Mariners find a home away from home

Ichiromania hit Portland for the first time ever last Friday when the American League West champion Seattle Mariners tussled with their Cactus League “roomies,” the San Diego Padres.

But while many of the PGE Park-record 19,778 fans showed up for a chance to see — maybe even meet — the reigning AL MVP, Ichiro Suzuki, the majority dropped in for a taste of what Major League Baseball in the Rose City might feel like.

The Padres, who share their Peoria, Ariz., spring training facility with the Mariners, won the meaningless Opening Day tune-up 3-1. But in a couple years, no one will remember the score or even the result. All they’ll talk about is how the “major-league record holder for wins played in our own backyard,” and how “I caught a foul tip off Bret Boone’s bat!”

“Remember when Kazuhiro Sasaki smiled at us? Remember that tip of the cap from John Olerud? Remember how our city turned into Disneyland for a day?”

I can’t be certain if anyone took away these exact memories, but in the three hours I spent at PGE Park, I could tell that the spectacle of the event far outweighed any pitch counts, earned-run averages or squibbed grounders on that day.

Even the diehard stat junkie was content to just kick back and take in the experience.

If only for nine short innings, the fans of Portland were given a chance to bask in the infectious goodwill brought about by the Great American Pastime. Everyone — even the security guards and alcohol enforcement officers — had smiles on their faces that day.

My theory that “baseball is a unifier” has now been granted even more credence. But my experience wasn’t limited to inside the ballpark. The entire city had a buzz about it on Friday — and I’m not talking about the $6.50 pints of Full Sail.

The blue skies and 60-degree mercury may have contributed somewhat, but Portland felt like Seattle does during the playoffs — when baseball is the first subject on everyone’s mind. “Are you going? Do you know anyone with tickets? Who do you think will win?”

The city of Portland was in a verifiable frenzy — the kind of chaos you associate with a wedding, bar mitzvah or children’s birthday party.

The three-month build-up was so great and the excitement so genuine that it was hard not to imagine, “what if?”

What if MLB Commissioner Bud Selig and his board of trustees granted Portland a permanent dose of this infectious enthusiasm?

What if Portland baseball fans had another I-5 rivalry to look forward to each year? Afterall, the AL West could use a fifth team.

What if PGE Park were transformed into the next downtown baseball mecca? It could happen.

But in the meantime, let’s just hope it doesn’t take the Mariners another 18 years to make their next pilgrimage to the Rose City.

Last Friday proved that Portland deserves an annual dosage of Ichiromania.

Hopefully, Bud was taking notes.

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