By Todd Dybas The News Tribune
The Seattle Mariners’ Raul Ibanez treats the sweat that appears to be perpetually trickling down his bald head like a family heirloom.
Before games, the perspiration is a result Ibanez’s persistent activity. Into the video room. Into the batting cage. Into the weight room. Back to the batting cage. Batting practice on the field. Work in the outfield.
His clubhouse locker is a lonely place since Ibanez appears to stop by merely for a quick change of clothes.
That daily workload is what has led Ibanez to his surprising season at the age of 41.
While Ibanez is spending the All-Star break with his family, many others have taken the moment to look at his robust first-half numbers. He was supposed to be a part-time player this year, who has instead become Seattle’s everyday left fielder. He has 24 home runs in 296 at-bats, tied for fourth-most in the American League, helping to produce a staggering .578 slugging percentage.
“Who knew?” Ibanez said of his playing time.
Totals at the plate are secondary to Ibanez. That sweat, the perseverance at 41 during his 18th season, being righteous, that’s what Ibanez is trying to pass on.
“Guys like Jay (Buhner) and Edgar (Martinez) and Dan Wilson and Jamie Moyer, they taught me more about life,” Ibanez said of his start with the Mariners. “I didn’t have children, I wasn’t married yet. But they taught me more about being a good husband and a good father, and I learned a lot of life lessons from them.
“Obviously, about hard work and all of that other stuff on the field, but I really looked up to them as men and as people.”
The understanding from those lessons is what Ibanez is trying to instill when he laughs with Kyle Seager by the underground batting cage. Or stops to chat with rookies Nick Franklin and Brad Miller at their lockers.
He’s also experienced enough to know that his home run totals at his age brings raised eyebrows. As major league baseball works to move past the steroid era, the doubt it provided lingers. Its stench even clasps to the performance of a man respected for who he is more than his baseball success.
When the topic of doubt is broached, Ibanez explains his stance in logical fashion. He knows any answer he gives leaves him in a no-win situation. He’s disappointed the discussion is still part of baseball.
He also makes a promise if he ever fails a test.
“I’ll give every penny I ever made back,” Ibanez said.
His disdain for hypocrisy makes him wonder how he could tell his oldest son, Raul Jr., to not do drugs if he was. He goes on to explain outside perception to him isn’t important. God, his family and his teammates know him. That’s what matters, he says.
Baseball has watched Ibanez hammer various types of pitches from various types of pitchers the last two months. He tightened up his swing in early May. He’s been cranking away since.
“We all have rhythm and timing and we want to have as little moving parts as possible,” Mariners hitting coach Dave Hansen, a former teammate of Ibanez’s, said. “When we are out of rhythm, the mechanics start to come apart. Really, he just worked to address that and simplify the swing — be more direct to the ball, put himself closer to a striking position that he wants to be in, and he’s held onto it for a long time.”
Ibanez will start the second half five homers short of Ted Williams’ record 29 in 1960 for a player in his 40-plus age season. He’ll be continuing the grind that began even before he was a 36th-round pick who was told he would never make it.
Once he did, he spent the start of his big league career sitting on Seattle’s bench. He wonders if that is helping him now.
“I didn’t have an extra 2,000 at-bats on me and on my body,” Ibanez said. “So, I sometimes think it was maybe a blessing in disguise.”