Patriots open camp, but these eyes still on the Sox

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It may be hard to believe, but Patriots training camp is now underway.

Meanwhile, the schizophrenic Red Sox alternately inspire faith in a postseason push and make fans wonder whether they should bother to continue paying attention.

Both teams are perennial contenders with multiple championships in their recent past, but both are fresh off heartbreaking endings to promising seasons. Yet the experience of being a Red Sox fan is quite unlike that of being a Patriots fan.

For both clubs, the tone is set from the top. John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino bought the Red Sox in 2002 and immediately turned the team into a contender, committing more financial resources to the team than had ever been available and quickly installing a bright general manager in Theo Epstein and a world-class manager in Terry Francona. Epstein and Francona have moved on, taking some of the optimism surrounding the Red Sox with them, but the ownership group still inspires confidence.

Robert Kraft bought the Patriots at an even lower point in their history, in 1994, and didn’t take long to carry them to relevance. When he hired Bill Belichick as head coach in 2000, he began a period of success unrivaled in Patriots history and reminiscent of the Celtics’ dominance in the 1960s. Belichick may seem surly and even heartless, but no fan questions his commitment to putting the best possible team on the field every year.

For both teams, success throughout the 21st Century has invited lofty expectations every year. The Red Sox qualified for the playoffs in nine of the first 15 seasons after the advent of the Wild Card in 1995. In fact, should the Sox fail to make the playoffs for the third straight season in 2012, they would tie an unwelcome record set in the three years immediately preceding Henry’s purchase of the team. The team’s payroll is regularly between the second- and fourth-highest in the game, and they always seem to be in on the bidding for coveted free agents like Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez. Anything short of a playoff appearance is a failure at Fenway.

Fans of the Patriots may expect even more than fans of the Red Sox. With six playoff bids in each conference and no other great team in their division, the barrier to entry is lower for the Pats and in Belichick’s tenure, only the winters of 2002-03 and 2008-09 passed without the Patriots in a playoff game. Furthermore, while baseball’s playoffs can be a crapshoot, football’s playoffs are designed to reward excellence, so not only do New England fans expect an appearance in the playoffs, but a win or two in January has come to feel like a birthright as well. As the Patriots’ title drought (currently seven seasons, the longest of any major sports team in New England) grows, fans get hungrier for a championship and every playoff loss becomes more painful than the last one.

Perhaps the biggest difference in the fan experience is that the Patriots lack an obvious rival, while the Red Sox are nearly a century into one of the most intense rivalries in sports. The Red Sox and Yankees play 18 times a year and sometimes add another seven games in the playoffs. For a decade and a half, the Yankees have spent more on player payroll than any other team, often nearly doubling the runner-up and dwarfing the lower-payroll teams by a factor of eight to 10. Not until Henry’s group insisted that the Red Sox couldn’t compete on the field without competing for the high-priced free agents was Boston’s payroll out of line with the rest of the league’s, but today, the Sox can afford to put a team full of stars on the field at all times. This only intensifies the rivalry that was born with Babe Ruth, fueled by Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, intensified by Bill Lee and Goose Gossage, and revitalized by Jason Varitek and Alex Rodriguez.

The experience of watching the Red Sox cannot be explained without reference to the Yankees, whose name they spend the majority of every summer looking up at in the standings. In contrast, the Patriots very rarely look up at anyone in the standings. The Jets have been hated rivals during the Rex Ryan era, but the two have only met in three playoff games in their history, none of which was for a conference championship. The Dolphins have resembled a rival at times, but only in January of 1986 and 1998 did they play historically significant games.

The Patriots’ most obvious rival in the 21st century has been the Colts, but since the divisions were realigned, the two play each other less than once a year. They split AFC Championship Games in ’04 and ’07, but the Colts have since faded from relevance, their cycle of success a harsh reality for most teams in a league with a hard salary cap. The Giants are becoming a rival after two Super Bowls I’m reluctant to mention for fear that my twice traumatized editor may delete this paragraph, but it’s hard to consider a team in another conference a rival.

To be a fan of the Patriots is to root for the most shrewdly-run team in football, a team with a firmly established, all-time great quarterback and a supporting cast that seems to change every year in an effort to stay dominant and affordable. To be a fan of the Red Sox is to witness excellence year in and year out, but to appreciate that excellence only if it somehow trumps the excellence of a team with even more financial resources and an even richer history.

While the rivalry brings healthy doses of insecurity and paranoia to the Red Sox experience, it also makes the payoff that much more ecstatic. Exorcising 86 years’ worth of demons by winning four straight against the Yankees and four more against the Cardinals in 2004 was even sweeter than tuck-ruling and field-goaling past the Raiders and Rams in 2001. Legitimizing 2004 by finally winning the division and the World Series in 2007 and then returning to the playoffs in 2008 while the Yankees stayed home was more cathartic than the Patriots steamrolling all competition in 2004 and 2005.

There’s pride and comfort in rooting for the Patriots. Give me the paranoia and the payoff of Red Sox worship any day of the week. Even Sunday.