Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Being A Seattle Sports Fan
By Zach

Editor's Note: Today's piece kicks off my personal Super Bowl coverage. You might have noticed I've been conspicuously silent since last week. Well, as excited as I am that the Seahawks are in the Super Bowl, the oversaturation of coverage still drives me nuts. Thus, I waited until the game was actually approaching. Today is a piece I've been working on for almost a year, but saving for the right time. Tomorrow will be my season recap, Friday and Saturday will be my two-part preview, and Sunday I'll attempt to live-blog this whole thing.

As we stand on the doorstep of the biggest single game in Seattle sports history, it's appropriate to recognize what sports fans in Seattle have gone through. While the plight of fans in such cities as Philadelphia, and Cleveland, and Buffalo receive plenty of attention, Seattle is rarely mentioned as one of the toughest places to be a fan. People nationally might call Seattle fans fair-weather, and there's some truth to that. But not everyone is dumb enough to follow teams through thick and thin, the way I am. In short, being a sports fan in Seattle sucks.

In my lifetime, I've experience bitter defeats, disappointments, playoff losses big and small, blown potential, wasted draft picks, idiotic trades, stupid free agent signings, and ineptitude on a level that would cripple many Fortune 500 companies.

Let us recap:

In 1991, the clearly superior University of Washington Huskies recieve only a split of the National Championship. One of the most dominant players in college football history, Steve Entman, finishes fourth in the Heisman balloting.

In 1992, the Seahawks defeat the Pariots 10-6 in Week 3 of the season. Why does this matter? Because it means that the Seahawks will finish with the second-worst record in the NFL, and thus the second pick in the 1993 draft: Rick Mirer. Yes, the legendary Rick Mirer, who joins such illustrious Seahawk picks as Dan McGwire (yes, Mark's brother) and Kelly Stouffer (actually acquired via trade, but still). Meanwhile, a dark cloud starts to circle around the UW football team, as allegations of recruiting violations swirl. Don James steps down as head coach after the season.

In 1993, in Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals, the Seattle Supersonics lose 123-110 to the Phoenix Suns. The Suns shoot 26 free throws in the third quarter and 64 in the game, both NBA records. I'm not saying the officiating was unfair, but...well, ok, that is what I'm saying. The Husky football team is put on probation for two years.

In 1994, the Seattle Supersonics blow a 2-0 series lead (in a best of five) to the Denver Nuggets, becoming the first #1 seed in NBA history to lose to a #8 seed. A 63-19 record and a shot at the NBA title end up on the arms of Dikembe Mutumbo at the end of a 98-94 OT loss. Guards Gary Payton and Ricky Pierce both suffer injuries in the game, limiting the effectiveness of both players. And most of all, coach George Karl's dislike for Kendall Gill, who scored 22 points, including the game tying basket in regulation, keeps the Sonics from utilizing the guard in the overtime. Might I mention that there's almost no way this team doesn't beat the Knicks in the Finals. Give me the 1994 NBA title and my childhood is a whole lot less bitter.

Later in 1994, the Seattle Mariners have won 9 of their final 10 games, standing just 2 games back of the faltering Texas Rangers when the season ends due to the players' strike. Ken Griffey, Jr. is on pace to hit 58 home runs, and could possibly have made a push at Roger Maris' record without the use of steroids.

In 1995, the Sonics again lose in the first round to an inferior team (the Lakers) after posting a tremendous record (57-25). In person, I witness what appears to be the end of the Mariners' season when Griffey breaks his wrist crashing into the wall to reel in a Kevin Bass drive to right-center (fantastic catch, by the way). Astoundingly, the Mariners remain on the fringes of contention until Junior returns, at which point they make one of the single-greatest comebacks in baseball history, from 13.5 games out at one point to first place. In fact, they have a two-game lead on the Angels with two games to play...and proceed to lose them both. Fortunately, they win the one-game playoff (which I was at, the best sports day of my life). They fell behind the Yankees 2-0 in the ALDS, then rallied to win. Of course, what happens in the ALCS? They take a 2-1 series lead over the Indians, then lose three straight.

In 1996, the Sonics finally broke through to the NBA Finals. Who do they meet? Not the last two Eastern Conference teams, the Knicks or Magic. No, they get to face the Bulls. The 72-10 Bulls. The Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman Bulls. Even so, they're two Shawn Kemp free-throws away from winning Game One and possibly totally changing the outcome of that series. Meanwhile, in Mariner land, Randy Johnson injures his back, leading to speculation that his career might be coming to an end (more on this later), Griffey gets hurt again, and while Alex Rodriguez has a fantastic first full year, the Mariners miss the playoffs. Griffey and A-Rod split MVP votes, allowing Juan Gonzalez to win the award and set a record for most back-ne for an MVP winner...or at least tie Jose Canseco for that honor.

