Updated Aug 27, 2022
If heaven were a place on Earth, it would be a night like Friday, August 26, 2022, at the corner of Edgar and Dave. It would be the knowledge that the next three days were full of events celebrating the career of a global sensation who for 14 different seasons called Safeco Field home. It would be the absolute heart-pumping, armpit-sweating, pile of fresh-chopped-garlic-for-some-garlic-fries nerves that Iris Skinner will be feeling as she takes the mound to deliver the ceremonial first pitch of Ichiro Hall of Fame Weekend.
What’s the Deal With the Ceremonial First Pitch?
Kalli Rutherford, marketing coordinator for the Seattle Mariners recently shed some light on the process for picking who throws out the first pitch and why Skinner was the perfect choice to kick off the festive weekend.
“Our basic process for picking [ceremonial first] pitches is first identifying if someone makes sense for a certain game’s promo or ‘theme’…”, says Rutherford. That makes sense, you wouldn’t want Sedona Prince throwing out a pitch for UW’s College Night or a representative from the local cat sanctuary on a Bark at the Park game.
“For example,” Rutherford says, “we brought the group of friends dressed as the ’95 Mariners to toss the pitch for our 90’s night back in May, Travis Thompson tossed the first pitch on Native American Heritage Night and Carey Jones from The Book of Boba Fett threw it out on Star Wars Night.”
The Ceremony of the First Pitch
This strategy isn’t unique to the Mariners – ball clubs across the country often tap into their well of local celebrities and athletes, hometown heroes, or family members of players to fill in as the ceremonial flamethrower. Some examples from just this season include actor and Maine native Patrick Dempsey for the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs and Freddie Freeman’s charismatic youngster, Charlie, for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The tradition of throwing out the ceremonial first pitch is nearly as old as baseball itself. Or, at the very least, professional baseball. One of the earliest recorded instances of the ceremonial first pitch dates back to the United States’ Gilded Age, when more Americans were able to afford and began to feel more comfortable spending their money on entertainment. In 1892 Ohio Governor and future President William McKinley tossed the first pitch at a minor league game in his home state. However, the pomp and circumstance of it all wasn’t cemented until 18 years later when President Howard Taft popularized the act at Opening Day for the Washington Senators. At this time, crowds were small enough and safety concerns minimal enough that the President could throw the ball from the stands and onto the field.
Since then, the tradition of the amateur hurler delivering a ceremonial first pitch has moved away from the crowd and onto the field – and away from the Oval Office and into the hands of someone who, say, doesn’t have the nuclear codes. Despite the wide gap in the level of national security, one thing has always been true about the person tapped for the role: they evoke a specific emotion for the attendees of the game. Seeing it come from the local kid who was just drafted into the NBA? Heartwarming. Watching it being tossed by a player of yesteryear? Nostalgic. Watching Curtis Jackson aka 50 Cent do it? Hilarious.
Every now and then the person with the ball in their hands isn’t a politician, or a local celebrity, or an athlete. Every now and then it’s a fan. As Rutherford mentioned with the ‘95 Mariners look-a-likes, sometimes it’s your everyday fan that gained notoriety within the fanbase and is brought back to evoke the emotion of...well, there isn’t a word for it, but it feels like we’re all in on a joke that fans of other teams wouldn’t understand. They just wouldn’t get it.
So where does Iris Skinner, a 29-year-old mother to an adorable French Bulldog, fit into this equation? The Aslan Brewing Company beertender has been given the honor of delivering the ceremonial first pitch to kick off festivities for the Hall of Fame Weekend celebrating Ichiro Suzuki — a 10-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner, league MVP, and the record holder for the total hits in a single season (among many other accolades).
“As for Iris,” Rutherford began, “we knew we wanted to select people that had a special connection to Ichiro for this coming weekend and she just seemed like the perfect fit. The video of her reacting after she realized who it was that crashed into her seat is incredible!”
A Day to Remember, a Moment to Never Forget
On the afternoon of July 08, 2010, the Seattle Mariners were gearing up for a four game set against Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, and the rest of the league-leading New York Yankees. Seattle was at the beginning of a month where they’d only win six games and in the midst of a season that would eventually feature three digits in the loss column. (That, and one very disgruntled star pitcher.)
