Quiet work earns Ibañez the Hutch

bob.dutton@thenewstribune.comJanuary 30, 2014 

Former Mariner Raul Ibañez on Thursday will receive the Hutch Award, honoring a major league player who demonstrates “honor, courage and dedication” on and off the field.

ELAINE THOMPSON / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

It isn’t often that life offers the simple symmetry of a Japanese garden. It is too random but for rare exceptions. And it is why those exceptions so often draw our attention and, yes, our appreciation.

One such exception will take place Thursday afternoon in Seattle.

Raul Ibañez is returning to Safeco Field to accept the 2013 Hutch Award at a luncheon in his honor.

“I’m really at a loss for words,” said Ibañez, a three-time Mariner who recently signed a free-agent contract with the Los Angeles Angels. “It’s a tremendous honor. I’m humbled and grateful.”

That reaction, softly respectful in every way, is exactly what anyone would expect from Ibañez, once voted by other players as the second-nicest guy in the game (behind Jim Thome).

That runner-up status somehow also fits Ibañez, who tends to squirm in the media spotlight, particularly when discussing topics that require his use of personal pronouns. That big “I” in Ibañez disappears when he talks.

He has a standard line when asked about an at-bat, particularly a key hit, or any play in which he played a major role: “I just try not to do too much.”

Except there’s much that goes into not doing too much.

Ibañez’s work ethic is legendary even among those who preach hard work as the best path to success. Teammates soon learn anyone looking for Ibañez can likely find him in the batting cage.

“Raul Ibañez believes he got to where he’s at, and he’s been the player he’s been, because of his work ethic,” Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long once told the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger. “He’s not going to leave any stone unturned.”

And he will turn them over quietly.

Ibañez’s first breakout season was 2002 in Kansas City. It was late June, and one of the televisions in the Royals’ clubhouse was tuned to soccer’s FIFA World Cup.

A player scored an acrobatic goal and responded by imitating an airplane, arms spread, as he raced toward and through his teammates in a typical soccer celebration. Many Royals responded with raucous shouts.

That night, Ibañez went 3-for-3 with four RBIs, including a two-run homer that rallied the Royals to an 8-6 victory over the Detroit Tigers at Kauffman Stadium.

Asked afterward, if he considered doing an airplane sprint around the bases on his homer, Ibañez’s eyes went wide. His tone turned quietly serious.

“No, I’d never do that,” he said. “I’d get one in my ear on my next at-bat, and I’d deserve it. You have to respect the game.”

The Hutch Award is now in its 49th year. It is named in honor of Seattle native Fred Hutchinson, a former big league player and manager who died in 1964 at age 45 from lung cancer.

The award is the centerpiece of an annual fundraising campaign for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. The luncheon, over the past 14 years, has raised more the $3.8 million.

The annual recipient is a player who “best exemplifies” Hutchinson’s “honor, courage and dedication” on and off the field. Previous winners include 11 Hall of Famers.

It is, in short, a “good guy” award, which is chosen through a vote of previous winners — a group of good guys picking a new member. The decision always validates a player’s status among his peers.

Ibañez is a three-time winner of the Heart and Hustle Award, awarded by the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association. He is a four-time nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award, baseball’s top honor for community service.

His service activities include chairing the annual Mariners Care Cystic Fibrosis Golf Tournament; supporting the Page Ahead Children’s Literacy Program; serving as spokesman for the Refuse to Abuse program to deter domestic violence; and regular involvement with Make-A-Wish, Boys & Girls Clubs, Seattle’s Children’s Hospital, Treehouse, Covenant House of Pennsylvania and Project HOME.

“Fred Hutchinson exemplified honor, courage and dedication — traits we should all try to live our lives by,” Ibañez said.

Another aside: The one thing that typically infuriates fans more anything is a perceived lack of hustle. Sometimes it’s a false impression, but it nonetheless explains why Ibañez has long been a fan favorite.

“Raul always plays hard,” former Royals manager Tony Pena once said. “Watch him run to first base. He’s not fast. He’s slow. Really slow. Watch him go after a ball in the outfield. I can run faster now, at my age, than he can.

“But Raul always runs hard. People see that. He’s a great example to everyone.”

Told of Pena’s comments, Ibañez shrugged.

“The least I can do is play hard,” he said.

It seems fitting that while Ibañez, who lives is Issaquah, won the Hutch Award while playing for the Mariners, he will accept it Thursday as a member of the Angels.

Pitcher Jamie Moyer, who won the award in 2003, is the only other player to win it as a Mariner. There is no hometown bias in the Hutch Award.

Ibañez’s 18-year career includes three separate tours in Seattle, which selected him in the 36th round of the 1992 draft as a junior-college catcher.

And three times, he was jettisoned by the club in the belief he no longer fit.

The first two times, he proved them wrong.

Ibañez flashed early and was the organization’s 1995 minor league player of the year, but he proved disappointing in repeated big league opportunities over the next five seasons.

The Mariners were about to embark on their 116-victory run when, before the 2001 season, they tired of waiting. That led Ibañez to a three-year tour in Kansas City, where he revamped his swing and resurrected his career.

Tellingly, hard work was at the core of the turnaround.

Ibañez, then 29, was batting .150 in June 2001 and ticketed for a trip back to the minors — effectively a career-ending sentence, given the state of those Royals — when he delayed his departure to meet with Kevin Seitzer.