Before the 1996-97 season, the Sonics decide to extend a five-year, $35-million contract to Jim McIlvaine, who in the previous season averaged 2.3 points and 2.9 rebounds per game. Of course, he also averaged 2.1 blocks per game, and did it in 14.9 minutes per game. The problem was, he sucked and also made more money than Shawn Kemp, whom the Sonics refused to sign to an extension. This led to Kemp sitting out for part of training camp, and eventually led to his trade to the Cavaliers the next offseason. Instead of the Sonics assuming their place at the top of the Western Conference, like everyone had thought, they would rapidly sink into mediocrity.

During the 1997 baseball season, the Mariners returned to the playoffs, but Randy Johnson apparently forgot how to pitch, going 0-2 with a 5.54 ERA as the Mariners lost in the first round to the Orioles.

In 1997-98, the UW basketball team made the NCAA tournament for the first time in years behind star center Todd MacCulloch. The Huskies made it to the Sweet Sixteen, and held a 74-73 lead over UConn with about 15 seconds left. The Huskies-East had several chances to win the game, but missed. The penultimate miss carried just over MacCulloch's hands, to Richard Hamilton...who hit a jumper from the free-throw line as the buzzer sounded, sending the Huskies-West home.

Before the 1998 season, Johnson wanted an extension from the Mariners. They refused to give him what he wanted, feeling that a 34-year-old power pitcher with a history of back trouble was too big a risk. The Big Unit then allegedly suffered from a back injury for most of the first half, leading to a 9-10 record with a 4.33 with the Mariners and a deadline deal to the Astros for Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen, and John Halama. Apparently, the Houston air agreed with Johnson's back as he went 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA down the stretch. He went 0-2 in the postseason again, but this time it was because Kevin Brown was unreal against him. Johnson's ERA in that series was 1.93. Johnson became the first of the Big Three to leave Seattle.

December 6, 1998. The day Instant Replay was reborn. Seahawks 31, Jets 26 with 27 seconds left. Jets ball, 4th and goal from the Seahawk 5. Bill Parcells calls a QB sneak for Vinny Testaverde, who gets stopped short of the goal line. By at least a foot. The line judge mysteriously signals TD, as does the worst official in NFL history, Phil Luckett. The ball never comes close to the goal line. The NFL's explanation? Luckett confused Testaverde's helmet (white and green) with the ball (brown). Luckett is reassigned to back judge for the rest of his career, the Seahawks miss the playoffs, and Dennis Erickson is fired...ok, so maybe it wasn't all bad.

The 1998-99 NBA season was the Lockout Year, also know around Seattle as The Year Vin Baker Ate The Sonics. Baker showed up to training camp around 50 pounds overweight, proceeding to sabotage not just that season but his entire career. People forget, but up until that point he'd made four straight All-Star Games, starting with his second year in the league, and was considered one of the best young big men in the league. The Sonics went from the top of the Pacific to the middle of the pack, where they'd remain until the present (2005 not included).

1999 brought the first real promise for the Seahawks in years. Mike Holmgren was coming in as coach, at the height of his esteem in the league. The Hawks started 8-2. Then came a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, their expansion breathern, and it all unravelled. The Bucs blitzed mercilessly, turned Jon Kitna into a frightened kitten, and Hawks would finish 1-5 down the stretch. They still won the AFC West and hosted the Dolphins in the first round. Late in the game, leading 17-13, they had Marino and Co. facing a third-and-long deep in their own territory. Somehow, they converted (I'm assuming the Seahawks blitzed), and would go on to score the winning TD. Even so, the optomism around the team was high. Still, it would be four years before they'd return to the playoffs,

At the end of 1999, after the season was over, Ken Griffey Jr shocked Seattle by announcing he wanted to be traded to a team closer to his Florida home. Personally, it was an utterly devestating moment. In early 2000, the trade was consummated, and the greatest player in Mariner history, in Seattle history, was headed to Cincinnati. Still, the Mariners made it to the playoffs, knocked off the White Sox in the first round, and faced off against the two-time defending World Series Champion Yankees. In position to force a Game Seven, Arthur Rhodes served up meatballs to David Justice and Bernie Williams, and the Yankees were on their way to World Series title number 26.

