By Ryan Divish The News Tribune
PEORIA, Ariz. — It’s 7:30 a.m. in the Seattle Mariners clubhouse on Sunday morning. No one is really awake. A few sleepy-eyed players look at Sudoku puzzles or pick at breakfast, a few sit in front of their lockers still wondering why they are up so early.
Then the door opens, and here comes Raul Ibanez. He’s awake. He’s smiling. He’s over-flowing with enthusiasm.
His energy becomes infectious as he says hi to everyone he sees. People seem to start moving a little quicker, blood begins to flow.
An unsaid message is delivered: “Raul is here, it’s time to get to work.”
Ibanez gets to his locker and dresses as fast as a Little Leaguer would on the first day of the season. He can’t get his uniform on quick enough.
His attitude screams: “Today is going to be the best day ever.”
But there was nothing special about this Sunday to give Ibanez such a chipper attitude.
He had the same attitude on Saturday, and the day before that and the day before that.
Sense a pattern?
“It’s every day,” said outfielder Jason Bay, whose locker sits next to Ibanez’s locker. “He’s very consistent that way.”
But how can Ibanez be so darn giddy every day?
“I love what I do,” Ibanez said. “It’s fun for me to wake up every morning. I’m excited about coming to the ballpark. What more can you ask for? I don’t think I’ve ever really worked. I mean you work hard at your craft, but if you love what you do, it isn’t really working.”
From the day he’s shown up at spring training until Sunday, Ibanez has attacked each day with the enthusiasm of a rookie and motivation of a player just trying to make the team.
He is neither. At age 40 (he turns 41 on June 2), he’s one of the oldest players in major league baseball. And after 16 seasons in the big leagues — two stints in Seattle — and a World Series ring with the Phillies, his place on the Mariners roster is cemented.
“I’m passionate about what I do,” he said “I enjoy it. I love the craft. I love working on it.”
There is not an ounce of complacency in Ibanez. And once he puts the uniform on, Ibanez disappears.
“I see that he’s here, but I never see him,” Bay said. “He told me that right away. He said, ‘I’m all over the place.’ And he is. He is always doing something. He has this nervous energy and can’t sit still.”
Ibanez never hangs out and plays cards or watches TV. He’s got things to do. He’s hitting in the cage, he’s lifting weights, he’s looking at film, he’s stretching or doing preventative work with the trainers and then maybe he squeezes in some food. And that’s all before the actual team workout begins.
“He’s a guy where you think the day is over and you see him walking to the cage for more,” said outfielder Michael Morse. “Then you immediately pick up your stuff and head to the cage too. Because if he’s going to do it, then you should too.”
The young players on the Mariners have noticed Ibanez’s maniacal daily routine.
“He brings completely different energy than what we’ve had here,” said third baseman Kyle Seager. “When you have a guy who has accomplished as much as he has and he’s out there every day hitting the cages and he’s out there doing extra work on the days he’s not playing, you can’t help but learn from that.”
Perhaps even more impressive than Ibanez’s commitment to doing extra and then a little more is that his body is able to hold up to it.
Ibanez has played in 1,947 major league games and 640 minor league games since starting his professional career in 1992. That’s a lot of innings and wear and tear, but as Seager joked, most people would only hope to look and move like Ibanez at age 40.
His obsessive and grueling offseason workouts are the reason he’s able to act like a 20-year old and not limp around like an old man during a season.
“It’s a testament to him taking care of himself,” Seager said. “He works out hard. And he takes care of his body, that’s a way you can be successful for along time in this game. It’s one of the things he takes very seriously.”
His offseason workouts are infamous. Morse first started them with Ibanez in 2004 and was amazed at the intensity level.
“It was tough,” Morse said. “I didn’t know he trained that hard. He used to tell me, ‘the older you get the more you got to work.’”
Ibanez loves the workouts. They’ve made him into an above average major league player and kept him in the big leagues for a long time.
“If you’ve always prepared a certain way, and always trained a certain way in the offseason, then it’s just normal,” he said. “It’s almost like you are programmed a certain way. Two weeks after the season, you are all ready to start doing them again.”
Bay called Ibanez a creature of habit.
“No matter how many years you have in the big leagues, you don’t get complacent when you have that type of personality,” Bay said. “Because that’s what you’ve always done. You feel like you have to keep doing it. I think it’s really rare.”
Ibanez isn’t expected to be an every-day player. He will be a part-time designated hitter, sometime starting outfielder and a full-time clubhouse presence.
“You show up every day — good, bad or indifferent — with that energy and work ethic, I don’t know how it can’t help the ballclub,” Bay said.
Ibanez is hitting .366 (15-for41) with four doubles, four homers and 12 RBI this spring. He isn’t about to slow down. You can expect that come 7:30 a.m. today, he will be just as fired up about his day. And he quickly gives the main reason why before going off for some extra batting cage work.
“I’m blessed,” he said. “It’s a great life. I have nothing to complain about.”