Will Mariners’ Raul Ibanez steal the season?
by Art Thiel
Raul Ibanez. (Seattle Mariners)
Baseball's lengthy history provides a marvelous reach between unanticipated current events and equally unexpected lore, so that something fresh can thrust into our bewildered grills for a summer's examination. I mean, who would have thought last winter Raul Ibanez and Ted Williams would find themselves in the same sentence?
Ibanez leads the Mariners with 22 homers, which, entering Wednesday night's games, was tied for fifth in the American League with Texas slugger Nelson Cruz — plenty implausible in itself. But peeling back the contemporary numbers for a deep dive into the library stacks shows Ibanez is the first 40-or-older player in MLB history to have 20-plus home runs before the All-Star Game.
Cooler still is that Ibanez is gaining on a more majestic milestone — topping Williams' record of 29 homers by a 41-year-old, set in 1960.
Having Williams' team, the Boston Red Sox, in town, helps make the deed worthy of reflection. In the final season of his Hall of Fame career — a span that began in 1939 and included time lost to World War II and the Korean War as a Marine naval aviator — Williams still had the strength and reflexes for 72 RBIs, a .316 batting average and a 1.096 OPS. Not to mention a flair for the Hollywood ending — his 29th homer came on his final career at-bat.
So, no suggestion here of any equivalence between Ibanez and Williams, who once famously said, when asked after his career was done how he'd liked to be known: "When I walk down the street, I want people to say, 'There goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived.’”
Fifty-three years after his final dinger, that description, more likely than not, still fits. What Ibanez is amid is a modest, unintended pursuit of a single-season feat, whose standard is held by the legendary Teddy Ballgame.
Ibanez is not Raul Iballgame, but with eight homers in the past 14 games, he's closer than anyone imagined to a record few know or care about. Forty-year-old sluggers, it turns out, are as rare as 30-year-old Olympic gymnasts.
Just ask a couple of Ibanez's former Mariners teammates. Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez are two of the great sluggers of the modern game. Griffey never cared much about weight training or general fitness, quitting overweight at 40 and a year too late. Rodriguez was the opposite — a workout freak who cut many corners — and, at 37, is breaking down. (Some speculate it has something to do with his use of PEDs.)
It's hard to know whether the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Ibanez is more meticulous about his mental approach to each at-bat, each meal or each exercise, but he seems to have found a path between his more fabled teammates that allows him to endure.
"Your strength goes up in your late 30s, if you have a good base," Ibanez told ESPN.com's Jim Caple. "I think the one thing you have to work on is your foot speed and your fast-twitch muscles. I'm physically stronger than I was five years ago. 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."
Fit and conscientious as he is, no one is impervious to injuries or slumps. He was supposed to be the fourth or fifth outfielder/DH with the Mariners, but injuries to others put him in 68 of the Mariners' 90 games entering Wednesday. It remains to be seen whether the extra time in the field early will cost him late, but he's had at least 425 at bats in each of his past 11 seasons with four teams. The guy is durable as gravel.
When the fan focus this summer is not on the misdeeds of ownership, it will be, rightly, on the progress of the Mariners' youngsters. Ibanez's looming individual record is something of a sideshow, much as were the individual records of Ichiro, who accomplished a lot, but never played for a good team after 2001 until he was traded a year ago to the Yankees.
But when there is no main act (a pennant-contending team), the sideshows are the reward. Watching Ibanez — one of the most earnest, sincere toilers the Mariners have employed — chase down Williams will be a summer treat.
I admit to some bias. I had a chance years ago to meet Williams on a flight and found that his graciousness and greatness were on par. I don't remember where I was headed, but the flight was long. I'd seen the onboard movie, "The Natural," the syrupy 1984 baseball flick about the fictional Roy Hobbs, a character played by Robert Redford in homage to his boyhood hero, Williams. So I walked to the back to stretch.
Standing next to the galley, alone, sipping a drink and staring into the same mid-distance as me, was Williams. After composing myself, I leaned over and said, "Was it your idea to have Redford play you, or did you want someone better-looking?"
He laughed. Then ensued the best 20 minutes of plane travel I've experienced. We talked about the movie — Redford, now a friend, wanted him on set as technical adviser, but he declined, saying he was on a fishing trip and they were biting. We talked about fishing, more movies, a little ball and Seattle, where in 1969 as manager of the Washington Senators, he went up against the fabled Pilots.
I don't remember many details of the conversation, except he remembered Sicks Stadium, the minor league ballpark and temporary home for MLB for what turned about to be one year.
"What," he said, "a dump."
We laughed, shook hands and returned to our seats.
On subsequent flights, I think of that conversation whenever I'm seated next to a squalling baby, knowing it's payback. This summer, I'm thinking about the moment again.
Get him, Raul.