In fact, it was that morning that the team’s offseason acquisition ace Cliff Lee had gone on the Brock and Salk show for 710 ESPN and ruffled some very plump seagull feathers when he revealed the Mariners had passed on the chance to sign him to an extension during Spring Training. Later in the day, Lee further explained to reporters. “[I] told [the team] in spring training that if they wanted to do something, to do it before the season starts,” he said, “That was it. Obviously, that was my preference, but they decided no thanks.”
If they Mariners were competing, a contract extension would make sense. But they weren’t competing. They were utterly flailing. Their 1-2 punch of Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez was good but their offense was not. A day later Lee was traded to Texas. When the star-studded Yankees came to town on July 08, 2010 the Mariners were sporting a .400 win percentage and — somehow — vibes that were even lower.
Despite the Mariners giving few reasons for fans to come out to the ballpark that summer, the series against the Yankees was still the series against the Yankees and if you’re given an opportunity to go watch them play you do exactly that.
Back across the Sound, 17-year old Iris Skinner was spending her sun-soaked afternoon at Point No Point in Hansville with her best friend Mackenzie Clark, taking in every possible moment before the two began their senior year at the nearby Kingston High School. With the real world staring them down (albeit from a distance, over a year away, and in the form of college which is the Lite beer version of the real world), Skinner and Clark were in a position where they could be as spontaneous as they wanted to be on a random Thursday afternoon.
“I remember her asking me if I wanted to go to the Mariners game,” Skinner recalls. “It was completely spur of the moment.”
The Clarks are a Seattle sports family and to this day are still Mariners season ticket holders. As luck would have it, no one in the family — mom, dad, sister or brother — claimed the seats, leaving them available for the two friends to use.
“Iris and I walked on the Bainbridge ferry and meandered our way up to what was then Safeco Field, probably had some stellar rally fries and just enjoyed the warm Seattle summer day,” Clark said. “I do remember telling Iris that our seats, [being close to the field] often saw a lot of foul balls, and that we had to keep our heads up and we might be able to catch one.”
The statistics for the average arrival time for a major league game aren’t readily accessible, but it’s safe to assume that the amount of butts in seats at first pitch during the weekday are far fewer than how many there ends up being throughout the course of the game. Traffic is a culprit of the delayed arrival, as well as having to finish off a beer at a nearby pub. Having taken the ferry, Skinner and Clark didn’t have to worry about traffic, and with a few years to go before they turned 21, weren’t able to drink at a bar. So there they were, butts in seats by first pitch.
The Yankees wasted no time letting the Mariners know they came to play and got a man on first and second base before Seattle could even record an out. Jason Vargas was starting for the home team that day and was looking to limit any more runners from reaching base after the error by Josh Wilson at shortstop and a single to centerfield from Nick Swisher. Working a 1-2 count, Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira fouled off the next pitch and in doing so changed one fan’s life forever.
After the ball jumped off of Teixeira’s bat, things happened pretty fast.
Clark recalled the moment from her point of view. “I remember Iris brushing her hair, which still cracks me up. Then the crack of the bat, and then Ichiro being in Iris’ lap.”
Skinner laughed, adding, “I was brushing my hair. Don’t judge me, I was  or whatever, you know!”
“I couldn’t see where the ball was going and I was scared it was going to hit me so that’s why I was kind of leaning away. Because of that I had no idea that Ichiro was coming towards me since I was looking the other way.”
Leaning away may have worked for Skinner in that she wasn’t hit by the ball she was trying to avoid, but she was hit by the right fielder trying to snag an out just over the wall.
“We just hit each other pretty hard. I look over and I see Ichiro and and I also remember the sun was behind his head. I thought he was an angel, I thought I died.”
“So I just saw this like, this silhouette and then he asked me if I was OK and I said yes. Then, you know, he ran off and that’s when I had a meltdown.”
The “meltdown” she refers to is what she does next and what she from there on out will forever be known for. In the blink of an eye Skinner goes from thinking she had died and gone to heaven to a jaw-dropping, eye-popping, “oh my god I have to call my mom!” reaction that at week’s end had landed her #1 on SportsCenter’s Not Top Plays.
