Ichiro’s MLB career spans my adult life as a person and a collector to this point

April 2001. There is a buzz around Seattle Mariners Spring Training camp about the new player, a baseball veteran who had played in his native Japan for eight years before inking a deal with the MLB club. His name was Ichiro.

The name was like none that many of us followers of baseball in the United States had heard. We were intrigued how this player’s skills would translate. About a half decade earlier, pitcher Hideo Nomo had made the transition to Major League Baseball and he did so with plenty of fanfare and success. And a few years later, another Japanese pitcher, Hideki Irabu, signed on with the New York Yankees and didn’t exactly enjoy loads of success. So there was some excitement with Ichiro — especially since he was an everyday player — but there was some trepidation as there wasn’t anything to which he could really be compared.

Of course as history has shown us, Ichiro was better than any of us could have imagined. In MLB he was a premier batsmen, a speed demon on the base paths, and on defense he possessed everything an outfielder could want, including closing speed and a rocket launcher for an arm.

When he came into the league, I was in my third year in college, about to turn 21. I had a lot going in my life. I had just decided that Journalism was the thing for me and I was spending more time at school working as an editor for the college daily paper. My days were long, which left very little time for cards. But that’s not to say that I wasn’t still buying. And if memory serves me right, one of the first Ichiro cards I was able to obtain was the 2001 Upper Deck.

Unless you collected in 2001, there is very little that can compare to the spark that Ichiro and Albert Pujols brought to our hobby during their fantastic rookie season. In fact, I’d say that level of excitement probably wasn’t broached until Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper hit Bowman products in 2010, and maybe again in 2018 with the triumvirate of Ronald Acuna, Juan Soto and Shohei Ohtani hit the scene. But still, in its time, 2001 was a special year.

I digress. I remember that first season for so many reasons. That summer I had my first internship, at the Oakland Tribune in Oakland, Calif., and at a convenience store across the street they had a single box of 2001 Upper Deck Vintage. The set design was a play on the 1963 Topps set, but in the set was a multi-player rookie card of Ichiro. As odd as the floating head design of that rookie card was, I still bought pack after pack during my lunch breaks that summer. In fact, I am pretty sure I ended up buying the entire box. Sadly, I did not pull an Ichiro.

This was also the case for so many other products that summer, although it should be noted that a lot of the releases had serial numbered rookie cards. This didn’t stop me from chasing. In fact, it was not until Bowman Heritage, and Topps Update hit shelves that I started to routinely pull — and sell — Ichiro rookie cards. I even managed to hit one of the Topps Gallery rookies, which if memory serves me right, were redemption cards as they were released with both English and Japanese text versions.

What’s interesting to note is that was also driving the Upper Deck higher-end products at the time as relic cards featuring swatches of his Spring Training uniform were also produced, as were a few autographed cards. And it was right about this time we really started to see a bunch of fake patch cards of Ichiro. The most common was the Sweet Spot plain white or blue swatch that often was manipulated to look as though it contained a piece of the Mariner’s logo. Many were sold for big bucks before people started to wonder just how many of them could contain what looked to be the center of the compass logo.

By 2002, Ichiro was continuing to solidify himself as a major player on the field and in the hobby. And personally, he was the favorite active player of a good friend of mine who was living in Oregon, which is in the television market for the Seattle Mariners. That summer I had my second internship, and it was in the same down and the same newspaper at which my friend lived — the Statesman Journal, Salem, Ore. That summer I got to know so much more about Ichiro through talks with my friend and by watching games that summer. I was also lucky enough to see some of the Mariners’ television commercials, which used Ichiro as a comedic crutch. To say they were epic would be an understatement.

The following summer, 2003, I had my third and final internship. Anyone want to guess where? In Seattle, at The Seattle Times. That summer I was immersed in the Mariner’s culture. And if I had the financial means I would have been at Safeco Field every night watching the Mariners — they were a fun team to watch in this era. I did manage to catch two games that summer, one on Aug. 11 — a game in which Ichiro collected three hits and a stolen base (his 615th, 616th, and 617th hits of his career, and his career 115th stolen base). And then five days later, on Aug., 16, I saw Ichiro in person again when he collected his 625th career base hit, and was struck by a Pedro Martinez pitch, the 19th HBP of Ichiro’s career. (Side note, that HBP ball would be amazing to own given that I collect HBP game-used baseballs.)

