Seattle’s GOAT Mountain of Sports: Ken Griffey Jr., Ichiro Suzuki, Sue Bird, Russell Wilson voted best of the best

The Sporting News GOAT Mountain project named four pro athletes from the nine cities that have had three of the following four leagues represented for at least 20 years — NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL. Last summer, we looked at 13 four-sport cities. There were no hard-and-fast rules pertaining to the athletes selected. Our panels of experts considered individual resumes, team success and legacy within the sports landscape of each city. Not every franchise within a city needed to be represented. All sports fans have an opinion on this topic. This is ours.

Few American cities are as proud and as majestic as Seattle. With its greenery tucked between the Pacific Ocean and Mount Rainier and its skyline stamped by the Space Needle, it lives up to being “The Emerald City.”

Professional sports are an integral part of Seattle’s sparkle. Although the NFL’s Seahawks and MLB’s Mariners continue to shine in the Northwest, their company has changed in recent history. Losing the NBA’s SuperSonics was a big blow to the city’s cultural makeup, but over a short period, that has been softened by the WNBA’s Storm, the MLS’ Sounders and the NHL’s Kraken.

When it comes to Seattle teams that come and stay, it’s hard to find a more beloved, loyal and passionate, versatile and knowledgeable fanbase, especially when including the pride in the University of Washington. That made it trickier than expected to choose the four pro athletes who represent Seattle best on Sporting News’ GOAT Mountain.

There was a case for a near all-Mariners affair, but ultimately, Ken Griffey Jr. and Ichiro Suzuki had a little separation from fellow Baseball Hall of Famer Edgar Martinez to compose one half of our group. With the Sonics gone and with her own smiling “love of the game” face to match Griffey and Ichiro, Sue Bird was the worthiest basketball choice for her long, illustrious and all-Seattle WNBA career.

MORE: Why Edgar Martinez, Gary Payton missed on Seattle’s mountaintop

Finally, the Seahawks and their “12th Man” needed some representation from the Pete Caroll era, which brought a Super Bowl ring to Seattle. For that, it was difficult to overlook the decade-long resume of Russell Wilson before his tumultuous exit to Denver. Despite some controversy over Wilson’s selection, when putting him together with Griffey, Ichiro and Bird, it can’t be denied that his inclusion helped Seattle’s “GOAT Mountain” reach the necessary elevated standard of excellence.

“These are phenomenal choices,” said Stacy Jo Rost, who co-hosts one of the city’s most popular sports radio shows on 710 ESPN Seattle. “There’s no greater impact than what they had on sports in Seattle.”

MORE: See the GOAT Mountain selections for all nine cities

KEN GRIFFEY JR. (Mariners, 1989-1999)

No matter how grizzled and grey Ken Griffey Jr. gets as the ultimate MLB superstar, it’s difficult to not to see him as that bright-eyed, fresh-faced kid who took baseball by storm with his backward cap, powerful bat and spectacular glove three decades ago. Even though like another one-time young superstar, Alex Rodriguez, Griffey may have left Seattle for a time, he still is remembered as the most memorable Mariner, immortalized by his statue in front of T-Mobile Park.

“Griffey left, but he never let the fans down. His reputation of being so likeable and funny adds to his lore,” Rost said. “He is so affable, he knows how to work a room. Some athletes aren’t just exceptional; they are meant to be stars. Griffey’s star power still commands a room.”

Griffey, it can safely be said now, clearly is the best all-around player in base- ball, finally assuming that unofficial mantle from Bonds this season in the culmination of a transition that has been inevitable since 1991, when Griffey hit .327 and put together his first 100-RBI year to establish himself as one of the game’s supermen.

—The Sporting News, June 9, 1997

Shannon Drayer, a longtime Mariners beat reporter who covers the team for 710 ESPN Seattle. echoes Rost’s sentiments on Griffey’s massive, everlasting presence.

“Griffey didn’t just put Seattle baseball on the map, but before the days of social media, he also put the city of Seattle on the map. The video games, the ad campaigns, crossing over into pop culture — he was what Seattle needed at that time.”

