The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

 

The Big One

This Sunday's Super Bowl is a bit more special for me than most. I grew up rooting for the Seattle Seahawks, who are making their Super Bowl debut after 30 seasons notable more for futility and a few trick plays than for glory. I'm not a die-hard football fan, but when I was a kid the game meant as much to me as baseball did. To the horror of my parents, I played tackle football every recess in elementary school, taking my lumps while catching passes in the manner of another undersized receiver, the Seahawks' All-Pro, Steve Largent.

Salt Lake City didn't have an NFL team, of course. I first found out about the Seahawks via the Sears catalog, which had licensed merchandise of every team in all variety, not just clothing like jerseys, tees, and sweats, but also bed sheets, waste baskets, lunch boxes... hell, probably toilet seats as well. Browsing through the catalog with my brother, who was too young to read -- I must have been seven, in 1977, making him five -- I kept picking out the menacing blue-and-green bird logo, knowing that the team represented the city of my birth. Bryan, for some reason, fell for the Houston Oilers.

At that point I didn't actually watch much football, but by the time we moved across town later the next year, I was a Sunday and Monday regular. The new house my parents were building wasn't ready when we had to leave our old one, so we spent about six weeks as nomads, staying in the houses of friends who either had room or were conveniently traveling for a week or so in November or December. We spent a few weeks with the family of a girl I'd known since preschool. Her bratty older brother, Larry, was a Steelers fan. So long as Bry and I were around him, Larry lorded over us based on the superiority of the Steelers, who were on their way to a 14-2 record, tops in the AFC that year, and the Super Bowl trophy. The Oilers were hardly slouches, thanks to a brilliant rookie running back named Earl Campbell, and a likbly down-home coach named Bum Phillips. Even the Seahawks were emerging as respectable in their third season of existence, on their way to a 9-7 record.

Seattle was coached by Jack Patera, whose brother Ken went from Olympic weightlifting fame to pro wrestling ignominy and later the police blotter sheet. The team's defense was one of the worst in the game, but in that third season, their offense was beginning to gel. A lefthanded quarterback named Jim Zorn improved by leaps and bounds that year, upping his completion percentage from the low 40s to the mid-50s and throwing for 3,283 yards, third in the NFL. The other end of the dynamic duo was Largent, a possession receiver who ranked among the league leaders with 71 receptions and 1,168 yards. In the backfield, the tandem of Sherman Smith and David Sims combined for over 1,500 yards and 20 touchdowns to give Seattle a respectable running game, one augmented by Zorn's own scrambling skills. I was hooked.

I got to know the key players in the same way I learned about baseball players, via the magic of 2.5" x 3.5" cardboard slabs I'd purchase at a little convenience store we'd walk by on our way to school called Table Supply. I used my 1978 set doubles to trade for Larry's 1977 doubles, building up a stack of cards that was about three inches thick. Unfortunately, one night I left the entire stack at Skippers, a fast-food seafood joint, and was back to square one. In a touching show of solidarity, Larry got me started by handing over his duplicate checklist cards. With friends like that...

Seattle earned some respect with that 9-7 finish, and and even more notoriety in the following season when they matched that record. But it was Monday night game against the Atlanta Falcons that year which cemented those early Seahawks teams in legend. First Patera ordered a fake punt, with punter Herman Weaver completing a pass for a first down. Then on a field goal attempt, holder Zorn threw a perfect peg to kicker Effren Herrera, who gained 20 yards. As this website devoted to memorable trick plays recalls: "The best way I know to explain the play is to ask you to imagine a little 4'6" Hispanic penguin waddling up field to catch a ball between its flippers. Efren Herrera...the least athletic person to ever catch a pass in the NFL. Final Score: Seahawks over Falcons 31-28." Suddenly the 'Hawks were the toast of the NFL for flying their freak flags. To a Jewish kid growing up in Mormon-heavy Salt Lake City, where the bland conformity of "America's Team," the Dallas Cowboys, held sway, they were a welcome tonic. Still, they missed the playoffs again.

Including the strike-torn 1982 season, Patera lasted three more years at the helm, with diminishing returns. Following his dismissal, the team paraded through a succession of head coaches better known for their successes elsewhere -- Chuck Knox (who took four squads to the playoffs in LA and Buffalo), Tom Flores (who coached two Super Bowl winners), Dennis Erickson (who won two national championships at the University of Miami), and finally Mike Holmgren (who won a Super Bowl with the Packers). In 1983, Knox's first season, Zorn gave way to understudy Dave Kreig, while former Penn State standout Curt Warner became one of the NFL's top running backs, and the team not only won the AFC Wild Card with a 9-7 record, but made it all the way to the AFC Championship game before falling to the Raiders. Despite a 12-4 record the next year, they lost in the divisional playoff game, and in seven more years under "Ground Chuck," the team vacillated between 7-9 and 9-7 (with one 10-6 anomaly), losing their only two playoff games.

Largent retired after the 1989 season, ranking as the NFL's all-time leading receiver in terms of catches, yardage, touchdowns, and consecutive-game streak. He's since been surpassed by a handful of receivers including Jerry Rice, who rewrote the record books. Can't say I shed a single tear over the matter, as I discovered that beneath his silver helmet lurked a vapid right-wing Congressman in waiting. Blech.

