SEATTLE -- For Bernard Smith, Christmas came early this year in the United Kingdom, in the form of a gift to himself.
The 61-year-old from Leeds, England, has a “bit of an obsession,” in his own words, when it comes to following the Mariners. So when the club introduced its new Mariners Flex Memberships last month, it was Smith who was one of the first to sign up, purchasing tickets to eight games at T-Mobile Park in June.
It’s not easy being a fan of a Major League Baseball team in England, where soccer is king. But Smith fell in love with the Mariners back in the 1995 playoffs, when he watched Seattle take on the Yankees on television while vacationing in the Carolinas.
That interest has reached such heights that Smith now makes an annual pilgrimage to Seattle each season to feed his passion.
“The baseball community in the U.K. was very small back then,” he said of his initial foray into being a Mariners fan. “There was no social media in those days. But I followed from a distance. Thankfully, in 2012, before I got too old, I made my first visit over. I started with three games my first year and I just absolutely loved the stadium and the whole scene.
“It’s difficult to describe your first-ever baseball game. It was something that blew me away. And since 2012, I’m blessed to have been over every year in May or June. First, it was three games, then five, then seven. Next year, I’ve got eight games to see.”
Smith, who works in the finance department for Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices, will take in the Mariners’ two-game series with the Astros, a four-game set with the Royals and the first two games of a series with the Rangers during his mid-June visit.
Smith is also a season-ticket holder to the Leeds United FC soccer club in his hometown. But he insists that baseball is his first love now.
“I’ll be down there tomorrow with my local club with 35,000 screaming fans,” he said. “But I’d rather be at a live baseball game. The baseball atmosphere is just something I really enjoy. The last pitch in my last game, when I come visit, it’s heartbreaking. I give a loving look at the field and promise to come back. Baseball, when it gets in your blood, it’s really something.”
Smith was already a fan of American sports when he latched onto the Mariners in ’95. He remembers sitting in a sports bar in South Carolina watching the American League Division Series and, well, let him tell the story.
“The Yankees were iconic, even to a U.K. guy,” he said. “But I picked up very early that most of the fans in the bar were rooting for the Mariners. They were the massive underdogs. So I started watching that series and we were losing, two-nil, and the third game the Mariners came back and I was determined to watch the rest of the games in my hotel or wherever I could.
“I’ve seen some great U.K. sportsmen, but my favorite? Everybody probably thinks [Ken] Griffey [Jr.] or Edgar [Martinez], but it’s Randy Johnson, the Big Unit. I watched him come out in relief that last game and was absolutely blown away. From then on, it started a love affair that has basically taken over my life.
“I’ve said to friends stateside, you think of Lee Van Cleef in old spaghetti Westerns, he’d walk into a bar with his hat pulled down and scowl on his face and scare the life out of you. That was Randy Johnson.”
Smith feeds his obsession now by following the team on social media, and he is the administrator of a U.K. Twitter account that focuses on the Mariners.
“I don’t start work until 9 a.m., but I’m at my desk at a quarter past seven every day,” he said. “I have a couple pots of tea and I’m following everything Mariners, catching up on as much news as I can.”
Over time, Smith has won over one of his good friends, Chris Benson, who’ll be making the trip with him to Seattle for the third time next season.
“He’s one of my best buddies, a big NFL fan but follows baseball, too,” Smith said. “I used to bore him with Mariners talk. Now we’ll have a beer at the local pub and we’ll talk about the Rule 5 Draft before we talk about elections or soccer or anything else. Even if there’s nothing going on, the first thing we’ll say is, ‘It’s very quiet today. Nothing much to report.’ Then we’ll move on. I’ve managed to convert him.”
Supporting the Mariners requires patience, even from afar. But Smith’s faith is unwavering, though realistic, as evidenced by his choice of jerseys to purchase when he invades the Mariners Team Store during every trek to Seattle.
“My first visit there, two young guys caught my eye, Dustin Ackley and Kyle Seager,” he said. “Thankfully I bought the Seager. Now I have the white, the cream, I have three or four Seagers. And last year, I bought the Edgar Hall of Fame version.
“Now with so many newcomers, I will pick one out eventually when the rebuild is pretty much set and I’ll give a player a go. But I can tell you, next year, I’m going to get the Ken Griffey Jr. jersey. That’s very safe.”