Raul Ibañez treats the sweat that appears to be perpetually trickling down his bald head like a family heirloom.
Before games, the perspiration is a result of Ibañez’s persistent activity.
Into the video room. Into the batting cage. Into the weight room. Back to the batting cage. Batting practice on the field. Work in the outfield.
His clubhouse locker is a lonely place because Ibañez appears to stop by merely for a quick change of clothes.
That daily workload is what has led the Seattle Mariners star to his unexpected baseball-punishing season at age 41.
While Ibañez spends the All-Star break with his family, many others have taken the moment to look at his robust first-half numbers. He was supposed to play part time this year, but instead he has become Seattle’s everyday left fielder. He has 24 home runs in 277 at-bats, tied for fourth most in the American League, helping to produce a staggering .578 slugging percentage.
“Who knew?” Ibañez said of his playing time.
Totals at the plate are secondary to Ibañez. That sweat, the perseverance during his 18th major league season, being righteous — that’s what Ibañez is trying to pass on.
“Guys like Jay (Buhner) and Edgar (Martinez) and Dan Wilson and Jamie Moyer, they taught me more about life,” said Ibañez, who was drafted by the Mariners in 1992 and made his big league debut four years later.
“I didn’t have children. I wasn’t married yet. But they taught me more about being a good husband and a good father, and I learned a lot of life lessons from them. Obviously, about hard work and all of that other stuff on the field, but I really looked up to them as men and as people.”
The understanding from those lessons is what Ibañez is trying to instill in younger players when he laughs with Kyle Seager by the underground batting cage or stops to chat with rookies Nick Franklin and Brad Miller at their lockers.
He’s also experienced enough to know that raised home run totals at a raised age bring raised eyebrows.
As Major League Baseball works to move past the full-fledged Steroid Era, the doubt it provided lingers. Its stench even clasps to the performance of a man respected for who he is more than his baseball success.
When the topic of doubt is broached, Ibañez logically explains his stance. He knows any answer he gives leaves him in a no-win situation. He’s disappointed the discussion is still part of baseball.
He also makes a promise if he ever fails a test.
“I’ll give every penny I ever made back,” Ibañez said.
His disdain for hypocrisy makes him wonder how he could tell his oldest son, Raul Jr., to not do drugs if he was. He goes on to explain that outside perception to him isn’t important. God, his family and his teammates know him. That’s what matters, he says.
Ibañez has hammered various types of pitches from various types of pitchers the last two months. He tightened up his swing in early May and has been cranking away since.
“We all have rhythm and timing, and we want to have as little moving parts as possible,” said Mariners hitting coach Dave Hansen, a former teammate of Ibañez’s. “When we are out of rhythm, the mechanics start to come apart. Really, he just worked to address that and simplify the swing — be more direct to the ball, put himself closer to a striking position that he wants to be in, and he’s held onto it for a long time.”
Ibañez will start the second half five homers short of the season record for a player 41 or older, set by Ted Williams in 1960. He’ll continue the grind that began even before he was a 36th-round pick who was told he would never make it.
Once he did, he spent the start of his big league career on Seattle’s bench. He wonders if that is helping him now in his third stint with the Mariners.
“I didn’t have an extra 2,000 at-bats on me and on my body,” he said. “So I sometimes think it was maybe a blessing in disguise.’’
As his offseason signing has turned out to be.
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