Griffey was endearing right away, coming up to the majors at 19 and getting the chance to play alongside his father, Ken Griffey Sr., the next year. Ken Griffey Jr. grew up as a favorite son of Mariners fans. Although he spent a good portion of his career in Cincinnati, where he hit his 500th career home run, “Junior Griffey” left his heart beating strongest in Seattle.

“It blows me away how many new Mariners come to the organization and Griffey is still somebody they think of first.” Drayer said. “Griffey and Ichiro are a lot alike, just how they are beloved in the city and brought so much joy to baseball.”
 

Ken Griffey Jr. By The Numbers
AL MVPs 1
All-Star Games 10
Gold Gloves 10
Home runs 417

ICHIRO SUZUKI (Mariners, 2001-2012, 2018-19)

When Griffey left Seattle before the 2000s, there wasn’t too long of a void without an exuberant baseball star headlining the city’s sports scene. Ichiro Suzuki wasted no time in becoming the Mariners’ latest international icon.
Despite being an established superstar surnamed Suzuki for the Orix BlueWave, twice winning MVP in Japan’s Pacific League, there was lukewarm buzz from MLB teams ahead of his arrival overseas. The Mariners were only one of four clubs interested. 

Many thought at just 5-11, 175 pounds, Ichiro’s body couldn’t endure the grind of longer seasons at age 27. It didn’t take long for him to silence doubters with his bat, speed, arm and glove, rolling to the rare feat of winning American League MVP while also being named AL Rookie of the Year. 

Soon, Suzuki became just “Ichiro”, getting Elvis-like first-name treatment and reverence, reverberating from the back of his jersey. Three seasons later, Ichiro already was representing Seattle as an all-time great, Cooperstown-bound after producing 262 hits and shattering George Sisler’s 83-year-old record.

“Ichiro is a true pioneer,” said Drayer. “He was the first position player from Japan to make a big mark in the American game. He came over and proved everybody wrong,”

Praising his mental game is one of the highest compliments someone can pay Ichiro. He believes having a clear mind is as important as having a healthy body. “You don’t turn in a spectacular performance because you happen to be in supreme condition that day,” he says. “It’s the times when you’re in a normal mental state that you have a chance to turn in a great performance. If you allow yourself to drift out of normalcy because of pressure or frustration or some other factor, that’s when things can go wrong.”

Case in point: He plans no changes in his approach this year, refusing to succumb to the theory that something was wrong when he hit .280 after the All-Star break last year. He firmly believes in the approach he has carefully developed over his 12-year professional career. It’s that mindset he’ll rely on as he prepares for a season in baseball’s most competitive division, the American League West.

—The Sporting News, March 10, 2003

Living up to the Griffey comparison, everything Ichiro did at the plate and the outfield brought wonder and mystique.

“Ichiro captured the imagination,” said Drayer. “He was a huge favorite of kids, like a cartoon character. He put on a show, and did it on purpose, knowing that’s what fans came to see. You can close your eyes and see all that to this day. He did it his way and his game translated. That was eye-opening.”

Ichiro had a ton of fun playing the game. At the same time, he could be appreciated for his old-school approach and tireless work ethic. That also resonated with Seattites, who called him back to finish his career in the city as baseball’s grand old man at 45.
 

Ichiro By The Numbers
AL MVPs 1
All-Star Games 10
Gold Gloves 10
Hits in 2004 season 262 (MLB record)

SUE BIRD (Storm, 2002-2022)

Griffey and Ichiro always will be considered Mariners, despite their departures from Seattle. Among Sue Bird’s countless college and pro accolades, her decision to never fly away from Seattle made her even more special in her adopted city.

The WNBA was still a fledgling professional league when Bird was plucked first overall out of Connecticut in the 2002 draft to be the Storm’s long-term star point guard. Before she retired after two-plus decades in Seattle, she tripled her championship total from UConn, winning six in all. She also racked up 13 All-Star nods interspersed with winning five Olympic gold medals.

