NEW YORK — The only thing that could make these baseball playoffs better for Raul Ibanez than they already are is if his father were alive to enjoy them.
But Romando Ibanez didn’t even get to see his son play one minor league game. Romando died in March of 1992 and Raul signed his first professional contract with the Mariners four months later.
"To this day, it’s difficult," Raul said the other day. "I look back and I wish my dad could have seen me play because he always pushed me in a positive way, always reinforced me. He wasn’t real vocal, he just gave me quiet encouragement."
His father was born and raised in Cuba. He was an educated man but that meant nothing in the Cuba of Fidel Castro. "He had the equivalent of a master’s (degree) in chemistry," Raul said, "but even as a professional man, they made you work out in the fields cutting sugar cane for the government for three years, not getting paid, barely having enough to eat, just to add insult to injury."
Romando, his wife and two sons migrated to the United States in the ’60s. A third son, Raul, was born in the U.S., in Manhattan, the place the Mariners have taken up residence this week as they bus into the South Bronx to challenge the defending World Champion New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series beginning tonight.
What Raul wouldn’t give to have his father sitting in venerable Yankee Stadium tonight.
"Sometimes," he said, "I think I would never have gotten the opportunity to do this if my dad hadn’t gone through what he went through to get his family out of Cuba. I feel really blessed."
Isn’t it gratifying to hear a professional athlete express thanks for something other than a multi-million-dollar contract? Isn’t it nice to hear one pay homage to his parents for the sacrifices they made so that he could have a better life?
Romando worked in a warehouse for Carnival Cruise Lines in Miami. At the end of the day, he would hurry to Raul’s baseball game, sometimes arriving after it started, but he always got there.
"That meant the world to me," Raul said, "fighting through traffic to get there, sometimes leaving work early just to make it to his kid’s Little League game."
His father had played some ball in Cuba, but never professionally. But he knew he had a talent in his youngest son, though he didn’t push Raul to sign when he had a chance coming out of Miami Sunset High School in 1991.
The next year, however, when Raul was a student in junior college, the Mariners selected him in the 36th round of the draft. Romando then encouraged his son to sign. "He felt I was ready," Raul said.
It’s been a struggle to get where he is. Always a fine minor league hitter, Raul has never had more than 209 at-bats in a season with the Mariners. There’s a pretty good reason. The position he most often plays, right field, has been manned by a fellow named Buhner. The best season Ibanez ever had, 1999, he batted .258 with nine home runs and 27 RBI.
It’s difficult enough playing this game every day. It’s much more difficult playing it once or twice a week, either as a starter, a defensive replacement or a pinch-hitter. It might be interesting to see what Ibanez could do playing 140 games and getting 500 at-bats.
Even as limited as his plate appearances have been, he’s made some big contributions in the last two weeks. His two-run double was crucial in the season-ending 5-2 win over Anaheim that secured the wild card berth for the M’s.
Then last Friday, with the White Sox leading the Mariners 1-0 in the third game of the division series, he lined a single to lead off the fourth and came around to tie the score on a sacrifice, a groundout and an infield hit. The M’s then won it in the ninth, 2-1, to complete a 3-0 sweep.
Down in Miami, a 67-year-old woman who a few days before had undergone a quintuple bypass, let go with a little cheer. Moraima Ibanez was so happy to see her youngest son do well. "I was hoping she wouldn’t get too excited," Raul said.
His mother had the surgery the day the M’s opened the final series of the regular season against Anaheim. Raul thought he should be there with her, but she convinced him that she would be all right, that her two older sons would be there to look after her, and that he should go ahead and do his job.
"My brothers told me if she opened her eyes and saw me there, she’d worry that I was supposed to be somewhere else," Raul said. So he stayed with the team and got his biggest hit of the season.
His mother never understood the game that well. "She’s been around baseball all her life and she’s still like, ‘He hit a ball somewhere, he ran to first, is that good?’ "
Yes, Mrs. Ibanez, that’s good, and it’s even better when Raul hits it and runs to second.
Raul feels as if his blessings keep piling up. His mother is recovering nicely from her surgery. The Mariners are playing excellent baseball and are only four wins from their first World Series, and he has been able to do some good things when they counted most.
"It’s really special," he said, "because the playoffs could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There are Hall of Famers who never get to the playoffs, so I’m feeling really fortunate now that my mother’s all right and I’m in the playoffs at the same time."
If he were alive, Romando Ibanez would be a proud papa. The son he helped raise is a model of decorum. Raul always has a pleasant smile and a warm greeting for everyone, even sportswriters. When given compliments for his play, he thanks you. He responds with "yes sir" and "no sir." He is soft-spoken and sincere.
He’s obviously had a good upbringing.
Not only did his parents help mold him, so did his two older brothers. "When you’re the youngest one," he said, "you kinda know where you stand and what the pecking order is. If I got a little yappy, they let me know. I’m appreciative of that now."
Another thing he appreciates is the game of baseball. Like any player, he wants to be in the lineup every day, and to further work toward that goal, he intends to play winter ball in Puerto Rico. That begins in December and goes through mid-January. So he will have little time off this year with spring training starting in mid-February.
Some have said he should rest this winter. "I tell them I’ve been resting all year," he said. "I need to play."
He knows one man who would nod his head in approval.
Anyone who labored in the sugar cane fields of Castro’s Cuba would understand.
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