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My criteria for judging superstars and why Felix Hernandez falls short
In today's column, I wrote about the superstar void in Seattle sports currently. But I didn't offer enough specifics on my criteria for a superstar. So before you go calling me a Felix Hernandez hater (which I'm clearly not if you read my column on a regular basis), let me make that criteria clearer.
The word "superstar" is used to liberally. I've even fallen victim to it many times before. But there's a difference between a star (like Hernandez or Jose Bautista or Carmelo Anthony) and a superstar (Derek Jeter, LeBron James, Tom Brady). They are all stars, but they are not all the same.
A star is a standout in his sport, likely a perennial All-Star, maybe even a future Hall of Famer. No doubt, Hernandez is the greatest Seattle sports star around right now.
But a superstar is that, plus something else. A superstar is a star among stars. A superstar transcends in many ways.
1. A superstar must be the best or one of the best at what he does. Hernandez definitely meets that. For the record, so do Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson of the Storm. Another Pro Bowl season, and Seahawks safety Earl Thomas will clearly be at that level, and if he continues what he started in the second half of last season, Skittles-chomping running back Marshawn Lynch might be there soon, too. But this is just the baseline for a superstar. There's much more to consider.
2. A superstar must influence winning, or, if he's on a really bad team, transcend the losing with an undeniable level of dominance that rises above the despair. Obviously, team sports stars are either boosted or limited by the franchise they represent. The Mariners aren't helping out Hernandez at all. While he makes the team better, he can only start 33 or 34 games a year, just a little over one-fifth of the season. And as a pitcher, Hernandez can only control one half of the game (or even half of one half because he can't make the defensive plays behind him). I would argue that there are few star pitchers who ever get to superstar status because of this, and even for the lucky ones, it takes most star pitchers five or six years of dominance to graduate to superstar.
In my column, I wrote this about 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." Of course, in that passage, I'm making a quick point so that I keep the story moving and don't bog it down with a mini-argument. It's not intended to slight Hernandez because of that record; he has a fantastic 2.91 ERA during that span. But it goes to show how restricted even the greatest pitchers are when it comes to influencing winning. And to be honest, the one thing you can criticize Hernandez for is that he has spurts of inconsistency in which he doesn't rise above the Mariners' futility. He's only had two seasons (2009 and 2010) in which he has been so consistently locked in that he rose above the Mariners' despair. It's hard to do -- he's only human, and the losing must affect his psyche -- but Hernandez can get better in this area.
I don't think there is a superstar pitcher in the game right now (though some, like Hernandez, are close), and that's partly because of the difficulty influencing winning and partly because of my third piece of criteria.
3. A superstar must have far-reaching appeal. Call it the Rock Star Factor. That's what completes a superstar. The grandma in Aberdeen who doesn't even watch sports has to know who you are. The casual sports fan in Vermont has to know who you are. You have to be able to captivate people, to arrest them. You have to be an elite entertainer in addition to a standout on the field. Once again, it's not Felix's fault, but he hasn't been on a stage like the postseason to be able to electrify in that manner. Superstars get endorsement deals. Superstars are on late-night talk shows, and they help ignorant people identify with the city they play in. Superstars have a way of making a national audience stop what they're doing to watch them.
Sure, Hernandez has King's Court -- a section of fans cheering for him at Safeco Field -- but that's more the product of great Mariners' marketing. The sad reality, and I hate this, is that fans don't flock to Safeco whenever King Felix pitches. He hasn't been able to transcend the Mariners' lousiness, which is hardly a knock on him. But it does leave him lacking a key superstar characteristic.
There is a difference between a Hernandez and a Ken Griffey Jr. in his prime, and that's it. It's not a diss on King Felix. Love him. But the word "superstar" is used to much. There must be some line of demarcation. There are only a precious few superstars in sports, and that's the way it should be. They're the highest of the high.
Hernandez is only 26. One day, he'll receive a postseason showcase, and I'm certain that he'll wow the larger audience. Or failing that, maybe he'll win another Cy Young or two and gain enough attention and endorsements to become a worldwide household name. That would catapult him to superstar status. Or maybe, when he's 30, he'll have become so dominant that you ignore the Rock Star Factor and regard him as a superstar anyway.
Those are my thoughts on what makes a superstar, which explains why I think Seattle doesn't have one right now. I would love to hear yours. It's a great debate, and there's no absolute answer. But I hope I've made my stance as clear as possible, and that should amplify today's column.