Despite being a sports fan, I’ve never associated a birthday with the number of an athlete. I mean, is this even a thing? Some of my favorite players (Edgar Martinez, Chipper Jones, Alex Rodriguez, Dale Murphy) wore their numbers after I turned the corresponding age. David Justice and Ken Griffey Jr are two exceptions, who wore no. 23 and 24, respectively, when I turned 23 and 24 year old. But I never thought of those birthdays as “I’m turning Ken Griffey Jr today.” This game of association changed today.
Turning 51 is a letdown. Fifty was the last of the ‘landmark’ birthdays until I turn 65- the age where I’ll qualify for medicare, which will effectively (well, hopefully) usher in my retirement. Or at the very least, semi-retirement. Anyway, 51 comes in what has to be the worst year of our lifetime. And while I have much to be thankful for, I’m looking forward to the calendar year ending and year number 52 on this earth.
My ‘birthday association’ with 51 is probably pretty obvious. After all, how many teams can claim to have had two iconic, Hall of Fame players wear the same number? But yet that’s something the Mariners can claim. Sure, Randy Johnson didn’t enter the Hall wearing the blue and teal but he did pitch in the Northwest for 10 seasons (more than for any other team), won a Cy Young, pitched a no-hitter, and left the team as its all-time leader in victories, strikeouts and innings, among other stats.
When Ichiro came over from Japan, Mariners management wanted to give their imported star the number that he wore in his homeland. But being the student of the sport and its history, he knew that the number had been worn by Johnson during his time in Seattle– and he didn’t want to bring shame to the star pitcher. Ichiro sent the Big Unit a letter, vowing to “keep this number with dignity.” And with Ichiro headed to the Hall of Fame one day, I’d say he did a pretty good job honoring that vow.
Prior to Suzuki and Johnson, there was another uber-talented player who wore the number for the Mariners. A highly-touted prospect in the Red Sox organization, Rey Quinones found himself as part of what became a huge trade for Boston’s pennant chase. Acquired for Dave Henderson and Spike Owen in August of 1986, Rey was touted by none other than Ted Williams as having a “classic hitting style” and that “he might be Frank Robinson at shortstop.” Many raved about his talents in the field: the bazooka of an arm, the ability to make sparkling defensive plays. But Rey also was guilty of being lackadaisical, of not having much of a desire to play.
A few ‘gems’ from Quinones’ time with the M’s:
- When asked why he showed up late for spring training (1987), Rey’s response was that he had Visa problems. The infielder was from Puerto Rico, and he wasn’t required to have one.
- On his first day in Seattle, told the writers covering the team that he didn’t need baseball, that he had a liquor store in Puerto Rico.
- Told manager Dick Williams, GM Dick Balderson and team president Chuck Armstrong that he didn’t think he needed to play everyday because he was good and there were other, lesser talented players who needed to play in order to get better.
- Wasn’t available to enter a game as a pinch-hitter because he was nowhere to be found. He was in the clubhouse playing Nintendo.
During his four seasons with the Mariners, Rey slashed .251/.289/.371 while sporting a field percent that hovered around .950. Seattle traded the enigmatic shortstop to Pittsburgh seven games in to the 1989 season.
As for me, well, I hope to ‘wear 51’ with dignity, not shamefully.