Jul 1, 2014, 12:48 PM EDT
In the lost summer of 2001 — one of so many lost summers of Kansas City baseball — I was on the field watching batting practice with relatively new Royals general manager Allard Baird. People could never appreciate that he had an impossible job; he was trying to build a competitive baseball team with no money, no ownership support, no staff to work with. Especially: No money. Walmart CEO David Glass bought the team for less than $100 million in 2000 — this one year after the Cleveland Indians had sold for more than $300 million. That’s how little the Royals were worth then.
The stories from those days are legendary. The Royals would give $1,000 signing bonuses to anyone they drafted after then fifth or sixth round — yeah, a $1,000 bonus. They could not afford more. You suspect the $1,000 came only after negotiations; first the Royals offered baseball socks and McDonald’s gift certificates.
The team one year brought in a professional softball player in the hopes of getting a bargain. The team one year decided not to wear authentic Negro Leagues uniforms for the annual Negro Leagues Day — they could not afford them (the uniforms, both teams, cost less than $15,000 — business called in offering to pay for them like it was Little League). The Royals canceled the annual banquet to save money. There is a story, one that I believe, that the Royals were $1 million away from locking up the best player they have developed in the last 25 years, Carlos Beltran, to a long term deal … and ownership would not come up with the money.
Baird could no doubt write a book about what went on behind the scenes in Kansas City back in those days … but the point is he never would. He is the most loyal of men; he did what he could quietly. He had no choice but to trade away star outfielders Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye from a position of weakness — everyone in baseball knew the Royals could not pay them — and so got little in return. He signed Mike Sweeney to a five-year deal just to convince fans that the Royals would not trade away ALL of their good players; that signing didn’t work out. He drafted players the Royals had a chance to sign for what little they could offer. He grabbed washed up familiar names like Chuck Knoblauch and Juan Gonzalez and Benito Santiago and Scott Elarton because that was all the team could afford.
There didn’t seem any clear way out of the loop of doom.
Baird’s best bet to get some talent was was to find unwanted players wallowing unnoticed in other organizations. And Baird — a scout’s scout — did have something of a knack for doing this. He traded for pitcher Paul Byrd, who’d had an uninspired career up to that point. He had a superb season for Kansas City in 2002, inspiring fans to dress up like birds and inspiring the Atlanta Braves to promptly take him away with a multi-year offer the Royals couldn’t hope to match.
Baird found a 30-year-old outfielder named Emil Brown, who had been lost in the minor leagues for three years. Brown became the Royals everyday outfielder in 2005 and 2006, and he hit a more than respectable .286/.353/.456. His defense was a whole other matter, and he once shot a television reporter in the eye with a pellet gun (by mistake, according to the official response) but hey, you get what you get when you’re fishing for bargains.
So there we were in the summer of 2001, Allard Baird and I, sitting in the dugout during a lost Royals baseball season, somewhat unaware of all the lost seasons to come, and he was talking about another one of his fishing expeditions. “I’m telling you,” he was telling me, “this guy’s gonna hit.” I was dubious. This guy was a 29-year-old outfielder who was not hitting. Not at all. He had never hit at the Major League level. Heck, he had not exactly dominated at the minor league level. He had been a 36th-round draft pick — as a catcher. He could not run. His throwing was suspect. He didn’t walk. He showed only moderate power. He spent his first four minor league years in A-ball or below.
“This guy is going to hit,” Baird insisted, and I think at that time Raúl Ibañez was hitting about .150. The Royals had scooped up Ibañez on an Allard Baird hunch; Ibañez had been given five separate trials by Seattle and had not hit particularly well in any of them. True, the trials had not been very long, but his career .295 on-base percentage in more than 500 plate appearances told a story. And his slow start in Kansas City seemed to confirm the story.
“Why do you think he’s going to hit?” I asked Baird. It’s always fun to hear Baird talk about hitting; he loves the details of balance and force and how long a batter can keep the bat in the hitting zone and all that. But with Ibañez he did not talk about plyometrics or force exertion or any of that. Yes, he thought Ibañez had the physical attributes to hit a ball. But, more, he said there was something about him as a person — the quiet confidence, the way he approached each at-bat, the understanding he had of himself. This is a big one; it’s constantly surprising how few athletes understand themselves, understand their own strengths and weaknesses, understand what kind of player they can be and what kind of player they cannot become. Baird said that this Ibañez guy understood.
“Have you talked to him?” Baird asked me. I had not.
“Talk to him,” Baird said. “You’ll get it.”