“Almost from the very beginning, you can tell what kind of player and leader she was. She had ridiculous longevity, and played through a lot of pain into her 30s and 40s,” Drayer said.

“She was a great representative of the club and city, getting active in the community while being in the national spotlight. Her love of the game grew with the Storm as she made herself at home in Seattle, really fitting in after coming from the Northeast.”

When Bird saw her No. 10 jersey retired by the Storm in a ceremony that lasted almost three hours this June, the duration didn’t seem unusual, because there was just that much to celebrate. Drayer believes she deserves even more recognition — in the form of a statue in front of Climate Pledge Arena, akin to Griffey and Martinez greeting Seattle fans at every Mariners home game.

The fact Bird was a loyal, supreme achiever in a league outside of MLB, NFL and NBA also plays well into the narrative of the Seattle sports fan. Much like the loud crowds for the Sounders and revved up new faithful to the Kraken, the Storm were embraced early while graced by Bird. She also reached unique celebrity status as one half of Seattle’s sports power couple with Megan Rapinoe, decorated soccer superstar from the NWSL’s OL Reign.

“This city is really proud of the success of some underrepresented sports,” Rost said. “Sue’s representation of that mattered.”

Bird is the second WNBA player to make a city’s GOAT Mountain for Sporting News. She follows fellow former UConn legend Diana Taurasi from Phoenix
 

Bird By The Numbers
WNBA titles 4
All-WNBA First-Team 5
All-Star Games 13
WNBA Assists Leader 3
Ranking in WNBA games played, assists, seasons & minutes  1st

RUSSELL WILSON (Seahawks, 2012-2021)

Martinez could have easily been the third Mariner named to Seatle’s GOAT Mountain. From basketball, there was an argument that all-time best SuperSonic Gary Payton should have joined Bird to make it half hardwood.

But in the end, the NFL has been too special in Seattle of late to be ignored. Although Hall of Fame greats such as Steve Largent, Walter Jones and the late Cortez Kennedy had strong cases from further in the past, ultimately, Carroll’s consistent recent history of success required a GOAT Mountain choice from the Super Bowl 48 champions.
Canton-bound linebacker Bobby Wagner is the steadfast defensive player from “The Legion of Boom” heyday. Running back Marshawn Lynch was the heart and soul of those complementary offenses, with the beauty of his power running rolled into his “Beast Mode.”

But then consider if Wilson had retired after his 10th season playing in the city or continued to quarterback the Seahawks today — he would be an easy pick for the fourth spot. Although the wounds of his self-imposed trade to Denver need some years to heal, it’s important to understand how special Wilson was for Seattle.

After Wilson won the starting QB job as a rookie fourth-round pick in 2012 training camp, he helped lead the Seahawks to nine consecutive winning seasons while making 160 consecutive starts, including eight playoff trips. He helped deliver a ring in Year 2 and came one play short of a Super Bowl repeat in Year 3. Wilson also was huge in giving back to the people of Seattle,, culminating in him being named Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year in 2020.

Wilson provided plenty of thrills on the field beyond his historically high efficiency with his uncanny combination of athleticism, deep-ball accuracy and improvisation. Regardless of what he does or doesn’t do in Denver, he is a Pro Football Hall of Famer with his play in Seattle.

“The bottom line is, Russell Wilson is the only QB to bring this city to a championship. The Seahawks had one of the best defenses ever, but I don’t know if they get there without Wilson,” Drayer said. “He made so many miraculous plays for the team that people forget some of them.”

Given Wilson’s eventual philosophical fallout with Carroll and leaving Seattle after his first losing and injury-marred season, his GOAT Mountain inclusion might feel a little bittersweet. Put when pulling back and examining his accomplishments and importance, there’s no doubt.

“Russell Wilson has a complicated relationship with Seattle,” Rost said. “The connection doesn’t seem to be as strong now, but when looking back in time,  fans will remember how much he gave this city — including a Super Bowl parade.”

Russell Wilson By The Numbers
Super Bowl titles 1
Super Bowls 2
Playoff seasons 8
Pro Bowls 9

 

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