Reign delay in Seattle

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Seattle is among 20 U.S. cities with at least three major sports franchises. And one of those will play in the Super Bowl on Sunday. So it must be a great place to be a fan, right?

Well, the Seahawks, SuperSonics and Mariners have combined to play 97 seasons. Of those, exactly one, the 1978-79 NBA campaign, ended with a championship.

In the "winning is the only thing" culture of pro sports, that futility is nearly unmatched.

Sure, fans in Philadelphia think they've faced a dry season since the 76ers won the NBA title in 1983. But the Phillies won only three years before that and the Flyers won in 1974 and 1975 ... and Wilt Chamberlain led the 1966-67 Sixers to 68 wins and a title ... and the old Philadelphia Athletics had some of the best teams in baseball history. So they haven't had it that bad.

Phoenix's four teams share a single title (2001 Diamondbacks), but the city has endured only 71 seasons of pro sports. Give it time.

Cleveland? It has gone without a title for longer, but the old Browns were among the dominant franchises in pro football history, and the Indians chipped in a championship in 1948.

Only Atlanta, with four major teams, 130 combined seasons and one championship (1995 Braves) can compete.

"It hasn't been totally bleak," Seattle columnist Art Thiel said of his town's sporting history. "There have been a lot of quality sports personalities and some big games, but it hasn't often cracked that threshold where we've been in the national spotlight at a big event."

Seattle fans don't have much of a reputation one way or another. Philadelphia has its seething hunger for a title, Boston has its poetic mood swings, the South has its religious devotion to football.

But Seattle? The city is best known for other things - independent rock, rain, Microsoft and of course, coffee. For many residents, sports are interactive. They'd plunge a kayak into Puget Sound or hike into the mountains before plopping on a couch to watch the Seahawks.

French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, reprising Alexis de Tocqueville's famed tour of America, decided Seattle was our finest city.

"I loved Seattle's delicate, sun-speckled docks," he rhapsodized in The Atlantic last year. "Its pulsing, heterogenous marketplace, where highly specialized bookstores, shops selling collectible posters, myriad bars, are all wedged between two shimmering fish markets."

Levy made no mention of Matt Hasselbeck or Ray Allen.

So with its high literacy rate, beautiful scenery and sparkling public facilities, perhaps Seattle is too well-adjusted to be a crazed sports town.

Thiel has chronicled sports for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for more than two decades. As excited as fans are, he said, a Seahawks win Sunday would not produce the kind of absolution Boston felt when the Red Sox won in 2004.

"It's fun, it's exciting ... it's wonderful," he said of the Super Bowl. "But will the result somehow mean Seattle is bad or good? No."

Like Atlanta, Seattle is packed with young professionals transplanted from somewhere else. It's not like Baltimore, where grandfathers talk of Johnny Unitas' handoff to Alan Ameche in 1958 and fathers tell their sons about Brooks Robinson stabbing liners in the 1970 World Series.

"There is a growing passion for it, but it doesn't go back five generations," Thiel said. "I believe that sports becomes part of the local culture when families talk about it after dinner. Seattle is really at the end of its first generation of sports fans and in the beginning of its second."

Seattle fans are devoted enough. The Mariners have drawn consistently well since Safeco Field opened in 1999. Seahawks crowds produced a din as great as those in Denver and Indianapolis in this season's playoffs.

Among diehards, the yearning for a title is as strong as in any city, said David Israel, president of a 1,000-member Seahawks fan club.

"I think there's been a desperation since Day One," he said.

No golden era

Sports history in Seattle isn't the same as in East Coast cities. The town had no pro team until the Sonics arrived in 1967 and didn't have all three until 1977. So it has no golden era to look back on.

The city's first stab at baseball, the Seattle Pilots, lasted but one season - a 64-98 debacle in 1969 in which the team drew 8,000 fans a game. The franchise then fled to Milwaukee to become the Brewers. Jim Bouton spent that 1969 Pilots season keeping a diary for the book Ball Four.

Consider this Aug. 19 dispatch: "The attendance at the Baltimore games was respectable, but we're back to not drawing much for the Tigers. It is decided in the bullpen that the people who came to see us play the Orioles are the same kind who went to see the lions eat the Christians."

The Sonics of the late '70s gave the city its most fruitful run. The 1978-79 championship team didn't have a glamour star but had four excellent players in guard Dennis Johnson, long-range shooter "Downtown" Freddie Brown, leading scorer Gus Williams and center Jack Sikma.

The next decade proved fairly bleak, but the Sonics' fortunes improved in the 1990s.

Led by Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton, the team averaged 59 wins between the 1992-93 and 1997-98 seasons. Kemp, the young "Reign Man," was a precursor to the Kevin Garnetts and Amare Stoudemires, an athlete so gifted that he didn't need college experience to become a force in the NBA paint.

That team ran its opponents ragged on offense and locked them up on defense. But Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls relegated the Sonics to the dust closet of basketball history.

The expansion Mariners were plain awful in the beginning, posting losing records in each of their first 14 seasons. But Ken Griffey Jr. brought star power to the franchise in 1989.

He joined forces with Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez and Edgar Martinez, and those star-studded Mariners made the playoffs in 1995 and 1997 but never reached the World Series.

After losing Johnson, Griffey and Rodriguez, the retooled Mariners, led by Japanese sensation Ichiro Suzuki, tied the all-time record for wins with 116 in 2001. But they couldn't get past the Yankees in the American League playoffs. Despite Suzuki's excellence, the franchise has fallen on hard times again the past two seasons, losing 99 and 93 games.

Nothing spectacular

The Seahawks have specialized in the drab rather than peaks and valleys. They last stood out in 1984, when quarterback Dave Krieg passed the team to a 12-4 record and a first-round playoff victory. In the 20 seasons that followed, Seattle finished between 6-10 and 10-6 in all but one. In the exception, 1992, the Seahawks went 2-14 and set an NFL record for fewest points scored in a 16-game season.

Fans got their hopes up for some of the biggest busts in league history. Linebacker Brian Bosworth was supposed to be an evolutionary descendant of Dick Butkus and Lawrence Taylor. But "The Boz" lasted an unexceptional three seasons before injuries relegated him to a C-movie acting career. Dan McGwire, brother of retired baseball slugger Mark, was supposed to be the team's strong-armed colossus in the pocket. He threw a mere 147 passes in four seasons.

The franchise hit a low point in 1996 when owner Ken Behring actually had his team's practice gear packed and shipped to Los Angeles, where he wanted to move (fellow owners blocked the attempt and Behring sold the team shortly after).

Even Mike Holmgren, fresh off a triumphant run in Green Bay, couldn't bring instant salvation. Before this season, he had taken the Seahawks to the postseason three times in six years but stood 0-3 in the playoffs.

Fervent fans said that all could be wiped away with a Super Bowl win.

Israel, 32, has been a die-hard for as long as he can remember. He saw his first game in 1976 and now attends every Seahawks contest, home and away. He's proud that Seahawks fans are considered among the league's noisiest.

"This town is just booming with excitement," Israel said. "I mean this is huge, the game of games."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

Waiting to win

Longest title droughts for cities with at least three pro teams, with most recent championship year and last champion:

City ................ Year ......................... Team

Cleveland ..... 1964 ......................... Browns

Seattle ........... 1979 .......................... Sonics

Philadelphia .. 1983 .......................... 76ers

Oakland ........ 1989 .......................... Athletics

Washington ...1991 ........................... Redskins

Minneapolis .. 1991 .......................... Twins

Pittsburgh ..... 1992 .......................... Penguins

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