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Originally published July 11, 2012 at 8:02 PM | Page modified July 12, 2012 at 12:53 PM

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Seattle badly needs a sports superstar again

Thanks to Ken Griffey Jr., Gary Payton, Randy Johnson and many others in the 1990s, Seattle is a more expectant sports city now. The bar is so high that you look down and easily notice the void.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Five possible breakout stars in Seattle sports

Felix Hernandez

King Felix would be a superstar if he could play in games of consequence and prove his greatness to a large audience.

Earl Thomas

The Seahawks safety is on track to become the best player at his position in a few years. He is a dynamic playmaker, and can appeal to the masses.

Taijuan Walker

He's just 19, and he's a player who has a way to go. But his Felix-level talent is already creating a buzz around baseball.

Russell Wilson

If the quarterback can overcome his 5-11 size disadvantage, he has the personality and the story to captivate many.

Fredy Montero

Montero turns 25 this month. He's the best raw talent on Sounders FC, Seattle's top sporting phenomenon. Has enormous potential.

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What Seattle needs is a sports superTEAM not a superstar. There have been plenty of... MORE
How about a winning team for one thing, then think about someone that stands out and... MORE
Seattle had a SUPERSTAR in Kevin Durant ! Between that Howard Sh*t and the city leaders... MORE

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Quick, name a sports superstar residing on a Seattle team.

Ichi ... oh, no. Heck no. Not anymore. Just stop.

Felix Hernandez? Certainly, the 2010 Cy Young Award winner is among baseball's best pitchers, and his alter ego, Larry Bernandez, is funny. But with a 33-31 record the past three years and an irrelevant team holding him down, it's hard to call him a superstar.

Marshawn Lynch? Dynamic local star, but he lacks the far-reaching appeal.

Keep guessing, and you'll only come close if you shout out Storm stalwarts Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson, two women's basketball players nearing the end of their prime. But even those great players don't have the juice to captivate much more than a niche audience.

Eventually, after this superstar conversation takes you away from the athletes and into the crazy ("Uh, what about Chris Hansen? He's trying to build an arena!"), you land at the only superstar that I think we have: Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. Yep, a 60-year-old man who once coached one of the Washington Huskies' greatest enemies is the closest thing we have. The coach with a 47-49 career NFL record, including a 14-18 mark with the Seahawks, is Seattle's biggest de facto sports celebrity.

Currently, this city has the Q rating of a hobbit. Which makes Seattle irrelevant right now.

"This town is so ripe for the taking right now," said Mike Gastineau, the Sports Radio KJR host who has worked in the market for 20 years. "This town is ready to embrace somebody."

It's still a tough time to follow the entire local sports scene. You have to search for pockets of greatness amid the rampant despair. The lack of a true, transcendent superstar is both a symptom of the problem, and more than that, it's a killjoy.

It's also not surprising. From the rise of Ken Griffey Jr. through the best of Ichiro, Seattle experienced a remarkable run of superstars. Not surprisingly, all of its teams enjoyed successful periods, too. But the cyclical nature of sports dictated that it would have to end. There's no doubt Seattle is in a transition period.

Think of some of the star power that came through here from 1990 to 2010: Griffey, Ichiro, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Steve Emtman, Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson, Walter Jones. There have been superstar coaches/managers, too: Lou Piniella, George Karl, Mike Holmgren. We could keep throwing out names of elite sports figures from the bygone era, but we'll stop here.

No doubt, Seattle has been blessed with some extraordinary talent with international popularity, and they arrived during the right era because the still-fledgling sports city was due for a growth spurt in significance, recognition and expectation.

"They gave Seattle a sports identity," said Russ Dille, a local sports historian. "We like that recognition, even if we pretend that we don't care. And when somebody identifies with Seattle and brings prominence to it, people love them for it. We consider it quite an honor because we're so overlooked."

For certain, those superstars raised the bar. Seattle is a more confident and expectant sports city now. The bar is so high that you look down and easily notice the void.

"I think it's a huge problem, especially when you consider what it was like in the '90s," Gastineau said. "There were just so many of them then. Now, it's really a giant hole."

The city has also endured the flip side of fame — disappointment. From player exits to the Sonics' departure (which cost the city Kevin Durant, its next superstar), loss has been a major storyline, too. The result is a somewhat jaded — or perhaps more realistic — sports community.

"I think people have a lot of apathy toward sports, especially pro sports, now more than ever," Dille said. "No town in the country has been kicked around like we have. Fans don't want to invest fully because of all that's happened. And it's so hard to get over what happened with the Sonics.

"It's kind of hard to identify with athletes now. There used to be a sense among them of, 'This is our Seattle.' Now, it's all about money. If a team has more money to offer, they'll leave at the drop of a hat."

But Seattle's teams will continue the quest for superstars. They're a must to build dominant teams. With quality talent evaluators such as Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik and Seahawks GM John Schneider in town, you can already see the potential for a new generation of superstars.

Seahawks safety Earl Thomas has a chance to be, at least, the best safety in the NFL. If Lynch goes off, there's a possibility he could be elite. Hernandez is just 26, and with some help, it's easy to see him taking that final step to becoming a superstar. Matt Flynn, who is expected to be the Seahawks' starting quarterback this season, could become a star, but if rookie Russell Wilson eventually wins the job and performs at a star level, a small, 5-foot-11 quarterback would have a better chance of captivating a national audience.

It doesn't matter who it is, really.

Taijuan Walker? Dustin Ackley? Fredy Montero?

Someone must step into this role.

For the love of Fred Hutchinson, Seattle sure could use an athlete to help re-brand sports in this city.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com

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