Raul Ibañez wanted to emphasize the obvious.
“Never, in a million years, would I compare myself to Ted Williams — the greatest hitter who ever lived,” Ibañez said Wednesday, talking about an afternoon at Safeco Field where the Mariners’ lone offensive highlight was an Ibañez home run that pushed him closer to a record held by none other than Theodore Samuel Williams.
Williams’ 29 homers for the 1960 Red Sox were the most ever hit by a 41-year old. Ibañez, who turned 41 on June 2, launched No. 18 Wednesday off Pirates right-hander Jeanmar Gomez. It was Ibañez’s fourth homer in four days — his ninth of the month — and while the solo shot merely tied a game the Mariners would go on to lose, at least the veteran gave the matinee crowd something to cheer when Felix Hernandez wasn’t throwing strikeout pitches.
“Raul Ibañez has been fantastic,” manager Eric Wedge said after the 4-2 defeat. “He’s hit right-handers, he’s hit left-handers. He’s played every day. He’s a shining example of what you want a big leaguer to be.
“But we’ve got other guys that need to be better, young and old.”
When general manager Jack Zduriencik signed Ibañez to a
one-year, free-agent deal over the winter, it was presumed the veteran’s role as clubhouse elder would be almost as important as his contributions as fourth outfielder and occasional designated hitter. Ibañez remains the “shining example” the Mariners anticipated.
Less anticipated was a home-run stroke that conjures comparisons to Williams in 1960, when the baseball legend concluded a career that would leave an impression, 30 years later, on a Miami student named Raul Ibañez.
“I read his book, ‘The Science of Hitting,’ when I was in high school,” Ibañez said. “It was the first hitting book I ever read. My dad used to tell me — I don’t know whether it’s true or not — that Ted Williams used to swing at a leaf, and try to hit it over and over. So I did that, too. I tried to do everything Ted Williams did, that all the greats did.”
In baseball’s chain of life — this is courtesy of baseballreference.com — Williams and Ibañez are separated by only three degrees. Williams’ Red Sox teammate Fritz Dorish played in Baltimore with the great Brooks Robinson, who played on the 1977 Orioles with Dennis Martinez, a 1997 Mariners teammate of Ibañez.
In realty, of course, the left-handed hitters had little in common. Williams made it to the majors in 1939, at age 20, and stayed with the Red Sox through a career twice interrupted by military duty. An All-Star for 17 seasons, Williams was an outspoken, larger-than-life icon whose personality could be polarizing.
Ibañez, who spent the first nine years of his pro career in the Mariners’ organization, didn’t become a full-time player until he hooked up with the 2001 Royals as a free agent. Nine seasons later, he appeared in his first and only All-Star Game, wearing a Philllies uniform.
With a deep, booming voice that sounded like that of John Wayne’s, Williams walked into a room and took over the place. Ibañez speaks in a key of low. He’s not gregarious, but always polite. A Sports Illustrated survey of his peers once ranked him the second friendliest player in baseball, behind Jim Thome.
When Ibañez hears his name mentioned in the same breath as Ted Williams, he blushes.
“It’s definitely humbling and I’m honored,” he said. “But the only thing I try to focus on is wins.”
In lieu of watching a lot of those at Safeco Field this season, Ibañez’s pursuit of an obscure baseball record — Raul chasing Teddy Ballgame: who knew? — has become a reason to pay attention. Williams didn’t hit his 18th home run in 1960 until July 31, so Ibañez is more than a month ahead of the pace.
Williams’ 1960 season, by the way, was his final season. After hitting a homer in his last at-bat at Fenway Park, he retired, inspiring author John Updike to write the incomparable New Yorker essay: “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.”
Ibañez’s exit from baseball won’t be as swashbuckling. Still, when he bids his own adieu to the sport, it’s likely he’ll leave owning a record set by Ted Williams, perhaps the first hitting prospect to while away summer days with a bat in his hands, swinging at a leaf.
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