In the following years, Ichiro was a guy whom I enjoyed watching and from time to time would be the player for whom I would trade. And I would have drafted and traded for him in fantasy leagues save for the fact that one of my good friends — the same mentioned above — had pretty much secured his services from 2002 through the end of his regular playing time as a Mariner.

Ichiro’s signature — as loopy and unreadable as it is — was something I only dreamed about owning. That is until the summer of 2008 when I managed to sell enough other items to afford a 2004 Sweet Spot, a card that I managed to purchase during the infancy of this blog. In fact, the card actually arrived at my home during the first week I began writing here. I was out of town at the time so the card sat for two days in a padded envelope in an unsecured mailbox. Thankfully the card was there when I arrived home. It’s still in my collection to this day.

I’d be a liar if I could tell you I followed or collected Ichiro with the same voracity in which I chased Roger Clemens, or even various rookie cards that eventually came to make up my Hall of Fame rookie card collection. But over the time I managed to acquire a slabbed copy of his 1993 BBM Japanese rookie card, as well as a raw copy of the much-coveted 2001 Bowman Chrome rookie card — note, all of these rookies have a refractor finish — and even a few others, including a 2001 Keebler Mariners card graded a BGS 9.5 that hits on a nostalgic point for me since it somewhat resembles the old Mother’s Cookies cards from the late 1980s and early 1990s.

And while I do not own a Ichiro Hit By Pitch game-used baseball, I do own an Ichiro foul ball that I bought directly from the Miami Marlins last year, used during his career 2,627th game. The ball was used for three pitches during his 9,873rd career at-bat (10,669th career plate appearance) in the sixth inning of the 9/19/17 contest against the New York Mets. Josh Smoker blew a 93.5 mph four-seam fastball past Ichiro for strike one, and then threw a 81.5 mph slider for a ball. Smoker then hurled a 94.4 mph four-seam fastball toward the plate and Ichiro fouled it off, sending the ball back into the mask of catcher Travis d’Arnaud — the ball wound up with two lines on it, presumably from striking the catcher’s mask as the ball went out of play.

The Ichiro game-used ball was the last piece of his that I acquired. And even at the time I struck the deal, I was surprised that I was able to own such an item, given that I figured Ichiro was effectively retired. As it turned out, he wound up playing in 15 games in 2018, and then then returned for the Opening Series in Japan earlier this week.

This has been a rough week for me in terms of dealing with home life and getting sleep, and this Opening Series in Japan certain didn’t make things easier for me as I was determined to catch all or some of these games. I caught the final two innings of the first game, but during the second game I watched along with the world as Ichiro struck out in what looked to be his last at-bat in the seventh inning, only to cheer on the Mariners so that we could see him swing the bat one more time. And in the eighth inning after he grounded out to shortstop, I am not ashamed to admit that I teared up as Ichiro waved goodbye as he was removed from the game in ceremonious fashion, especially when he embraced rookie pitcher and fellow countryman Yusei Kikuchi, whose Topps Opening Day rookie card I happened to pull a day earlier.

We all knew Ichiro had a great skillset, and a was building a fantastic Cooperstown resume. But his style of play wasn’t the type that was going to stoke the flames of baseball passion for everyone, especially not in an era when power hitting and pitching were the name of the game. The one stat about Ichiro that continues to amaze me is that he collected 200-plus hits in each of his first 10 seasons in MLB. That’s an entire decade of consistency; death by paper cuts for opposing pitchers, made more painful by the fact that he was averaging almost 40 stolen bases a season during that same time.

At times it seems as though the last 18 seasons have passed in the blink of an eye. Ichiro’s MLB career started when I was a college kid, and between the time he first donned his Mariner’s uniform to the last time he doffed it as a player earlier this week, I had lots of ups and downs: I graduated college; had three Internships; lived in three states; got married (and divorced a decade later); had two kids; owned a Mustang; started and ended one career and then began another; had a side gig for almost two years as a columnist for Beckett Baseball, the magazine I read religiously as a kid; attended two National Sports Collector’s Conventions (2012 and 2014); and have started this blog, which has now been around for nearly 11 years; watched my team win four World Series, the most-recent of which I managed to watch the clinching game in person, and much more.

Ichiro’s MLB career pretty much encompasses much of my adult life to this point, and it’s going to be weird going forward not seeing him on the field, or as a regular member of our annual baseball card sets.

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