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Originally published February 16, 2011 at 6:58 PM | Page modified February 16, 2011 at 10:11 PM

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Brothers in ink: Mariners relievers Brandon League, Justin Miller share their love of tattoos

Mariners relievers Brandon League and Justin Miller, who met in 2002 when they pitched in the Toronto Blue Jays organization, are pals who share a love of tattoos.

Seattle Times staff reporter

PEORIA, Ariz. — There's a lot of truth to the bond between Mariners relief pitcher Brandon League and good buddy Justin Miller being more than skin deep.

In fact, it took a whole lot of needles burrowed well beneath their epidermis to generate the ink that will mark the pair well beyond their baseball pitching days. Mariners fans felt that League, the leading candidate to be the team's closer in the absence of David Aardsma, had the tattoo crown pretty much wrapped up last season with designs across his back, shoulders and forearms.

But even the best at what they do need a mentor of sorts, some benchmark of greatness that makes them strive for more.

Enter Miller, whose bio misleadingly depicts him as a 33-year-old middle-relief veteran of four major-league teams, a fifth in Japan and who is now seeking new life someplace in Seattle's bullpen. But look away from the nonroster invitee's stats for a moment and focus instead on body parts — pretty much anything below Miller's neckline — and it quickly becomes clear the Mariners have landed the Mariano Rivera of tattooed relievers.

"He's my inspiration," League said, trying to keep a straight face.

The pair first met in 2002 when League was a 19-year-old Blue Jays prospect and Miller, barely out of the independent leagues, had just been traded by Oakland — along with Eric Hinske — to Toronto for closer Billy Koch. Years later, Koch would forge a very different type of lasting bond with Miller, but at the time, it was League who became a constant in his life.

Miller and League grew to be pals and wound up sharing a house together in Florida to be near where the team trained.

League had a couple of small tattoos on him at the time but was about to take a quantum leap to the big leagues.

Miller was already well into his tattoo stage, having gotten his first one — an Indian warrior on his shoulder to depict his Mexican and Cherokee blood lines — at age 15.

"I'd always wanted one and my friends were showing up with them and a lot had been cheaply done," Miller said. "My dad just said, 'If you're going to do it, just make sure you get it done professionally.' So, he drove me to the tattoo shop and was there with me when I got it."

League was looking for a decent tattoo parlor near Toronto's spring-training home of Dunedin, Fla., when he first met Miller. The pair set off to find one and pretty soon were inking up together.

"It's like art," League said. "It's a way to express yourself."

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Miller expressed himself so much that Major League Baseball introduced what's commonly known as "The Justin Miller Rule" in 2003, requiring tattooed pitchers to cover their forearms to avoid distracting hitters.

Miller left Toronto after 2005 but he and League kept in close contact, discussing a variety of topics — including tattoos. League's collection has grown to the point where he figures he's been in a parlor's chair roughly two dozen times.

That still pales next to Miller. Asked for his number of parlor visits, Miller simply shrugs and says: "Hundreds."

Miller's favorite tattoo is of the 2-foot high initials L.A. — he's a Torrance, Calif., native — scrawled across his back. League's back is covered with his surname.

When Miller, having since pitched in Japan and for the Marlins, Giants, Dodgers and several minor-league clubs, was looking for a landing spot this winter, League agreed he should give Seattle a try.

The Mariners are looking at League as their potential closer to start this season, having seen him do well in an eighth-inning role last year. Miller has a shot at sticking as a multifaceted reliever who can work anywhere from one to three innings per outing.

"He's a veteran guy that's pitched meaningful innings in the middle of a major-league bullpen," Mariners pitching coach Carl Willis said. "He understands the situations he's put in. He doesn't succumb to a situation."

Miller is simply trying to find some stability. He's got a family now, with two small children in school. Even his tattoo life has curbed somewhat, because he's running out of room and his wife won't let him go "above the collar."

But she couldn't stop Miller from covering one of the few remaining spots below that. She actually benefitted financially from it.

When Koch — the closer he was once traded for — made a comeback attempt with Toronto at spring training in 2005, he dared Miller to get a tattoo stating "I love Billy Koch" across his backside. Koch offered to pay $1,000 to Miller and another $500 to Miller's wife if he went through with it.

Miller took him up on it. When he returned from the tattoo parlor that day, a reporter from The Associated Press met Miller in the stadium parking lot and asked him whether he'd gotten the tattoo.

"We went between two parked cars, I dropped my pants and showed him," Miller said.

So, between League and Miller, the two buddies figure to have the back-end covered this spring — League in the bullpen and Miller beneath his own torso.

"That's why we get along so well," League said. "He's just a fun guy to be around."

Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or gbaker@seattletimes.com

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