That was 13 years ago. In those 13 years, I have talked with Raúl Ibañez many times. I have talked with him when he was hitting for a terrible Royals team, when he was hitting for a surprising Royals team, when he was hitting for awful Mariners teams, when he was hitting for fantastic Phillies and Yankees teams. I have talked to him when he was crushing home runs like they were easy, and when was plodding along in slumps that seemed everlasting, and after he stopped time with dramatic hits in the biggest moments. And every time I have talked with him, I have thought about what Baird said. Talk to him. You’ll get it.
The first time I talked to Raúl, he was a 29-year-old outfielder who had never been given a chance and couldn’t get into the lineup for the worst organization in baseball. The last time we talked — or exchanged texts — he was returning to Kansas City as a 42-year-old outfielder returning to Kansas City to perhaps offer a spark for a team that stubbornly hangs around as a playoff contender.
There are a million Ibañez numbers I could throw at you to blow your mind — here’s just one: He hit 276 of his 303 career home runs after age 30. That’s 91% of his home runs. That is BY FAR the highest percentage among the 137 players in baseball history who hit 300 home runs.
He hit as many home runs after age 30 as Harmon Killebrew, more (at this moment) than David Ortiz, more than Yaz or Frank Thomas or (how about this one?) A-Rod.
Or this stat: Ibañez is one of only 15 players in baseball history to have more than 1,000 RBIs after age 30. With one more RBI for Kansas City, he will tie a pretty good player named Willie Mays with 1,091 RBIs after 30.
Or this stat: Ibañez has scored almost as many runs after age 30 (945) as Derek Jeter (977).
Or this stat: Ibañez has hit more doubles after age 30 than Stan Musial did. Or George Brett. Or Wade Boggs. Or Barry Bonds.
None of these stats seemed even slightly possible when I sat in that dugout with Allard Baird — 29-year-old career backups with no pedigree hitting .150 do not have golden career like Ibañez has had. It just doesn’t happen. But Ibañez made it happen. He made it happen through sheer will, determination and conviction. I have never met a ballplayer quite like him. Raúl is this unusual blend of modesty and conviction — he will almost never say anything good about himself and yet he leaves no doubt that he believes in himself as a player. That’s a hard combination.
He speaks English and Spanish without accent — his parents escaped Cuba just two years before he was born — and this automatically puts him in a clubhouse leadership role wherever he goes. He also picks up things naturally; Raul is that guy in the clubhouse who just knows what’s going on. Teammates have told me about times when they were down about something or angry about something and Raúl, out of nowhere, just came up to them and quietly said something that changed their whole viewpoint.
He takes the perception on to the field, of course. He’s grown famous for the effort he exerts — the way he runs out even hopeless double player grounders, the all-out way he sprints after fly balls in the outfield. Ibañez can’t run — he never really could — and certainly on the whole the stats show him to have been a well-below average outfielder. But he was always a better outfielder than he should have been. Twice he led left fielders in fielding percentage. Three times he finished second in range factor. He got after it, best he could. And if he got there, he made the play.
Then his strength — as Baird noted — was his ability to hit baseballs. Shortly after Allard and I had that conversation in the dugout, the Royals put Ibañez into the starting lineup. It was basically a desperation move — the Royals had already traded Damon during the offseason and in July they traded Dye, and so they were out of outfielders. He became an everyday player for the first time in his career on June 19 — he celebrated with two hits and a homer. For the rest of the season, he hit .302//382/.557. Baird was right.
After that it was just year after year after year of businesslike hitting — a batting average around .290, something like 30 doubles and 20 homers and 90 runs and 90 RBIs, sometimes more. He’s not an especially technical hitter; he doesn’t want an overwhelming amount of data. He just hits. He took his bat from one coast to the other, from Seattle to Kansas City back to Seattle to Philadelphia to New York and back to Seattle again. Every now and again he would do something noticeable — he went on a home run binge in Philadelphia one year, and he had that remarkable series of big hits for the Yankees in 2012. Mostly he just kept hitting.
This year he signed with the Los Angeles Angels and he stopped hitting — he hit .157 in almost 200 plate appearances. Well, he is 42. The Angels let him go. And now he’s back in Kansas City where he will likely finish off one of the more remarkable careers of recent times.
He’s also just a nice man. As it turned out my first daughter was born one day after his first son, and so we have shared fatherhood stories through the years. We have talked schools and neighborhoods and the best way to celebrate Halloween. We have talked music; he loves to play guitar as a way to relax. But one thing we have never really talked about is how he did it, how he put together this Hall of Very Good career after more than a decade of stops and starts, brief tryouts and long minor league bus trips, weeks and weeks on benches waiting for a chance to pinch-hit. I don’t think Raúl could explain it … not with words, anyway. It seems to me he became a wonderful baseball player simply by refusing any other possibility.
“Did you think you would have a career like this?” I asked him the last time I saw him.
“Yes,” he said. “I thought I could.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Tell me about your daughters.”
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