“ I was texting with my mom and friends and sure enough, people were like, ‘Yeah, you were on TV, we saw you on TV.’ They told me they were replaying it and they thought it was really funny.”
Ending up on a television broadcast is already exciting enough, but to be a replay of a television broadcast? That’s once-in-a-lifetime stuff.
“Iris and I truly had no idea how big of a deal it would soon become, until a Mariners representative came down to our seats and gave Iris a gift bag because, if I remember correctly, the president [of the team] was watching and loved her reaction. We enjoyed the rest of the game, occasionally reminiscing on the event and breaking out into laughter with disbelief that it all happened,” said Clark.
It’s impossible to predict the virality of a moment when it happens and there’s no way Skinner nor Clark could’ve guessed how far and wide that split second with Ichiro was about to go. Well, maybe in this instance they could’ve. After all, it happened with Ichiro. A global sensation.
In the immediate aftermath, Skinner found herself at #1 on SportsCenters Not Top Play. At the end of the season she won 2010 Mariners Fan Moment of the Year and months later she took home an even bigger honor: the #1 MLB Fan Moment of the Year.
Over a decade later both Skinner and Clark will routinely receive messages from friends every time the video pops up on the Internet every baseball season. Looking back on the moment, Clark says, “I can’t help but laugh when I think back on that day, or am sent videos. It still seems so surreal that it all happened, and is pretty mind boggling that it is still a huge hit over 10 years later.” A huge hit, indeed.
But if there’s one thing the two want everyone to know when they watch the video, it’s that Clark wasn’t embarrassed by her friend.
“Obviously people who don’t know us, when they watch the video, they think Mackenzie is really embarrassed when really she was having a good time and she knew that’s just, oh, like, “that’s just Iris, that’s just how she is.’”
“Everyone seems to comment on how embarrassed by Iris I look, but Iris has a very exuberant personality that I adore and am accustomed to, so I was just along for the ride, and was honestly pretty flustered by what happened and how fast it all happened!”
And to think not 12 hours earlier Skinner and Clark didn’t even know they were going to the game. They had other things on their mind, like what their last year of high school would look like. Funny how life works that way sometimes, huh?
Oh, and they were able to figure one thing out about the 2010-2011 school year: where their class would go for Senior Skip Day.
To call back to what Kalli Rutherford said about the process of choosing who throws out the ceremonial first pitches, those responsible for selecting that person will try to stick to the theme of the occasion. For a player as popular and influential as Ichiro, that could’ve been any number of choices. For example, Julio could throw out the first pitch to signify a changing of the guard, or it could be a journalist or broadcaster who was integral in narrating the career of #51, or even the team’s last Hall of Fame inductee, Edgar Martinez could throw to the man of the hour and in doing so welcome him to the club.
But Rutherford and her colleagues picked a fan. Why?
Because a fan is just as important — if not more important to the club — as a celebrity, politician, or any other household name. Especially Iris Skinner.
Unlike the others, someone like Skinner has the ability to make the Mariners fandom feel like they belong to something special, something that is uniquely theirs. Someone like Iris Skinner has the ability to make the Mariners fandom feel like we were part of Ichiro’s illustrious career, too. Not only that, but she provided fans with an unforgettable moment during an otherwise forgettable season.
The Cliff Lee era — or as sports columnist Jerry Brewer called it the Cliff Lee Err-a — was a failure, Don Wakamatsu was dismissed as manager mid-season, and the team’s record at the end of the season was the 6th worst in franchise history and tied for the worst of the 21st century. Like Ichiro, the legend of Iris Skinner endures through the good seasons and the bad. She reminds us that there’s more to enjoy about baseball than the record in the standings or the level of play on the field. Baseball is a fan’s game and will always be a fan’s game.
When asked how she feels about throwing out the ceremonial first pitch to kick off Ichiro’s Hall of Fame Weekend, Skinner said, “I have no idea what I’m gonna be feeling in the moment. I know I’m gonna be freaking out, so I’ll probably do something silly. Because that’s just who I am.”