At the time, Seitzer, now the hitting coach in Toronto, was an ex-player operating a hitting academy in Kansas City with aspirations of becoming a major league hitting coach.

“The player that I saw then,” Seitzer recalled, “was very strong with extremely quick hands, talent oozing out of him. But he was so tight at the plate, and he yanked everything.”

Seitzer convinced Ibañez to change his approach and take the ball to the opposite field. That adjustment coupled with Ibañez’s relentless application unlocked his potential.

“My whole life I had hit, but I really didn’t know how to hit,” Ibañez said. “My swing got shorter. My approach went immediately to left-center, no matter what.”

Ibañez spent less than two weeks in the minors before rejoining Kansas City, and he batted .301 over the remainder of the season with 13 homers and 51 RBIs in 80 games.

Two more productive seasons followed before Ibañez returned to Seattle as a free agent in 2004 when the Mariners outbid the market. This time, he stayed five years before departing after the 2008 season.

Those Mariners, coming off a 101-loss season, were changing directions under new general manager Jack Zduriencik. Their view was that Ibañez, despite consistent production, was an aging player poised on the edge of a decline.

Philadelphia disagreed and signed him to a three-year deal for $31.5 million. Ibañez then validated the Phillies’ belief by hitting a career-high 34 homers, making the All-Star team and helping them reach the World Series.

At the core of his renewed success: more hard work. So much, in fact, that Philadelphia hitting coach Greg Gross often asked him to cut back on his regimen in vain.

“I just don’t think things magically get better,” Ibañez argued. “For me, if you want to do something right, you have to work at it the right way.”

Even so, the Phillies viewed him as a played-out veteran when his production dipped in 2011. In stepped the New York Yankees, who still saw power potential in his left-handed bat and signed him to a one-year deal.

Ibañez responded with 19 homers in the regular season before adding three more in 22 postseason at-bats.

Not enough, apparently. The Yankees showed little interest after the season when he again entered free agency.

That set up a third tour with the Mariners, who signed him last season to help mentor a youthful roster. Ibañez did that and more; his 29 homers matched a record set by Ted Williams for the most by a player over 40.

Circumstances, however, then prompted another parting.

“There’s a very fond spot in this organization for Raul,” Zduriencik said shortly after the season. “We respect him tremendously, but I just think we have to continue to do our due diligence and see how it shakes out.”

The Mariners came to see their roster as too left-handed dominant and believed Ibañez’s diminished outfield range — never a strength — turned him into a first baseman/designated hitter. Not a good fit.

So Ibañez, now 41, moved on again. He signed a $2.75 million, one-year deal with the Angels on Dec. 18 and effectively vowed to prove the Mariners were wrong about him one more time.

“If I didn’t know that I could perform at a high level,” he said, “then I wouldn’t even play the game. I definitely expect to contribute to this team and to be a part of continuing the winning tradition (with the Angels).”

What that means, coincidentally, is he and the Angels will be at Safeco Field on April 8 for the Mariners’ 2014 home opener. It’s not hard (is it?) to imagine how that “Rauuuullll” chant will again roll around the ballpark.

There was really only one time in his career that Ibañez chose to speak forcefully about his exploits. That, too, is telling in its own way.

It was in his first season in Philadelphia in 2009, when his renewed power production prompted speculation that it might be fueled by performance-enhancing drugs.

Ibañez saw the questions as an attack on his integrity.

“I’ll come after people who defame or slander me,” he raged. “It’s pathetic and disgusting. There should be some accountability for people who put that out there.

“You can have my urine, my hair, my blood, my stool — anything you can test. I’ll give you back every dime I’ve ever made (if any test revealed steroids use).”

Athletes often use indignation as an initial defense when such accusations surface. It rarely suffices. With Ibañez, it did.

Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto greeted Ibañez’s arrival last month in a manner that any former teammate, any Mariners fan or, really, anyone who knows him can appreciate.

“I have no expectation that the Angels will get anything but the best he has to offer,” Dipoto said, “because that’s what he’s about.”

Is there any better way to characterize what the Hutch Award seeks in its recipients?

“It is extra special to me to win this award ... in Fred Hutchinson’s hometown and the city my family and I chose to make our home,” Ibañez said.

And even if Ibañez doesn’t play here now, who’s to say, after watching his career unfold, he won’t someday again call Safeco home? And if not?

Well, he’s here today. There’s a symmetry there worth appreciating.

Hutch Award

What: The Hutch Award is presented annually to a major league player who “best exemplifies the fighting spirit and competitive desire” of the late Fred Hutchinson by “persevering through adversity.”

Who: Seattle native Fred Hutchinson attended the University of Washington, pitched for the Seattle Rainiers and the Detroit Tigers, and managed three major league teams. He died in 1964 at age 45 from lung cancer.

Presenter/Beneficiary: The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle presents the award as a means to raise funds and awareness for cancer research. The luncheon has raised more than $3.8 million over the past 14 years.

When/Where: The program begins at noon Thursday at Safeco Field with a silent auction on sports memorabilia.

This year’s recipient: Outfielder/first baseman Raul Ibañez, who recently signed with the Los Angeles Angels after a third tour with the Mariners.

bob.dutton@thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @TNT_Mariners bob.dutton@thenewstribune.com

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