If the mediocrity of Knox's teams was a drag, Flores' squads were even worse, winning just 14 games over three years; I half-suspected he was planted there by hated Raiders owner Al Davis to destroy the team from the inside. As if starting Stan Gelbaugh, Kelly Stouffer and Rick Mirer didn't make that patently obvious.

I lost touch with the team somewhere around then. Living in Providence, Rhode Island, I turned my focus to the QB the Seahawks should have gotten, Washington State's Drew Bledsoe. With a shot at the top pick in the NFL draft, Seattle had lost a coin flip to the New England Patriots and ended up with The Wrong Guy in Mirer. Meanwhile, Bledsoe, in his second season, threw for an improbable 4,555 yards, helping the 1994 Pats to reel off seven straight wins, overcoming a 3-6 start and making the playoffs.

As Erickson took over the Seahawks, the team became virtually unlikeable. The University of Miami (strike one) coach left had his school just as the NCAA closed in and placed the team on probation for three years. Running back Chris Warren, the team's leading rusher, was charged with assaulting a woman (strike two) outside a club. Leading receiver Brian Blades was charged with manslaughter (strike three) in the shooting death of his cousin. Mirer egregiously impersonated an NFL quarterback for four years under the Seahawk colors (strike four), posting QB ratings in the 50s and 60s. All deserved the gallows or worse.

Even when Holmgren took over in 1999, leaving behind the winning tradition of Green Bay, I hardly stirred. By this point I was living in New York City, where the NFL's arcane blackout rules mandated a weekly diet of Giants and Jets games while blotting out Sunday afternoon for every other team. The advent of this website in 2001, making baseball a year-round intellectual pastime for me, was the final nail in the coffin for any real passion I felt for the pro game. I still tune in for the playoffs, but rarely do I bother with even the fourth quarter of a regular-season game, armed with a TiVo to whisk me through the dead spots punctuated with occasional action.

In his first four years in Seattle, Holmgren finished below .500 twice, and up until this year had just a 50-46 record with one 10-win team -- hardly enough to rouse me from my disinterest. But behind running back and league MVP Shaun Alexander, who ran for a league-leading 1,880 yards and set an NFL record with 28 TDs, the team roared to a 13-3 record this season. Despite Alexander sustaining a concussion in the divisional playoff game against the Redskins, the team advanced, relying on QB Matt Hasselbeck's mastery of the West Coast offense. In the NFC Championship Game (they switched leagues, for a second time, back in 2002, while unveiling a hideous metallic, monochromatic color scheme), they even dug into their trick play legacy by completing a pass to backup quarterback Seneca Wallace, who lined up as a receiver and made an over-the-shoulder grab for a 28-yard gain that set up Seattle's first touchdown. Now they're in Super Bowl XL underdogs to -- who else? -- the Steelers. Somewhere I'm sure Larry is watching.

So there it is. I'm not going to paint my face blue and green, nor don my old Largent jersey (which won't fit, and which I wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole anyway). But I'm looking forward to those grainy clips of the old days. Zorn even patrols the sidelines as the team's QB coach, offering a tangible connection to that freak-flag past. Fly it, boys.

• • •

Speaking of big games, I haven't written much about the controversial inaugural World Baseball Classic in this space. Except to counter a rather jingoistic assault on Alex Rodriguez's admittedly embarrassing Hamlet act in choosing to play for the U.S. or the Dominican Republic, and to cross my fingers in the hopes that Barry Bonds gets drilled in the earhole, I hadn't even given it much thought until last week. But when my brother-in-law invited Andra and me to join him and his girlfriend for a long weekend in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to take in some baseball, I perked up. Since I was already mulling a spring-training pilgrimage to Florida, it didn't take long to buy into Adam's sales pitch: a pair of second-round games including one matching up the Pool C (Cuba, Netherlands, Panama, Puerto Rico) and Pool D (Austrialia, Dominican Republic, Italy, Venezulea) winners, a pairing we hope nets us D.R. vs. P.R. We've also got the Pool D winner vs. Pool C Runner-Up game the night before.

Like most other fans, I'm a bit wary of the cocked-up manner in which the Classic has been devised; really, there's no ideal solution that allows major-league players to partake when they're in game shape, and I can hardly hold it against a franchise for discouraging its players' participation. Pitching is the real problem; even with limits of 65, 80 and 95 for the various stages, the workloads are a few weeks ahead of major-league pitchers' typical schedules, and if you thought hearing Mike Mussina whine about Opening Day in Japan all the way into October, get ready for this topic to get beaten like a dead horse all season long if even one team's middle reliever goes down with a hangnail. As it is, the limits stack the deck in favor of the U.S., which has much more pitching depth than any other country.

Just the same, with a few World Series games and an All-Star Game under my belt (not to mention a Winter Olympics), I'm excited for this even though I know it's closer to a glorified exhibition than it is a World Cup (the intended model). It's still baseball in March in a warm climate, with some fantastic talent at hand. How much more do you need than that?

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