It’s just a football game, Seattle.
Of course that’s what they were probably telling themselves in Brazil, back in 1950, when that country hosted the World Cup in soccer and inexplicably lost in the final game before hundreds of thousands on their home turf, silencing their once-rocking stadium and opening a psychic wound so enduring that one Brazilian writer named that humiliating moment as the source of his country’s ongoing “stray-dog” inferiority complex.
Brazil’s self-esteem issues, as amplified by sports, were described in last week’s New Yorker magazine. But what jumped out at me, here in my own jacked-up city festooned by blue flags with white “12s,” was that phrase: “stray-dog complex.”
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For more than a hundred years Seattle has played stray dog to San Francisco’s alpha. I don’t mean just in sports, though it tracks there, too. It goes back to our founding, when Bay Area ships dumped tons of dirt into our harbor from San Francisco’s regrading projects, while picking up lumber from Henry Yesler’s mill to build their fancy Victorians.
So in a way we got our start as San Francisco’s dump. We are to them as Tacoma is to us. OK, that’s too extreme. How about this: We are San Francisco’s Spokane.
“San Francisco was a bustling multiethnic city long before the first settlers of Seattle cried in the rain off Alki Point,” was how legendary Seattle columnist Emmett Watson put it.
She’s always been like our more beautiful big sister. We had a big gold rush, sure — 50 years after San Francisco did. You know the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair the old-timers still go on and on about, because it put our city so thrillingly on the global map? We were just keeping pace, because by then San Francisco had already had two.
In boomtown Seattle of today, where we’re smug that we’re ranked No. 1 for this or that, face it, we remain deep-down envious of only one other. Her hipness. Her wealth. Her arts, architecture, high-tech, wine, culture, politics, you name it — we still peek insecurely south to check: What Would San Francisco Do?
How else to explain all these pointless streetcar lines we’re building?
As we have looked up to San Francisco over the years, it has snooted at us. As recently as the 1980s, when Nordstrom sought to open its first store down there, the Nordstrom family reported back they were greeted as “dumb Swedes from the Northwest.”
In the ’90s, when Seattle rocketed to fame on tech and grunge, the San Francisco papers delighted in ridiculing us. “Seattle a Zero,” was one unsubtle headline. No matter how high our skyscrapers scraped (higher than theirs, I point out at the risk of sounding insecure), Seattle in their eyes was still but a way station or a lumber camp. When even the gentlemanly San Francisco columnist Herb Caen came here in 1993 to see what all the Seattle fuss was about, he delighted in noting that on a list he was handed of “Top 10 Things to Do in Seattle,” No. 5 was “Take a Ferry to Alaska.”
OK, so cosmopolitan we’re not.
Example: On Tuesday a Twitter war broke out between bridges in the two cities (yes, every public project now has its own Twitter feed). Soon San Francisco’s Bay Bridge and our own 520 bridge were trading insults about which is the more worthy span (ours floats, theirs traverses an island, etc.).
It was all in fun, but I did do a little Seattle cringe anyway. Our 520 bridge, that decrepit, barely floating ribbon of dirty concrete, is out talking smack about other bridges? Fortunately San Francisco was too oblivious to our squealing at her heels to shut us up with the obvious two-word put-down: “Golden Gate.”
Now this Seattle inferiority complex has obviously ebbed over the years. Minting multiple billionaires will do that to a town. Not much in sports, though. San Francisco has won five Super Bowls — as well as two baseball World Series titles in just the past four years — while Seattle, I don’t have to remind you, has never won one of either. The Seahawks have been the better team this year, but you can just feel a little of that old “stray-dog” Seattle doubt creeping in here near the end.
Well, our city did thrash San Francisco once, back during the Klondike days. Both cities were vying to become the jumping-off point for a hundred thousand gold miners, and they ran aggressive advertising campaigns. As is typical, San Francisco sniffed at Seattle, telling miners that traveling through its sometime dump was “an annoyance.”
But Seattle fought back, and won. According to a press account at the time, written from San Francisco and archived down at our Klondike museum in Pioneer Square, Seattleites turned out to be more of the “git-up-and-git kind,” with a make-do energy that appealed to prospectors. While the San Franciscans were inclined to “jaw-smithing when they should be acting.”
Remind you of two certain quarterbacks you may know?
Look, if we were playing Carolina this Sunday, nobody but football fans would much care. As it is, it’s bigger than that. In the way sports sometimes defines and reflects the culture, it could be like Brazil and its World Cup.
Who knows, the weight of a hundred-plus years of history could be on the Seahawks.
This game could go a long way to kick that old inferiority complex. We could finally step out of the shadow of our big sister to the south.
If we don’t — if we lose — try to keep it in perspective, Seattle. It’s just a football game.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org