It has been 11 years since the New England Patriots played in their only AFC championship game, and one might expect a celebration the size of a football field this weekend in Boston, the ancestral and cultural home of the franchise.
Instead, tomorrow's AFC title game against the Jacksonville Jaguars finds the Patriots feuding publicly with City Hall. The club wants to build a new stadium, but the mayor and team owner can't agree on the location.
The matter boiled over when the NFL pointedly designated Providence, R.I. -- rather than Boston -- as the official host of the championship game. Several hundred visitors, a gush of publicity and an estimated $6 million in economic impact rode on the decision.
Then there was a flap over a pre-game rally to be held in downtown Boston. The city accused the team of refusing to cooperate; the team said it was never invited.
The rally will be held today in Providence instead.
Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino responded derisively: "I guess Pawtucket was already booked."
He predicted the players and reporters trooping to town for the game would find Providence "pleasantly boring."
He later apologized to Pawtucket's mayor. But the bad feelings festered in Providence, a city with a metro population of just under 1 million. It has long struggled for attention in the shadow of its more glamorous neighbor 43 miles up I-95. A New York writer once described Providence as "a smudge" on the road to Cape Cod.
"Striking up a relationship with him [Menino] again is going to be difficult. It's like kissing a rattlesnake on the lips," said Providence's flamboyant mayor, Vincent "Buddy" Cianci.
Cianci, who said he used to have a good relationship with Menino, has made the most of the flap, using the publicity to draw attention to the city. He boasts of a new convention center, superior airport and other municipal jewels that have eluded Boston.
He even said he would resume talks with the Patriots about building them a stadium in Providence.
Then he usurped the traditional role of the hometown chief executive. He offered to bet a jar of his homemade marinara sauce on the outcome of game with Jacksonville Mayor Ed Austin. Austin had not replied as of yesterday.
For the record, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the selection of a Providence hotel as the AFC championship headquarters was based on the availability of hotel rooms there and its closer proximity to the Patriots' Foxboro Stadium. In fact, most of the visiting teams during the season stayed in Providence.
"Providence has been very hospitable to our teams," Aiello said.
Boston officials aren't buying the hotel excuse. Tourists don't exactly flock to Boston in January and about 40 percent of its hotel rooms are empty on a typical day during the month, said Patrick Moscaritolo, president of the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"If they wanted to be in Boston, we could have made arrangements," Moscaritolo said.
dTC League officials acknowledge privately that the snub was not accidental.
"There's not an overly warm feeling in Boston," said one NFL source, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The team was born as the Boston Patriots in 1959, a charter member of the American Football League that agreed to merge with the NFL in 1966. It played at Boston University, Harvard and Fenway Park. In 1971 the team moved 20 miles southwest of the city, to Foxboro, and changed its name to the New England Patriots.
Several of the club's owners in recent years have said they wanted to move the team back into Boston to get out of Foxboro Stadium, known more for its cold aluminum bench seats and game-day traffic than for football tradition.
St. Louis brewery heir James Busch Orthwein bought the franchise in 1992 and commenced talks with the city about building a joint convention center/domed stadium, as St. Louis had done. The effort foundered amid political bickering and Orthwein sold the team two years later to Foxboro Stadium owner Robert Kraft.
Kraft, a Boston-area native, pledged to keep the team in the area and has spent much of his tenure trying to line up support for a downtown stadium that he says he will build with his own money. After extensive study he settled on land owned by the Massachusetts Port Authority in South Boston.
South Boston residents held a boisterous forum last week that Kraft declined to attend. A voice vote was overwhelmingly against the project, which residents say would cripple the neighborhood with traffic.
Menino, the Boston mayor, sided with the residents and has tried to steer Kraft and the team to the site of Orthwein's proposed stadium, in an area known as South Bay. But Kraft said he isn't interested in that site and he has the support of Gov. William Weld, who has publicly worried that the team will leave the state.
But Menino has said that a football stadium is not his top priority. A new convention center, and even a baseball park, should come first, he reportedly has said. His office did not respond yesterday to requests for comment.
"Why doesn't somebody start focusing on the Red Sox? They need a new stadium. They play 83 games in the city of Boston and they are the Boston Red Sox," Menino told the Boston Herald last week.
Even Massachusetts House Speaker Tom Finneran has gotten into the act. "We will focus our resources on the fundamental needs of all citizens rather than the entertainment or enrichment of a few," he said in a speech this week.
The heated rhetoric is familiar to residents of cities that have lost their teams. In fact, there has been speculation that Kraft will give up on Boston, and perhaps even New England. One possible site is Cleveland: The league is obligated to identify by 1998 a team it will put in that city as part of its settlement with the Browns/Ravens.
Others in the region, however, can be expected to bid for the team. Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Almond called Kraft this week. And even New Bedford, Mass., 56 miles southeast of Boston with a population of 94,000, plans to offer its environs.
But Boston hasn't given up. And the fans -- who have weathered several years of uninspiring teams -- will be cheering for the Patriots, said Moscaritolo.
"After all the hoopla dies down, they still have to play a game, and it will be in Foxboro," he said. "Boston will be booming."
Pub Date: 1/11/97