawl.
That was followed by two weeks of what can only be described as roster chaos, with multiple members of the team ending up on COVID IR either from their own positive tests or contact tracing. While this was going on, the Patriots did not have access to their facilities and prepared for games with only remote meetings.
Despite having their game against the Denver Broncos delayed with a shifting bye week, the Patriots were forced to play two games without practice. Both ended up being relatively non-competitive losses. Looking back on those three weeks in the context of the entire season, it’s hard to say the Patriots ever truly recovered from their outbreak.
8. Gordon Hayward sign-and-trade saga
During Gordon Hayward’s tenure with the Celtics he proved to be a decisive figure among fans. His departure from Boston wasn’t any different.
With the condensed NBA offseason in 2020, things happened quickly with Hayward, who was sitting on a player option for the 2021 season. First, there were reports that all he wanted was to get out of Boston. Then, as the deadline approached, suddenly it sounded like he might stay.
On November 19, Hayward turned down his option, and it looked like the Celtics had let him get away for nothing – until the sign-and-trade rumors started flying.
At one point, Hayward seemed destined for his home state of Indiana, with the Celtics landing up-and-coming big man Myles Turner in return. But at the last second, Hayward signed with the Charlotte Hornets, netting Danny Ainge a record $28.5 million trade exception.
7. Tuukka Rask leaves the NHL bubble
Tuukka Rask was one of the best goalies in hockey before the NHL season was suspended in March. However, when the Bruins got off to a slow start in the Toronto bubble, many wondered if the team needed a goalie change, with then-backup Jaroslav Halak also playing well.
As it turned out, Rask made a decision before the team could. Two days after a 4-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes evened the B’s first-round playoff series at one game a piece, Rask opted out of the remainder of the season.
Many thought Rask’s decision was due to the pressure of the games, after comments he made following the Game 2 loss about the environment in the bubble. However, it was revealed a few days later revealed that is was a family emergency that pulled Rask away from the team.
With Halak in net, the Bruins won the series by taking three straight games against the Hurricanes, before losing the next series in five to the Lightning. While it’s unlikely the Bruins’ season would have had a drastically different ending had Rask been able to stay, his departure will likely go down as one of the defining moments of his career in Boston.
6. Death of Celtics’ legend Tommy Heinsohn
2020 saw the world lose legends from just about every field imaginable. That included the Boston sports landscape, with the death of former Celtics player, coach, and broadcaster Tommy Heinsohn on November 9.
Drafted by the Celtics in 1956, Heinsohn was a staple of the Celtics’ organization up until his death. He won eight championships as a player, plus two more as a coach. In 1981, he joined Mike Gorman in the broadcast booth, where he was a fan favorite.
5. Alex Cora’s suspension/rehiring
While baseball’s sign stealing scandal itself hit it’s peak in 2019, it wasn’t until January 14 of 2020 that Alex Cora and the Red Sox “mutually parted ways” as a result of his involvement.
In late April, Cora was suspended for the 2020 season after a league investigation revealed he was ab integral part of the Houston Astros’ trash can scheme during their 2017 championship season. However, the Red Sox were cleared of any wrongdoing, despite accusations Cora had brought a similar operation to Boston when he was hired in 2018.
While Cora’s dismissal seemed odd, the Red Sox search to replace him was odder. The team didn’t promote bench coach Ron Roenicke to manager until the day before pitchers and catchers were due to report to Fort Myers. Chaim Bloom and other Red Sox front office members often gave vague, dodgy answers when asked about Cora having a potential future with the team.
Roenicke was dismissed as manager on the day of the Red Sox final game of the season. While many speculated Cora would be a potential replacement, the Red Sox continued to keep their distance. That is, until his suspension officially ended after the World Series. Suddenly, there were reports of Red Sox brass flying to Puerto Rico to meet with Cora, and within a week and a half, he was re-hired as manager.
Nobody knows why Cora left the team instead of serving his suspension while being employed by the Red Sox. In an overall strange year, it was another strange chain of events unlike anything we’d seen before.
4. The Cam Newton experience
There’s a handful of Cam Newton moments that could crack the list on their own, so in the interest of variety here we’re going to combine them into one. From his signing in early July, to his debut, to COVID, to his eventual slide, it’s hard to argue any athlete anywhere, not just Boston, had a more roller coaster year.
After the Patriots didn’t take a quarterback in the draft in April, Newton’s name was regularly mentioned in the same breath with the Patriots. After a few months of ‘will they, won’t they’ the 31-year-old signed in New England on July 8. In training camp, he quickly blew by Jarrett Stidham and earned the starting quarterback job.
Newton’s debut was certainly memorable with two rushing touchdowns, but it was his Week 2 performance that had fans salivating. Dueling with early MVP candidate Russell Wilson, Newton threw for 397 yards and a touchdown, while rushing for two more. He nearly had a third, but was stopped at the goal line as time ran out, and the Patriots lost a close game.
