raul ibanez royals

The remarkable career of Raul Ibanez


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.”

The Days of Chief Wahoo are numbered

Fox Entertainment

One of the more common responses to what I’ve posted about Chief Wahoo lately is “it’s just a cartoon character! Nobody cares!”

Well, looking at that guy in the photo above and many others dressed like him at Progressive Field the past two days is evidence that it is not just a cartoon character. A certain swath of Indians fans think that, because of their team’s name and mascot, it’s totally acceptable to show up in public looking like this. Wahoo as an official trademark of a Major League Baseball club gives people license to dress up in redface — or in this case, red and blackface — with headdresses on, turning a real people and a real culture into a degrading caricature. It’s not just a cartoon character by a long shot. To many it’s a get-out-being-called-a-racist-free card.

As for “nobody cares,” well, yes, someone does. Go read this from Sterling HolyWhiteMountain over at ESPN, talking about both Chief Wahoo as a symbol and America’s treatment and conception of Native Americans as a whole. It’s moving stuff that puts lie to the idea that “nobody cares.” It likewise puts lie to the false choice so many Chief Wahoo defenders reference in which they argue that people should care more about actual injustices visited upon Native Americans and not mascots. One can and should care about those injustices. And one can do that while simultaneously finding Chief Wahoo to be an odious symbol that serves to dehumanize people. Once people are dehumanized, it’s far easier to treat them as something less-than-human, of course.

But it’s not just Native Americans or anti-Wahoo folks like me who care. While I have been critical of Major League Baseball for not taking its own stand against Wahoo publicly, it seems pretty clear at this point that the league is weary of Wahoo and is looking to pressure the Indians to eliminate it. Last night, at the Hank Aaron Award ceremony, Manfred spoke more expansively about Wahoo than he did the day before. Manfred is a lawyer and he does not choose his words carelessly. Read this and parse it carefully:

“I know that that particular logo is offensive to some people, and all of us at Major League Baseball understand why. Logos are, however, primarily a local matter. The local club makes decisions about its logos. Fans get attached to logos. They become part of a team’s history. So it’s not easy as coming to the conclusion and realizing that the logo is offensive to some segment.

“I’ve talked to Mr. [Indians owner and CEO Paul] Dolan about this issue. We’ve agreed away from the World Series at an appropriate time we will have a conversation about this. I want to understand fully what his view is, and we’ll go from there. At this point in this context, I’m just not prepared to say more.”

Yes, he’s still trying to be diplomatic, but note how he (a) acknowledges that Wahoo is offensive to some people; (b) that “all of us at Major League Baseball understand why” and (c) does not validate the views of those who do not find it offensive. He acknowledges that they feel that way due to history, but he does not say, as I inferred from his previous comments the day before, that both sides have merit. Indeed, he says he’d like to hear Paul Dolan’s side, suggesting that while he’ll listen to argument, he doesn’t buy the argument as it has yet to be put.

I still wish that MLB would come out hard and strong against Wahoo publicly, but the more I listen to Manfred on this and read between the lines, the more I suspect that Major League Baseball is finally fed up with Wahoo and that it wants to do something to get rid of it. That it’s not just the hobby horse of pinko liberals like me. I believe Manfred realizes that, in 2016, Chief Wahoo is an embarrassment to an organization like Major League Baseball. Maybe, because of p.r. and political considerations, he doesn’t want to stand on a soapbox about it at the World Series, but I believe he wants to put an end to it all the same.

You can call me names for being against Wahoo all you want. But you can’t say it’s a non-issue. You can’t say that it’s just a cartoon character and you can’t say that nobody cares. To do that is an exercise in denial. I have come to believe that Major League Baseball cares and that it’s going to push hard to make the 2016 World Series the last time it is embarrassed by anachronistic racism on its biggest stage ever again.

Game 2 is going to be the poster child for pace of play arguments this winter

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 26:  Zach McAllister #34 of the Cleveland Indians is relieved by manager Terry Francona during the fifth inning against the Chicago Cubs in Game Two of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on October 26, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Getty Images

In August, it was reported that Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred would like to implement pitch clocks, like those in use in the minor leagues for the past two seasons, to improve the pace-of-play at the major league level. You can bet that last night’s Game 2 will be the lead argument he uses against those who would oppose the move.

The game was moved up an hour in order to get it in before an impending storm. By the time the rain finally started falling the game had been going on for three hours and thirty-three minutes. It should’ve been over before the first drop fell, but in all it lasted four hours and four minutes. It ended in, thankfully, only a light rain. The longest nine-inning game in postseason history happened a mere two weeks ago, when the Dodgers and Nationals played for four hours and thirty two minutes. There thirteen pitchers were used. Last night ten pitchers were used. Either way, the postseason games are dragging on even for those of us who don’t mind devoting four+ hours of our night to baseball. It is likely putting off more casual fans just tuning in for the Fall Classic.

It’s not all just dawdling, however. Yes, the pitchers worked slowly and a lot of pitching changes took place, but strikeouts, walks and the lack of balls in play contribute to longer games as well. We saw this both last night and in Game 1, which was no brisk affair despite each starting pitcher looking sharp and not working terribly slowly. Twenty-four strikeouts on Tuesday night had a lot to do with that. Last night featured 20 strikeouts and thirteen — thirteen! — walks. It’s not just that the games are taking forever; the very thing causing them to drag feature baseball’s least-kinetic forms of excitement.

But no matter what the cause for the slower play was — and here it was a combination of laboring pitchers, the lack of balls in play and, of course, the longer commercial breaks in the World Series — Manfred is likely to hold Game 2 up as Exhibit A in his efforts to push through some rules changes to improve game pace and game time. So far, the centerpiece of those efforts is the pitch clock, which has proven to be successful and pretty non-controversial in the minor leagues. It would not surprise me one bit if, at this year’s Winter Meetings in Washington, a rule change in that regard is widely discussed.