As 2004 neared its end, the Seattle sports landscape was nearly barren of success. But thanks to a resurgent Sonics squad, an invested Mariners team, a new top Dawg and a lucky bunch of Seahawks, things are beginning to look up.
Think back to the way it was in early November.
As darkness and cold descend upon us, the one-win Huskies have just fired Keith Gilbertson, the Sonics are regarded among the worst teams in the NBA, and the middling Mariners look as if they might not sign a free agent.
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The Seahawks? They were about to lose to St. Louis for a second time.
A dreadful sports year in Seattle was looking toward an appropriate ending.
Only the Seattle Storm capturing our hearts and the WNBA championship, the historic hitting artistry of Ichiro and Washington’s improbable run to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament highlighted a year of lowlights.
How could it have been worse?
The year 2004 would be remembered by the colossal collapses of the Mariners — 99 losses — and Washington football — one win. The serious bottoming out of the Sonics, and the mediocrity of the Seahawks.
But then in a few weeks in December, everything changed.
The Sonics won in San Antonio and Dallas to hold the best record in the NBA. The Huskies hired Tyrone Willingham to coach football. The Mariners opened their hearts and wallets to sign Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre. And it seemed as if the Seahawks were going to make the playoffs no matter how they played.
All of a sudden, the clouds lifted, the future brightened, and just like that, many of the people in charge seemed to know what they were doing for a change.
And isn’t that what sports is all about?
I’m excited about 2005, excited not only that the Mariners have added the thump of Beltre and Sexson, but about the possibility that the best pitching prospect in baseball’s minor leagues, Felix Hernandez, may take a place in the starting rotation.
Excited that general manager Bill Bavasi engineered two mega-bucks signings when a year ago, all he could sign up were Raul Ibanez, Rich Aurilia and Scott Spiezio.
Excited that Willingham, the taciturn former commander at Notre Dame and Stanford, seems to have been jolted by his firing in South Bend to the point that he is hiring a new staff and becoming more personable, more outgoing, even woofing a few times in front of the fans at a UW basketball game.
Excited that the Huskies men’s basketball program seems to be getting only better with the signings of Snohomish power forward Jon Brockman and Seattle Prep’s amazing Martell Webster.
Excited, too, that the Storm, already the best non-Olympic women’s basketball team on the planet, should rise to a new level of interest and ability.
This year wasn’t a total dud. How could it be when Puyallup’s Ryan Moore had the greatest season by an amateur golfer since Bobby Jones — winning the NCAA championship, the U.S. Public Links, the Western Amateur and, finally, the U.S. Amateur?
Seattle University won an NCAA men’s soccer title. The UW women’s volleyball team got to the Final Four. Bellevue High’s football team won a fourth straight state title and ended a 151-game winning streak by De LaSalle of Concord, Calif.
And Edgar Martinez ended things as he started them — with dignity.
But as surely as Ichiro’s race to catch ageless George Sisler and break the record of hits in a season captivated us, the revelation that Washington softball players were being given prescription drugs without prescriptions repulsed us.
Teresa Wilson, the softball coach, was fired. Dana Richardson, the compliance officer who inexplicably signaled it was fine for coaches to gamble at Washington, quit. So did her boss, Barbara Hedges.
That great old Husky, Gilbertson, went by the wayside. So did Bob Melvin, the likeable manager of the Mariners. The Huskies and Mariners were suddenly under new management. The Seahawks still might be.
Todd Turner, the new athletic director at Washington, conducted a thoughtful search for a football coach, going after Urban Meyer and Jeff Tedford before signing Willingham, who shouldn’t have been available but through the impatience of Notre Dame was.
Turner handled the changing of the guard at Washington as well as could be expected. The midseason announcement that Gilbertson would step down as coach saved all the speculation and scrutiny that would have come had he not.
Proving no less capable was Rick Sund, the general manager of the Sonics, who in his time in Seattle has traded Gary Payton for Ray Allen, and Calvin Booth for Danny Fortson. Who drafted Luke Ridnour and Nick Collison. Who acquired Antonio Daniels.
The Sonics have to re-sign Allen to keep this thing going, but at least we see a plan where Rashard Lewis and Vladimir Radmanovic mature into stardom, where Ridnour and Daniels are as good a point-guard duo as there is, where the Sonics become the newest, European-inspired, how-to-do-it model for the NBA.
Perhaps Willingham, even starting at the last minute, can keep the best players at home, starting with running back Jonathan Stewart from Timberline of Lacey.
Perhaps the Mariners playing all the kids last season will mean that Jeremy Reed finds a home in center field and Bucky Jacobsen in the team’s designated hitter role.
The prospects are encouraging.
Imagine you are in San Francisco, where the 49ers are awful, the Giants have to deal with Barry Bonds’ drug use, the Warriors are awful, the A’s have just traded Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson, and California got robbed of its dream of playing in the Rose Bowl.
Things seem better around here. I guess that’s because they couldn’t have seemed any worse.
Blaine Newnham: 206-464-2364 or firstname.lastname@example.org