2000 also saw one of the saddest moments in Seattle sports history. On October 8th, a rainy Saturday, the Husky football team visited Stanford to face the Cardinal. In the fourth quarter, starting strong safety Curtis Williams suffered a spinal cord injury that would cost him movement in his extremeties, and later, his life. It was another blow for a school that was struggling to recover some lost glory, and a tragic moment for sports fans throughout the region.

In 2001, Alex Rodriguez took Tom Hicks' money and went south. This one didn't hurt nearly as much personally, since I was never a huge A-Rod fan, but it certainly didn't raise hopes for the team. Astoundingly, they put together one of the great single-season runs of all time, going 116-46. Still, I had a lingering feeling they weren't good enough to get it done in the playoffs, and indeed they again ran into the Yankees in the ALCS. The signs were all pointing to trouble, considering how the M's had struggled to beat the Indians in the previous round. The Yankees buried them early, and Arthur Rhodes continued to give it up to Williams like a prison bitch. Kaz Sasaki finished off the hideous showing by allowing a series-clinching homer to Alfonso Soriano, the last postseason pitch in Mariner history.

In 2002, the Mariners started off hot again. Still, the ownership refused to add hitting or pitching at the deadline, and the team faltered down the stetch, getting passed by both the Angels and the A's. The same exact thing would happen a year later.

2003 saw the first losing Sonic season in 15 years, as well as the trade of the last holdover from the glory days, Gary Payton. He'd become the face of Seattle sports after the departures of Griffey and A-Rod and the continued suckage of the Seahawks. This one hurt quite a bit, because Payton and the Sonics were a source of connection for my father and me. Still, it was a good trade for the team in that they were able to bring Ray Allen back, as well as the draft pick that would become Luke Ridnour.

2003 was also the year the Seahawks returned to the playoffs. Of course, the regular season also saw losses to the Bengals and Redskins (13-19 combined that year), a heart-breaking loss to the Rams in St. Louis when Bobby Engram was tripped by an official on the final play, costing the team a winning touchdown, and another horrific officiating error against the Ravens, in which the officials threw an erroneous flag, picked it up, but then forgot to restart the game clock, allowing the Ravens to keep their final timeout. Even so, the team had a playoff game to look forard to. If Randall Godfrey can wrap up Ahman Green in the backfield on fourth down, what happened later never happens...the infamous coin toss at the start of overtime, Alex Bannister mistakenly breaking off his route, and Al Harris and those goddamn dreadlocks going the other way.

2004 brought a horrendous Mariner season, and more late game pain from the Seahawks. Blowing a 17 point lead with six minutes left against the Rams. Blowing a 10 point lead with two minutes left against the Cowboys (though they got screwed by the refs again, as a Keyshawn Johnson "touchdown" was never reviewed, even though it was clear he was out of bounds), and Bobby Engram's drop at the end of another failed playoff game. The UW Huskies had a great run to the NCAA tournament, but lost a heart-breaker to UAB in the first round, thus killing my bracket (this became a theme). At least they did better than the football team, which went 1-10

2005 did see a fantastic Sonic run, and a playoff series victory for the first time in seven seasons. It also saw Allen, Rashard Lewis, and Vlad Radmanovic all get hurt. The Sonics still took the Spurs to six games, and if Vitaly Potapenko doesn't forget how to play defense, maybe the Sonics take it to seven. Also, the Mariners continued to suck in 2005. Despite being a #1 seed, the Huskies lost in the Sweet Sixteen to Louisville. Also, the UW football team made vast strides, winning two whole games.

So here we are. The Sonics suck again, the Mariners will probably be only slightly better, the Husky basketball team can't win close games, and even the NYU basketball teams have some hard-to-explain losses. Looks like it's the Seahawks or bust for Seattle sports fans.

Being a Seattle sports fan isn't easy. I live in New York, surrounded by fans who have seen World Series champions, Super Bowl champions, Stanley Cup champions. Yeah, the Knicks and Jets have sucked for a while, so what. Try growing up in a town with exactly one major championship (before I was born), one appearance in a championship game/series (before Sunday, of course), and a history of being ignored by most of the country (sometimes justifiably). Do I seek pity? No, just a Lombardi trophy.


Anonymous Aaron said...

It is only appropriate that Geballe write the piece the same day the Sonics owner threatens to move the team to Norfolk, VA. I'm rooting for the Seahawks.

2:03 AM  

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