By Jeff Fletcher The Orange County Register
TEMPE, Ariz. — When Raul Ibanez looks one locker to his right in the Los Angeles Angels’ clubhouse, seeing a superstar who was 10 months old when he was drafted, it could make him feel old.
Or, it could be just the opposite.
“Being around these guys keeps me young,” said Ibanez, a 41-year-old veteran whose locker is next to Mike Trout’s. “It keeps me thinking young and believing you can do certain things.”
There is no doubt much of Ibanez’s longevity is about the physical, from his workout routine to his hyperbaric chamber to the unique paddle-shaped bat he uses to keep his swing sharp.
Talk to Ibanez, however, and you get the idea his attitude has as much to do with him remaining an active player at an age when most have been forced into retirement.
“I actually enjoy when people back me into a corner and tell me I can’t do something,” he said. “I thrive under those circumstances. I look forward to proving myself right. Again.”
Ibanez, whom the Angels signed to be their primary designated hitter after they traded Mark Trumbo, will have his share of detractors, mainly because he hit .203 with a .640 OPS in the second half of last season with the Seattle Mariners.
But Ibanez is as confident now as he was when he bounced back from a .167 average in early May to enjoy a career renaissance through the summer. Ibanez hit .295 with 22 homers during a 55-game span in the middle of the season.
“I wasn’t having any doubts,” he said. “Fortunately I’ve been there before. It’s all mental. Like anything else in life. Are you willing to fight for it? Are you willing to give it anything you have and leave it out there, and have the desire and will not to allow other people’s thoughts and beliefs to become your own?”
Ibanez survived that drought with the help of a special bat an old friend brought to him at the slump’s deepest point.
The bat, shaped like a paddle, replicated a training device he used years earlier. Hitting with it helps keep the wrists from rolling too early, Ibanez said.
As Ibanez heated up, other players in the Mariners’ clubhouse began experimenting with the bat, too. They know the same thing Angels players have learned from being around Ibanez in just a brief time: If Ibanez is doing something, pay attention.
“He’s been around for a long time and he obviously knows what he’s doing,” outfielder J.B. Shuck said. “When you have a guy like that, he can teach us a lot. He’s just going to be another great guy to help lead in the clubhouse.”
That clubhouse presence was one of the reasons general manager Jerry Dipoto wanted Ibanez, and manager Mike Scioscia said he’s already seeing a difference.
“Whether he’s in a drill with a player or working in the cage, there are a lot of players drawn to him because of his experience,” Scioscia said.
Ibanez said he enjoys that role.
“Part of your job as a player is to make other people better,” he said. “You don’t have to be 40 years old to do it. A lot of times it’s positive encouragement. It’s pulling someone aside and telling them something you see.
“Since we are around each other so much, we are constantly giving each other small nuggets that can help each other.”
For all of Ibanez’s positive reputation, he is still, in one sense, the victim of his era and numbers that don’t make sense. Players are not supposed to hit 29 homers at age 41, and we’ve been trained to be skeptical of such performances.
That’s why the steroid question lingers like the elephant in the room, even though Ibanez has been tested regularly, along with every other major leaguer, for a decade.
“I have nothing to hide,” Ibanez said. “Everyone should know how I feel about people doing things that are illegal. I’m 1,000 percent against it. First and foremost, I have to answer to God and my family and my children, and maintain my integrity and character. I don’t worry about people’s perceptions.”
The question doesn’t upset Ibanez. Just the opposite.
“If you really think about it, it’s a compliment,” he said. “If they say, ‘You are performing at such a high level that it’s too good to be true,’ Thank you.”