Thursday, January 23, 2014

Salmon with sourdough: Seattle,
San Francisco and rivalry (real and imagined)

YOU MIGHT have called it “Groundhog Day” in the NFL: On Sunday, for the second straight year, the San Francisco 49ers’ bid for their sixth Super Bowl title, their first in almost 20 years, died in the end zone, with quarterback Colin Kaepernick missing the hands of wide receiver Michael Crabtree, by a little or a lot.

The Niners lost to the Seattle Seahawks 23-17 in the NFC Championship Game with 30 seconds left, when Kaepernick’s pass was deflected by Seahawks cornerback and team avatar Richard Sherman and intercepted by linebacker Malcolm Smith, ending one of the best divisional games in years.

The agony of Sunday’s defeat was hard for San Francisco’s diehard sports fans to take, and any rivalry between Seattle and San Francisco thus has real, organic origins on the football field. Both the Seahawks and the 49ers found themselves placed in the same division, the NFC West, back in 2002, so geographic proximity, if nothing else, made some kind of feud almost inevitable.

That likelihood increased in 2010, when Pete Carroll was brought in as head coach from the University of Southern California — this a year before Jim Harbaugh, then head coach at Stanford, USC’s college rival, came aboard to coach the Niners.

In the years since, the competition between the teams on the football field has exploded into a reflexive rivalry with a life of its own. But upon further review, another part of the rivalry, the one that presumes to set the cities themselves at each other’s throats, may be more convenience than conviction.

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On Jan. 16, Ann Killion of the San Francisco Chronicle (where this writer once worked) came at the issue from a comprehensive perspective:

“It was easy for San Francisco to despise Dallas and everything about it. Natural enemies; polar opposites; red state versus blue state.

“But Seattle? That's just weird. For San Francisco it’s like hating your twin sister. Like looking in the mirror and despising what you see.

“Gorgeous, hilly, waterfront city? Check.

“Food-obsessed, coffee-addicted population? Check.

“Hipster, techie vibe? Check.

“Liberal, green politics? Check.

“Rich rock 'n' roll history? Check.

“And on the football field the teams are much the same, with demonstrative head coaches who came out of the same collegiate conference, budding superstars at quarterback, and nasty, physical defenses.

“These ‘rival’ cities are more alike than different.”

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DANNY WESTNEAT, a columnist for The Seattle Times, was having none of that in a recent pregame column that seemed to view the coming game as a chance for Seattle to get off some psychic schneid: “For more than 100 years Seattle has played stray dog to San Francisco’s alpha,” he wrote in The Times on Jan. 14. “... We are to them as Tacoma is to us. OK, that’s too extreme. How about this: We are San Francisco’s Spokane. ...

“She’s always been like our more beautiful big sister. We had a big gold rush, sure — 50 years after San Francisco did. You know the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair the old-timers still go on and on about, because it put our city so thrillingly on the global map? We were just keeping pace, because by then San Francisco had already had two.

“In boomtown Seattle of today, where we're smug that we're ranked No. 1 for this or that, face it, we remain deep-down envious of only one other. Her hipness. Her wealth. Her arts, architecture, high-tech, wine, culture, politics, you name it — we still peek insecurely south to check: What Would San Francisco Do?”

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Killion's colleague at the Chronicle, Carl Nolte, thinks all Westneat’s beer-crying was a ruse and a con job, and that Westneat was working some columnist rope-a-dope move.

“Seattle has an inferiority complex? Don't you believe it,” Nolte wrote before the game. “The truth is that Seattle is a great place. And Seattle people want to keep it all for themselves.

“Think about it for a minute. Seattle has rain. We have drought. Seattle has fresh fish. We have Fisherman's Wharf. They have the Pike Place Market. We have Mid-Market. We have Mount Diablo. They have Mount Rainier. We have Alcatraz Island. They have the San Juan Islands. They have Pioneer Square. We have the Tenderloin.

“They even taught us about good coffee.

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Edward Helmore of The Observer took a day-of-game look at the S.F.-Seattle “rivalry” as a battle of technologies, World War 2.1.

Helmore said the championship would “play out a more contemporary regional dispute: the Seahawks are owned by Paul Allen and draw support from Microsoft, the firm he co-founded, and the global shopping behemoth Amazon; the 49ers have established roots not only in San Francisco but increasingly in Silicon Valley, where Apple, Facebook, Google and Twitter have their headquarters.

“Today’s game, say sports commentators, amounts to an opportunity to settle scores. In recent years, San Francisco has outstripped Seattle in terms of internet and social-media innovation. After the browser wars of the 90s, Steve Jobs’s Apple came from behind to trounce Microsoft with generations of desirable consumer-tech wizardry.”

“The dislike, it seems, is mutual and the competitiveness between the teams and their fans has been exaggerated by a rivalry between their hard-headed coaches, Jim Harbaugh of the 49ers and [Seahawks coach] Pete Carroll.”

“But if technology rivalry means little to players on the field, it is more real in the two regions. Seattle prides itself on engineering skills and businesses that seek to establish relationships with their customers, dismissing Silicon Valley’s recent tech contributions as social media software designed to gather users’ data to sell to advertisers.”

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CLEARLY, this rivalry (real and imagined) is as much about what people bring to stoke it, to keep the flame burning, as to what people really know or care about its underpinnings. And why it’s a rivalry in the first place. But Westneat’s oddly deflated view of Seattle is one the city doesn’t deserve. And the burden of exorcising demons that probably weren’t even there was one the Seahawks didn’t need.

“Who knows, the weight of a hundred-plus years of history could be on the Seahawks,” Westneat wrote days before Sunday’s NFC Championship. “This game could go a long way to kick that old inferiority complex. We could finally step out of the shadow of our big sister to the south.”

All due props, but Westneat protested too much. I live in Seattle now, and I’ve previously lived in San Francisco and in Oakland (the city that might be S.F.’s real Spokane, from S.F.’s perspective). The fruits and joys of each city are both similar and singular, too unified in their politics, their geography, their traditions of maverick innovation, their West Coast temperament and their proximity to the Cascadia Subduction Zone to be anything close to antagonists (off the football field, anyway). As Nolte’s column strongly suggests, they’re not so much rivals as they are the objects of each other’s not-quite sublimated desire.

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That’s obvious to me whenever I take a break to visit San Francisco and plug back into that Bay Area energy. It’s happened more than once: While I’m there I encounter strangers who, hearing where I’m from, get that momentary glint in their eyes, the arch of the eyebrows and a little more animation in their faces. “Ooh,” they seem to say without a word. “I want what you’ve got.”

A rivalry is a theoretical clash of two opposites, and each has something the other party wants. So, what’s there for either side to feel inferior about? Slapping a city with “that old inferiority complex” may say more about the one using that phrase than anyone else.

When the Seattle Seahawks won on Sunday, they definitely wanted none of any inferiority talk. Neither did any of the 67,000 people at CenturyLink Field. They were all out there to help secure a place in the history books. The same books where you’ll find a quotation from someone wise, Eleanor Roosevelt, who once observed: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Image credits: Team and corporate logos property of their respective owners. Danny Westneat portrait: © 2014 The Seattle Times Company.

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