For Seattle sports fans, the emotional tone of 2014 is likely to be set very early, and there’s barely room for middle ground.
The Seahawks are either going to break hearts or make them soar. Super Bowl XLVIII is set for Feb. 2 in New Jersey, a mere 33 days into the new year. Just about every ounce of local sporting passion is currently invested in bringing an NFL title home to the Puget Sound.
Anything short of that will be a gut-punch, particularly if the Seahawks are derailed before even getting to The Meadowlands. It might take the next 11 months to recover — or to complete the celebration, should they go the distance.
Such is the psychic risk/reward in ascending to such a revered place: The stakes are raised. The Seahawks are that elusive blend that happens only rarely with sports teams in a relationship with its fans; they have talent, but more important, a charisma and likability factor that forges a deeper connection.
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The Seahawks were the unquestioned success story of 2013 in Seattle sports, though the ending remains to be written. All the other teams aspire to create the same bond, combined with on-field success — and they’ve been aggressive in their efforts to make it happen.
Rarely has the local sporting scene been in such flux, in a mostly good way. New coaches and managers, an influx of exciting stars and the return of old ones — it sets up for a compelling year, from the sparkling new (or at least redone) facility in Montlake to the old warhorse, KeyArena.
The good vibes the Seahawks enjoy right now? The Mariners had them, copiously, in 1995, when they won over the town with such compelling players as Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner and a young Alex Rodriguez, a grizzled Lou Piniella, buoyed by the pennant race for the ages.
That remained the case into the 2000s, when Safeco Field was filled to near capacity for six months every year. But that bond, of course, was long ago severed, lost amid a depressing series of poor decisions and lackluster seasons.
The Mariners made a bold attempt to win back the hearts and minds of fans in December when they stunningly signed Robinson Cano, the No. 1 player on the free-agent market. It took something dramatic to get the attention of Cano and his celebrity agent, Jay Z — a 10-year, $240 million contract that was contrary to the reputation of Mariners management’s timidity in pursuing such superstars.
It remains to be seen if the Mariners have enough pieces to compete in an increasingly rugged division, even with Cano. They’ll have a new manager in charge, as they so often do. But Lloyd McClendon at least has the luxury of penciling in Cano’s name every day. After that, we’ll all find out just how much recuperative power one player can have.
Watching that drama unfold will add spice to a Mariners summer that too often has been an afterthought by June, if not earlier. Just across the street, the Sounders will be trying to match the success of his Seahawks after a frenzied reformation of the team.
Winning over fans is not the issue for the Sounders. They have as passionate and loyal a following as any team around, a fact that was showcased in late August at CenturyLink Field. A record soccer crowd of 67,385 jammed the place to commemorate the home debut of Clint Dempsey, whose acquisition by the Sounders was as shocking as Cano’s would be four months later. It was, in fact, one of the most ground-shaking transactions in the history of Major League Soccer.
Dempsey’s arrival, however, did not galvanize the Sounders to the ever-elusive MLS championship. Instead, they stumbled badly down the stretch and were eliminated by archrival Portland in a lopsided two-game series.
History shows that marquee additions like Dempsey tend to do much better in their second year. The Sounders are in the process of aggressively reshaping their roster around him. Dempsey, however, will remain a member in good standing in the expanded pantheon of Seattle sports superstars — a group that clearly is headed, at this very moment, by Russell Wilson.
The Huskies believe they added one of that breed themselves when they hired Chris Petersen to succeed Steve Sarkisian. In the world of college sports, the players come and go, but it is the coaches who are the enduring symbols of a program’s success — or lack thereof.
The Huskies have been ever hopeful of finding the next Don James, which might be an unreasonable goal. But if Petersen, who projected well at his introductory news conference, can transfer his success at Boise State, or even a percentage of it, to Montlake, he’ll be a reasonable facsimile.
It will be a pivotal year, meanwhile, for Petersen’s basketball counterpart, Lorenzo Romar, who is trying to avoid a third straight year out of the NCAA tournament. Though Romar has built a reservoir of goodwill from past successes — and from being a stellar representative of the university — there are definite signs that patience is wearing thin.
There are also signs that Romar’s pipeline of prime talent, which brought such players as Brandon Roy, Spencer Hawes, Isaiah Thomas, Tony Wroten and Terrence Ross, is drying up. The heat will be on for him to land the sort of blue-chip recruit that has proved elusive in recent years.
The Storm has the good fortune of adding two such blue-chippers in 2014, but they will both be familiar faces: Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson. They each sat out last season because of injuries, and though the Storm still made the playoffs, it was quickly ousted in the first round.
The Bird-Jackson combo has helped guide the Storm to two WNBA titles — the only ones of any sort in Seattle pro sports since the Sonics won it all in 1979.
Getting the Sonics back — or any significant progress on that front, or toward the acquisition of an NHL team — would obviously be a major sports development for Seattle in 2014. Chris Hansen will have a new NBA commissioner to work with on that front, as deputy commissioner Adam Silver replaces our old nemesis, David Stern, when he steps down on Feb. 1.
Yes, one day before the Super Bowl.
But the immediate focus will be on the Seahawks, who right now are the hottest thing going in these parts, and will be for the foreseeable future. You can always gauge a community’s affinity for any particular team by the FPI — Face-Paint Index — and right now, it’s off the charts for the Seahawks.
For this love affair to be fully consummated, however, it must end with a title. The major story of this coming year in Seattle sports will be unveiled before Valentine’s Day. It won’t be long now.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @StoneLarry