Greatness earns consideration, but the truly beloved professional athletes in Seattle sports are as atypical as they are talented.
If I told you Ichiro was an English derivation of the original Katakana meaning "blade of wind," you would probably believe me. Such is Ichiro Suzuki's power on our imaginations. His greatness gives him presence, but it is his uniqueness that makes him beloved.
Ichiro is an anachronism in the modern game. He is a deadball bat who achieves huge value through singles. Hundreds of them a season and 2,132 for his MLB career. He is anti-Moneyball and, fittingly, plays havoc on projection systems. He defies historical comparisons.
He also defies a neat definition of professional athlete. Ichiro is mysterious and elusive. He seems proud and dedicated and almost wise in his understanding of baseball. Ichiro can be riotously funny, subtly incisive and shockingly ribald.
From a pure value point, Ichiro's mix of deadly precise hitting, high-percentage base stealing and steady defense have make him a four- to seven-win player every season. His celebrity reaps millions in ticket and merchandise sales. He is renowned in America and a legend in Japan. No Japanese born player has ever thrived in MLB like Ichiro has. Though he is 36, he defies the age curve just like he defies every other expectation.
Ichiro is probably headed for the Hall of Fame, but even more remarkable, he may be the most singular talent of his generation in any professional sports league. And we love him for it.
Maybe it's that Hasselbeck doesn't look like an athlete that makes him so relatable. Maybe it's that he is clever, mild mannered and thoughtful in a sport that favors the fierce, aggressive and violent. Or maybe it's just that Hasselbeck is the remaining face of one of Seattle's few great sports achievements: Playing in Super Bowl XL. But whatever it is, love for Hasselbeck remains though his career stands at the precipice.
After three down seasons in his last four, Matt is on the last year of his contract and for the first time since battling Trent Dilfer, Hasselbeck must compete to secure his position as starting quarterback. He has struggled with injury and suspect surrounding talent. He is fighting age and now must learn his third new offense in three seasons. Established, successful and rich, Hasselbeck still seems like an underdog.
It is fitting in a way. Seahawks fans were ready to give up on Matt when he was still young and are now unwilling to let go though his career crumbles. Call it inertia. Call it loyalty. Whatever it is, it makes us cheer not just for Hasselbeck to lead the Seahawks to victory, but for Matt himself. After all rational arguments are exhausted, we all just want the guy to win.
Graceful, that is an easy and perhaps subtly dismissive adjective for a female athlete. But though you could call Sue Bird dynamic, or maybe just a winner, graceful is just too perfect. She is controlled, skillful and a natural with the ball in her hands. Bird oozes athleticism. She pushes the ball, dishes assists, is strong from downtown and a solid perimeter player. Though Bird is excellent, here resonance with Seattle is only partly because of her ability on the court.
Two-time WNBA MVP Lauren Jackson is the heart of the Storm. Jackson is among the greatest players in WNBA history. Bird may not be better than Jackson, but she is the best point guard in the WNBA and an excellent face for the league. Bird is well spoken and engaging. She frequently wears the label of "ambassador" for women's basketball and she wears it well. That, her hustle and her history of success mean her popularity and importance transcend her play. And that's saying something.
How big is Kasey Keller? Big enough that he, or at least his name, braved the hostile world of that other football. The gridiron kind. The kind that don't take kindly to footy. Keller was featured in an April Fools prank conducted by Seahawks staff writer Clare Farnsworth as he was supposedly challenging Seahawks kicker Olindo Mare for his job. Keller was the celebrity, the draw, and Mare the fall guy. Appropriate for a kicker, but at the hands of a goalie?
When that goalie is Kasey Keller and that city Sounders-crazy Seattle, you better believe it. Though soccer is still met with ambivalence by many American sports fans, it is the world's most popular sport and Keller is among the United States' greatest players ever. He participated in four World Cups and played at the highest level internationally, including the English Premiere League. His 10-save shutout of Brazil in the 1998 Gold Cup inspired Brazilian great Romario to remark, "That is the best performance by a goalkeeper I have ever seen." Keller is a great player in a growing sport, a living legend and a local kid come home. The Olympia-born goalie returned to the Sounders in 2009 and has been met with love and praise ever since.
Thousands, maybe more, thousands of Seahawks fans would tank the season if they could. Diehard fans, season-ticket holders, blue in the blood gridiron maniacs would sacrifice an entire season of football for one prize. One supremely talented player: Jake Locker.
Such is the spell Locker casts over fans. The Husky quarterback is an amazing talent still learning to play quarterback, but his athleticism and developing skills have some analysts projecting him as the best overall talent and presumed first overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. His numbers are on the low side of good. His 53.3 percent completion rate is on the low side of acceptable. He has lost and lost and suffered injury on some terrible Huskies teams, but oh that arm, those legs, that talent!
Maybe it's that Husky football has been so bad that makes Locker seem so impossibly good in comparison. He has been a beacon of hope on a team crushed by bad coaching, bad recruiting and a suddenly competitive Pac-10. He was about the only thing worth watching in 2007. Locker burst on the scene, not yet a quality quarterback but deadly with his legs. He ran for 986 yards and 13 touchdowns. He burst on the scene, not yet a good or successful football player, but an impossible talent, a potential moment of greatness in every snap. And so, all potential, a long shot to wear the Blue, a survivor and lone bright spot in perhaps the worst era ever of Huskies football, a Ferndale grad, that did this and this and, oh yes, this, Locker is beloved, and should the fanboys not get their way, soon gone.