Monday, June 23, 2014
Ibanez got the most out of his talent
By David Schoenfield
What did they always say about Pete Rose? That no player ever got more out of his natural abilities than him?
Maybe so. But I'd like to suggest Raul Ibanez.
Ibanez never should have been a major leaguer. The Mariners drafted him in the 36th round out of Miami-Dade Junior College in 1992 and 36th-rounders aren't prospects. He couldn't run, didn't really have a position and if scouts had liked his bat more he would have been drafted higher. In the minors, the Mariners tried to convert him to a catcher but it didn't take and he eventually moved back to the outfield. In 1994 at Class A Appleton, his teammate was an 18-year-old hotshot named Alex Rodriguez. Ibanez hit seven home runs, the kid hit 14 and soon was promoted. Ibanez had a big year in 1995 at Class A Riverside and reached the majors for a cup of coffee in 1996.
Still, he didn't stick with Seattle until 1999, when he served as a backup outfielder. Heading into the 2000 season Baseball Prospectus wrote, "Unless he becomes more selective at the plate and hits for more power, he won't be in the majors long enough to draw a full pension."
He hit .229 with two home runs for the Mariners that year. The Mariners cut him. He was 28 years old, had 518 plate appearances in the majors and a .241 lifetime average. It didn't look like he'd earn that pension. The Royals signed him; Allard Baird, their general manager, had a hunch.
All Ibanez did was play another 14 years in the majors. The Angels released Ibanez over the weekend -- he was hitting .157 with a .258 OBP -- and if this is the end for one of the game's most likable players, what a career it turned out to be. The swing was never pretty and he didn't hit Giancarlo Stanton-like moon shots, but he eventually fine-tuned his swing and approach and learned to hit major league pitching. He didn't get his first chance to be a regular until he was 30, but from ages 30 to 37 he hit .291 while averaging 24 home runs and 97 RBIs per season.
He was 37 when he made his only All-Star team, for the Phillies in 2009, and even started in left field. That was the year he got off to an incredibly hot start, hitting .340 and slugging .716 with 19 home runs and 51 RBIs in 50 games. Some blogger accused him of using steroids and that turned into a story -- for the first time, after years of playing for bad teams in Kansas City and Seattle, Ibanez was in the national spotlight and it should have been for his hitting exploits.
Ibanez angrily defended himself. "You can have my urine, my hair, my blood, my stool -- anything you can test," he said. "I'll give you back every dime I've ever made." The fervor eventually died down; those in the game or who those covered it reported that Ibanez would be one of the least likely players in the majors to take PEDs.
If anything, that's the difference between Rose and Ibanez: Yes, both got the most out of their talent, but Ibanez was the ultimate good guy. Teammates loved him. Opponents respected him. Managers praised his clubhouse presence and intangibles. He ate well and worked on his body. Rose gambled and slept around and undoubtedly would have used steroids had they been more available in his day.
Ibanez preferred kale and omega-3 eggs. "I'm physically stronger than I was five years ago," Ibanez told ESPN.com's Jim Caple last year when he was off to a good start in his third time around with the Mariners. "The weight doesn't lie. ... Strength isn't the problem -- you have to make sure your reflexes and speed stay. And there's so much science that allows us to focus on that."
He's outlasted everyone from that 1992 draft except Derek Jeter and Jason Giambi. "A lot of it has to do with your mindset," Ibanez told Caple. "Not allowing what everyone tells you about how you're supposed to feel and what you're supposed to do, not allowing that in your head to the point where you start believing it or dwelling on it."
Ibanez has 303 career home runs, but from his age-30 season and on he's 22nd on the all-time list with 276 -- more than Hall of Famers like Frank Robinson, Frank Thomas, Carl Yastrzemski, Eddie Murray and Ernie Banks. More than former teammate Ken Griffey Jr. More than A-Rod.
Of course, time does eventually catch up. Ibanez turned 42 in early June and while he hit 29 home runs for Seattle last season, since last year's All-Star break he'd hit just .181. He was hitting .171 against fastballs with the Angels; he just couldn't get around on the hard stuff any longer.
In 2012, after he hit a big game-tying home run for the Yankees late in the season, Joe Posnanski wrote,
Raul is a thoughtful man. The line that reporters in Kansas City used about him was that he was the go-to guy on any story … except a story about Raul Ibanez. If you want to talk music or books or current events, he's your guy. If you want to talk about what makes Derek Jeter special or why the Phillies were so good for a while there or how ballplayers are in awe of Ichiro, he will fill your notebook. If you want to talk about Raul Ibanez ... you need to go somewhere else. It isn't just humbleness, I don't think. He has this deep commitment to the idea that he's doing a job out there.
There's another difference between Ibanez and Rose. Rose definitely loved to talk about himself and his hits and his chase of Ty Cobb or what made him a winning ballplayer or whatever.
Ibanez just quietly did his job. He persevered.
If this, indeed, is the end, I'm going to miss watching him. You earned that pension, Raul.