The first time I ever heard of Ichiro was while eating breakfast with my family during a spring break trip to Seattle in 2001. My dad pointed out a boy sitting near us who was wearing an Ichiro jersey t-shirt. He explained Ichiro was a rookie who had just come over from Japan but hadn’t done so well in the previous night’s spring training game. I must have asked what his first name was because I remember my dad explaining the first-name-on-the-back thing and thinking that was weird.
We all know the 2001 Mariners went on to have a dream season, winning 116 games. The guy with his first name on his back won the AL MVP and Rookie of the Year awards. The Mariners were a big deal.
I don’t remember every detail of following that team, but I know I was in love with them. Dan Wilson, Bret Boone, Edgar, Mike Cameron, John Olerud – they were all the greatest. And Ichiro was the greatest of the greatest.
I could go on about my favorite memories of being a young Mariners fan, but more important than specific moments of that 2001 season is that the 2001 season happened in the first place. If the Mariners hadn’t been a big deal, or hadn’t had an exciting player, or not been broadcast on Portland-area TV and radio, I probably never would have become a big baseball fan. My dad’s love of the sport may have rubbed off on me, but I think there’s something about having a team distinctly “yours” that makes it easy to develop an obsession.
As the years wore on, the Mariners became pretty bad, and I didn’t follow the team as closely as I did in the early 2000s. But Ichiro was always there. Sure, Felix is exciting and the Cy Young was awesome, but that’s not the reason most people my age became Mariners fans in the first place.
Until today, Ichiro had been a Mariner longer than I’ve had my braces off. Longer than my family’s lived in the house I’d consider my childhood home. Longer than one of my siblings has even been alive.
This trade is obviously not the kind of life-altering event that shifts your whole world, but for me – and I’m guessing for many other Northwest natives my age – it’s surreal. I thought it would be weird to hear Mariners games without Dave Niehaus behind the microphone; it’ll be weirder to hear them without Ichiro in the lineup.
When news of the trade broke on Twitter this evening, no one knew how to react. There had been talk he wouldn’t stay a Mariner forever, but he’d been so constant in our lives as Seattle baseball fans it didn’t seem like he would actually leave. I wish him the best and I’ll root like crazy for him to get a World Series ring someday, but right now I’m sad that the one remaining constant of my life as a baseball fan is gone. At least he stayed longer than my braces.