Seattle is a tough sports town to raise kids in. Forbes magazine recently proclaimed the city, for the second year in a row, the “most miserable sports city” in America. In 109 cumulative sports seasons for all of its professional men’s teams, the magazine reported, Seattle has won only one championship, and that was 31 years ago by a team that’s no longer in town.
Will the last professional ballplayer to leave Seattle please punch out the lights?
We pride ourselves on being one of America’s most literate cities, but we’ve also yearned for big-league sports status. The two seem mutually exclusive, at least to a point. An example is in Pioneer Square, where the landmark independent Elliott Bay Book Co. struggled and finally left the neighborhood.
One problem, owner Peter Aaron told me, was the influence of big-time sports. The Seahawks, in particular, had an impact because they kept customers away on game days, and holiday-season Sundays are key to boosting the year’s book sales. Aaron noted that the character of Seahawks fans seemed to change over the years, from suburban book- and family-friendly crowds to galoots who get drunk before game time. Pabst and Nancy Pearl don’t mix.
So, we cling to literary laurels, but sportswise, we stink — despite decades of hype, spending, and promise. I pity the younger generation. My kids were raised when the Seahawks were studs, the Sonics flashy, and the Mariners rising from expansion franchise to national sensation. We had season tickets and kept Ken Griffey candy bars in the freezer to save for posterity. After years in the doldrums, the M’s showed plucky promise. The “Refuse to Lose” Mariners of 1995 embodied youth, excitement and potential, featuring Griffey, Alex Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez and Randy Johnson, all worthy Hall of Famers.
But today’s M’s can’t even refuse to snooze. The Mariners made national headlines earlier this season for one reason: The now-aged Griffey was found sleeping in the clubhouse during a game. It became Napgate, a baseball scandal, a symbol of how far we have fallen from the promise of a decade ago. Welcome to Safeco Field, where every night is bobblehead night.
One can tolerate the passage of time, with once heroic Junior turning into a sleepy senior (who retired from baseball in June). It’s sad that he didn’t last long enough to play in the major leagues with his own son, as Griffey Jr. did with his father. But Junior’s fizzle is emblematic of a team that’s all show and no substance. Safeco Field is a superior ballpark to the old Kingdome in every way except the baseball being played in it. The team last made the playoffs in 2001. As the M’s last star, Ichiro Suzuki, ages, one wonders: Who will reflect the promise of tomorrow?
The news hasn’t been all bad: The Seattle Storm has helped to make women’s basketball respectable — the team actually won the WNBA title in 2004 but didn’t qualify for Forbes’ boys-only list — and the Sounders FC has brought new energy to town with Major League Soccer.
We have an entry in the Independent Women’s Football League — the Seattle Majestics — and then there’s the Seattle Mist, in a Lingerie League of its own. This is women’s football for guys who want cheerleaders on the field the whole time. If this sport offers role models for kids, let me be the first to call Child Protective Services.
Seattle has suffered sports misery before. I remember the exciting promise of our first Major League Baseball team, the Seattle Pilots, in the summer of 1969. The team lasted one year before it left town. They were awful on the field, but one of their players, pitcher Jim Bouton, got a great book out of the season, maybe the best book ever written about baseball. It is a memoir called Ball Four, which takes people into a locker room filled not with role models, but with baseball’s colorful castoffs and characters. It’s Bad News Bears with beer and sex, proving that literary interests and sports don’t have to be at odds. And the worse things are, the better the story. Which means Seattle’s sports misery is giving us material for a real classic.
This story originally appeared in the July issue of Seattle Magazine.