raul ibanez royals

The remarkable career of Raul Ibanez

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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.”

Dee Gordon’s suspension is likely to lead to a call for harsher PED penalties

Miami Marlins' Dee Gordon celebrates after hitting a double against the Detroit Tigers in the ninth inning of a baseball game Tuesday, April 5, 2016, in Miami. Derek Dietrich scored on the double. The Tigers won 8-7. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
Associated Press
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Objectively speaking there is no difference between Dee Gordon’s suspension for PEDs and anyone else’s. Abraham Almonte, for example. Or Cameron Maybin. Or David Rollins. All were guys who got their 80 games, served their time, came back and whose cases didn’t raise too much of a fuss. But Gordon’s suspension will almost certainly be talked about longer and more loudly and will likely lead to calls for harsher penalties and changes to the PED suspension rules.

Part of it is simply fame. He’s a pretty big name as far as these things go. The biggest since the Biogenesis guys a couple of years ago. He won the batting title last year. He’s the son of a famous major leaguer. There is a direct correlation between the volume and intensity of the narratives applied to one’s story and the fame of the subject of the story. For that reason alone Gordon’s story will last longer and loom larger.

Another reason — a bigger reason, I think — is timing. Gordon was seen by many to have had a breakout season in 2015 and, when it was over, he was rewarded for it with a nice five-year $50 million deal. The narrative will arise by, oh, 9AM today, that the suspension was “worth it” for Gordon and that he cashed in because of it, rendering his suspension a mere slap on the wrist. This is especially true given that his deal is severely backloaded. He’ll lose less than $2 million in salary in 2016 while collecting the other $48 million-plus. Totally worth it!

I understand why people will say that, but such a stance has some serious flaws. Among them:

  • It assumes that we or anyone else knows when Gordon began to take PEDs;
  • It assumes that we or anyone else knows how, in fact, Gordon’s performance was actually enhanced;
  • It forgets that lots and lots of people were talking about how Gordon’s “breakout season” was actually 2014, not 2015, rendering that whole “he juiced and then got his money” argument fairly problematic.

Those points will likely be ignored as arguments in favor of harsher penalties grow louder. Ken Rosenthal reminds us this morning that some have called for some form of contract voiding or clawing back of more money than just the salary earned while on suspension. Those calls too will likely grow louder. There will also be calls for changes in the appeal process. Like this one, which came moments after Gordon’s suspension was announced:

When you have an actual union member angrily call for the repeal of a collectively-bargained protection in punishment situations, you’re sort of through the looking glass. Or past a tipping point. Or something. You’re certainly in a world where the usual dynamics between employer and employee are not operative and, as a result, changes are inevitable. As we noted recently, players today are perhaps more adamantly anti-PED than the owners and the league are. They’re competitors reacting to cheating by their competition. The fuel for stronger penalties is likely to come more from them than anyone.

The union and the league will be negotiating a new Collective Bargaining Agreement this year. Performance enhancing drugs and their penalties will be a part of that. Expect harsher penalties and possibly different sorts of rules altogether. Expect Dee Gordon to be the poster child for these changes, even if his case is no different in form than that of Abraham Almonte, Cameron Maybin, or David Rollins. Expect emotion, rather than logic, to lead the coming debate.

And That Happened: Thursdays scores and highlights

Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Arodys Vizcaino, right, is congratulated by catcher Tyler Flowers after earning a save during a baseball game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park in Boston, Thursday, April 28, 2016. The Braves defeated the Red Sox 5-3. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
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Gonna mail this one in this morning. Partially because of the light slate of games yesterday, partially because of a late night for me but mostly because of the Dee Gordon news which has me thinking of a lot of other things I want to write about this AM.

It’s worth noting that the Braves won a game. It comes just ahead of a series at Wrigley against the Cubs, so the winning streak will likely last a single day, but the 2016 Braves have to take what they can get.

The Marlins had a notable night outside the Gordon news too, finishing off a sweep of the Dodgers, which had to make Don Mattingly happy. For what it’s worth, Gordon singled in a run and then came around to score in the seventh. His RBI tied it and the run he scored ended up being the one necessary for the Marlins’ margin of victory. That means nothing, but you know some jackwagons are gonna make a big deal out of that and I figured I’d get ahead of the jackwagons and note that, yes, Gordon and the Marlins knew what was coming before it was announced because that’s how the appeals process works, but no, it makes no difference, because that’s how the appeals process works.

Anyway: Here are the rest of the scores:

Tigers 7, Athletics 3
Cubs 7, Brewers 2
Phillies 3, Nationals 0
Orioles 10, White Sox 2
Braves 5, Red Sox 3
Diamondbacks 3, Cardinals 0
Marlins 5, Dodgers 3
Pirates vs. Rockies — POSTPONED
: In the early morning rain with a dollar in my hand. And an aching in my heart, and my pockets full of sand. I’m a long way from home, and I miss my loved one so. In the early morning rain with no place to go.

Marlins 2B Dee Gordon suspended 80 games for PEDs

deegordon
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LOS ANGELES — Dee Gordon has been suspended 80 games by Major League Baseball after the Miami Marlins second baseman tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug.

Gordon tested positive for exogenous Testosterone and Clostebol, MLB said in a release after the Marlins’ 5-3 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Thursday night.

The fleet-footed Gordon won the National League batting title by hitting .333 last season and signed a $50 million, 5-year deal with Miami in January. He’s made two All-Star teams in his six seasons and won the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards at second base last year.

Gordon, the son of former major league pitcher Tom Gordon, had a key hit in Miami’s win over the Dodgers on Thursday. He’s batting .266 with six stolen bases this season.

Dee Gordon is a very important part of our team, and we all love him and support him,” Marlins president David Samson said. “That said, I don’t like or condone what he did. He is an important member of this organization and will be for many years to come. It’s a huge, huge disappointment to the kids, to our fans, to his teammates and to everyone in our organization every single day.

“He will be back 80 games from now, and he will be welcomed back to this organization. But in the interim period, we expect him, and we are positive that he will do everything that’s necessary to make it up to his fans, to his teammates and to this organization.”

Devon Travis will start taking at-bats in extended spring training

Toronto Blue Jays second baseman Devon Travis hits a RBI double to center field against the Tampa Bay Rays during third inning of a baseball game, Wednesday, April 15, 2015 in Toronto. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)  MANDATORY CREDIT
Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP
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Blue Jays second baseman Devon Travis underwent left shoulder surgery last September. MLB.com’s Gregor Chisholm caught up with Jays head athletic trainer George Poulis for updates on several injured players, including Travis. Here’s what Poulis had to say about Travis:

“He’s going to get some live at-bats with the extended team down in Florida on Friday. Big step for him, he’s very excited, he’s doing great, and we’re very optimistic, but no timeline right now on his return. We’re just going day by day, step by step.

“When you have something like that, it continues to heal even when you’re playing. We’re just trying to acclimate him and condition him to withstand all of the stress that he’s going to put on his shoulder … He won’t play in the field right now. We’ll mix that in, as well, but right now he’s just going to get some at-bats.”

The key phrase, of course, is “no timetable”. The second baseman’s rehab has gone slower than expected. Getting into some extended spring training games, though, signals progress.

Travis, 25, broke out last season, hitting .304/.361/.498 with eight home runs and 35 RBI in 239 plate appearances last season. The Jays have had Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney handle second base duties this year, but their aggregate .560 OPS is the worst mark in the American League.