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.”

It’s pretty stupid that athletes can’t endorse beer

San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner celebrates after pitching the Giants to a 8-0 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League wild card game in Pittsburgh Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar) ORG XMIT: PAGP102
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One of the more amusing things to spin out of the Super Bowl were Peyton Manning’s little Budweiser endorsements in his postgame interviews. It was hilarious, really, to see him shoehorn in references to going and cracking a crisp cool Budweiser multiple times. It was more hilarious when a Budweiser representative tweeted that Manning was not paid to do that. Of course, Manning owns an interest in alcohol distributorships so talking about The King of Beers was in his best financial interest all the same.

After that happened people asked whether or not Manning would face discipline about this from the NFL, as players are not allowed to endorse alcoholic beverages. This seemed crazy to me. I had no idea that they were actually banned from doing so. Then I realized that, huh, I can’t for the life of me remember seeing beer commercials with active athletes, so I guess maybe it’s not so crazy. Ken Rosenthal later tweeted that Major League Baseball has a similar ban in place. No alcohol endorsements for ballplayers.

Why?

I mean, I can fully anticipate why the leagues would say athletes can’t do it. Think of the children! Role models! Messages about fitness! All that jazz. I suspect a more significant reason is that the leagues and their partners — mostly Anheuser-Busch/InBev — would prefer not to allow high-profile athletes to shill for a competitor. I mean, how bad would it look for Alex Rodriguez to do spots for Arrogant Bastard Ale when there are Budweiser signs hanging in 81% of the league’s ballparks? Actually, such ads would look WONDERFUL, but you know what I mean here.

That aside, it does strike me as crazy hypocritical that the leagues can rake in as much as they do from these companies while prohibiting players from getting in on the action. If it is kids they’re worried about, how can they deny that they endorse beer to children every bit as effectively and possibly more so than any one athlete can by virtue of putting it alongside the brands that are the NFL and MLB? Personally I don’t put much stock in a think-of-the-children argument when it comes to beer — it’s everywhere already and everyone does a good job of pushing the “drink responsibly” message — but if those are the leagues’ terms, they probably need to ask themselves how much of a distinction any one athlete and the entire league endorsing this stuff really is.

That aside, sports and beer — often sponsored by active players — have a long, long history together:

Musial

And the picture at the top of this post certainly shows us that Major League Baseball has no issues whatsoever in having its players endorse Budweiser in a practical sense.

Why can’t they get paid for doing it?

The Orioles signed Rafael Palmeiro’s son

Rafael Palmeiro
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Last summer we posted about Rafael Palmeiro coming out of retirement to play for the independent league Sugar Land Skeeters. The reason: to play a game with his boy Patrick. In that game the elder Palmeiro went 2-for-4 with an RBI, a walk, and a run scored. His son, who is now 26, went 2-for-4 with a grand slam.

Did that serve as an audition for Patrick? Possibly, as Jon Meloi of the Baltimore Sun reports that the Orioles just signed him to a minor league deal.

As Meloi notes, it’s certainly just an organizational depth move, as Patrick is no prospect. And it’s actually likely something of a coincidence that it’s the Orioles who signed him, as Palmeiro doesn’t have any real contacts with the Orioles baseball operations people, all of whom are different folks now than back in his day.

This may not be the last of the Palmeiros, by the way. Peter Gammons tweeted this morning that Patrick’s younger brother, Preston, is a first baseman at North Carolina State who could be drafted this june. Gammons says he has a swing “remarkably similar to dad.”

Diamondbacks, A.J. Pollock avoid arbitration with two-year contract

Arizona Diamondbacks center fielder A.J. Pollock drives in two runs against the Cincinnati Reds during the eighth inning of a baseball game, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Gary Landers)
AP Photo/Gary Landers
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Steve Gilbert of MLB.com reports that the Diamondbacks and outfielder A.J. Pollock have avoided arbitration by agreeing to a two-year extension. The deal is worth $10.25 million, per ESPN’s Buster Olney.

Pollock was arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter. The 28-year-old requested $3.9 million and was offered $3.65 million by the Diamondbacks when figures were exchanged on January 15. It wasn’t much of a gap, but the two sides were ultimately able to find common ground on a multi-year deal. Pollock will still be under team control for one more year after this new deal expires.

Pollock is coming off a breakout 2015 where he batted .315/.367/.498 with 20 home runs, 76 RBI, and 39 stolen bases over 157 games. He ranked sixth among position players with 7.4 WAR (Wins Above Replacement), according to Baseball Reference.

Report: Blue Jays and Josh Donaldson agree to two-year, $29 million extension

Toronto Blue Jays' Josh Donaldson celebrates his two run home run against the Kansas City Royals during the third inning in Game 3 of baseball's American League Championship Series on Monday, Oct. 19, 2015, in Toronto. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
AP Photo/Paul Sancya
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The Blue Jays and 2015 American League Most Valuable Player Josh Donaldson have avoided arbitration by agreeing to a two-year, $29 million contract, reports Shi Davidi of Sportsnet.ca.

Donaldson was arbitration-eligible for the second time this winter. He filed for $11.8 million and was offered $11.35 million by the Blue Jays when figures were exchanged last month. It wasn’t a big gap, but since the Blue Jays are a “file and trial” team, they bring these cases to an arbitration hearing unless a multi-year deal can be worked out. As opposed to last winter, they were able to avoid a hearing this time around. Donaldson was originally a Super Two player, so he’ll still have one year of arbitration-eligibility once this two-year deal is completed.

The 30-year-old Donaldson is coming off a monster first season in Toronto where he batted .297/.371/.568 with 41 homers while leading the American League with 123 RBI.