Unfortunately, that was probably Newton’s peak in New England. Following his return from COVID he began to turn the ball over regularly. He started to turn the ball over on a constant basis, struggled to throw for more than 150 yards in a game, and was noticeably less effective running the football. By the time December rolled around, the main point of discussion relating to Newton was when he would be benched for Stidham.
3. Red Sox trade Mookie Betts
With all the chaos that’s happened in the world since, it’s easy to forget the year started with the Red Sox trading a generational young talent for luxury tax relief. But that’s exactly what happened on February 10, when Boston sent Mookie Betts and David Price to the Dodgers for Alex Verdugo, Connor Wong, and Jeter Downs.
The trade itself was an adventure. After trying to get Betts to sign a long-term extension for years, the Red Sox elected to trade him with just one season remaining on his deal. That hampered their leverage a bit, as Betts was reportedly dead-set on becoming a free agent.
Yet the Red Sox were able to flip Betts for a package that initially included an MLB-ready outfielder in Verdugo, and one of Minnesota’s top pitching prospects in Brusdar Gaterol, via a three-team trade. This being 2020 though, it couldn’t be that simple.
At midnight on December 6, The Athletic published a report that Graterol’s physical did not meet the Red Sox standards. This led to a mad dash by both teams, who at one point brought in a fourth team to try and get the thing done. Finally, it turned into a two-team swap, with Downs and Wong replacing Graterol.
The real irony here is that the pandemic and shortened MLB season limited the money that would potentially be available in free agency. That led Betts to sign a 12-year contract extension with the Dodgers in late July. Of course hindsight is 20/20, but if the Red Sox had held out another month with Betts, could they have gotten him between the same rock and a hard place LA did? We’ll never know.
2. COVID shutdown/Sports returning
The COVID-19 pandemic was – and still is – the biggest single ‘event’ to happen to the sports world, and world as a whole, in 2020. That being said, looking at it through a local lens there was one bigger moment, which I’ll get to and explain in a bit.
That’s not to say the shutdown didn’t have a relatively crushing impact on Boston sports. The Bruins, a year off of a Cup Finals trip, were in the drivers seat and looked to be gearing up for a return. Across the hall, the Celtics were starting to click when the calendar flipped to March, and although they had a few rough weeks figured to be squarely in their own league’s Eastern Conference conversation. Down south, the Red Sox were in the midst of spring training, about to begin a season that may not be successful, but surely would have been fascinating.
It wasn’t just the four major leagues either. The New England Revolution were just beginning their highly-anticipated first full season under Bruce Arena. The Boston Pride were days away from Game 1 of the NWHL’s Isobel Cup Finals. BU won the Patriot League basketball tournament and was headed to March Madness, while the Boston College Eagles were ranked second in the nation headed into the Frozen Four. The examples go on and on.
Of course, that all came to an end on March 11 (and into March 12) as one-by-one, sports leagues and institutions shut their doors as the virus raged across the planet.
After five months of nothing but ESPN Classic replays, live sports finally returned in late July. With them, there was a renewed sense of purpose for those involved as well. Following the death of George Floyd, athletes such as Jaylen Brown and Devin McCourty made a point of using their platforms, furthering the local, national and international conversation on race.
For that reason and others, the return of sports proved to be an emotional moment for many. It’s still a weird world of empty seats, zoom press conferences, and on-the-fly scheduling, but the closest thing we’ve had to a sense of normalcy for the last few months is sitting down to watch a game.
1. Tom Brady leaves New England
This was a monumental as monumental gets. More so than the pandemic? Locally, yes. Why? Because even though they were shut down, sports eventually came back. Tom Brady did not, and the Patriots usual dominance certainly didn’t either.
Much like the pandemic shutdown’s effect on sports, Brady’s run in New England is unlike anything we’d ever seen before – or likely ever will see again. He was the face not just for the NFL’s greatest dynasty, but perhaps the most decorated sports run a city has ever had. Not only was he the lone player involved in all six Patriots’ Super Bowl championships, he was the only athlete in town for all 12 titles won this century. A decade of Boston sports fans, myself included, grew up with No. 12 as a constant presence and example of success throughout their formative years.
That’s what made it so much more jarring when, just days after the entire world closed its doors and hunkered down for a quarantine, Brady announced he’d be leaving the team he’d called home for 20 years. It truly marked the end of an era, and became another of many constant reminders that things would never be the same.
Losing Brady took one of the strongest fan bases in sports and split it into factions. Those who wanted to place the blame on Brady, those who blamed Bill Belichick, those who blamed both, those who were/are just counting the minutes until the team is competitive again, etc.
Brady’s departure was inevitable. As much as it felt like he could at times, he wasn’t going to be the Patriots’ quarterback forever. But for him to leave when he did, how he did, and for the team to emerge the way that it did – it’s hard to say there was anything more jarring in Boston sports in 2020.
This is my personal list, but what’s yours? Let me know on Twitter at @RealAlexBarth
Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at Alexander.Barth@bbgi.com