Raul Ibanez understands the skeptics who’ll have trouble buying the fairy-tale-sounding version of this unlikeliest of seasons he’s having.
Ibanez himself barely keeps from laughing when detailing what’s really gone into his hitting 24 home runs by the All-Star break at age 41. Of how his former high school security guard brought him a makeshift practice bat in Pittsburgh two months ago that’s catapulted his game to levels few his age have experienced.
And how his onetime guitar-playing-teammate-turned-Mariners hitting coach actually allowed the bat into official team cage sessions, before devising a way to work the bizarre-looking paddle device into his daily routine.
Ibanez realizes how it all must sound when he mixes in stories of his gluten-free diet, his sessions in a home hyperbaric chamber, some Brazilian jiu-jitsu training and his swinging at leaves on trees as a teenager. But every fairy-tale requires a leap of faith and Ibanez hopes those scrutinizing him can make one the same way he has throughout multiple stops of his very improbable career.
“All I’d ask of anyone is that they look at my background and what my entire career has been about,” said the undrafted high-school player and 36th-round pick out of junior college. “People like to tell you why you can’t do something. I’ve always been someone who’ll look at why I can do something.”
Ibanez doesn’t go in-depth into the steroids question he knows is lingering, because he can’t win. If he says too much, it looks defensive and self-aggrandizing; too little, it comes across as evasive.
All he’ll say is that he gets tested regularly, has nothing financially or ego-wise to gain from cheating this late in his career and wants to set an example for his five children, especially eldest son, Raul Jr., 11.
“I want him to know that it is possible,” Ibanez said. “That you can set out to do the things in life that you put your mind to. But you have to work hard at it. Nothing is given to you.”
A father’s example
Ibanez learned that from his father, Juan, a chemist from Cuba who spent two years working in Fidel Castro’s sugar cane fields rather than abandon his family. The Cuban government in the late-1960s offered Juan the chance to emigrate to the United States ahead of his wife and Ibanez’s two older brothers.
But he didn’t want to separate the family for an extended period, so he accepted their alternative offer of two years toiling under the hot sun. Then, when the family was allowed to head to Miami, shortly before Ibanez was born, Juan labored again as a loading dock handler for Carnival Cruise lines.
By the time Ibanez was a small child, his stocky dad with the bulging biceps had graduated to picking up cruise line officials in his car and driving them around.
“There were never any shortcuts with him,” Ibanez said. “If they needed him someplace at 7 in the morning and he wasn’t supposed to work that day, he’d be there 10 minutes early.”
It was his father who suggested he try swinging at the same leaf dangling from a backyard tree. He had heard the great Ted Williams had done it and felt his ball playing son might gain added focus and concentration.
Williams would become a recurring theme in Ibanez’s life, right up to this year, with Ibanez now challenging The Splendid Splinter’s age 41 home-run record of 29 set in 1960.
But Ibanez’s father never lived to see it. He died of a heart attack in 1992 when Ibanez was attending Miami Dade Community College.
Ibanez remembers arriving home and his paramedic brother telling him his father was in the hospital.
“I had a game that night and I asked him whether it was really that urgent that I go visit him and he told me ‘Yeah, you’d better go there now’,” Ibanez said. “He died while we were in the car riding over.”
The Mariners drafted Ibanez a few weeks later. He made his debut as a catcher in 1996, but spent three more years toiling in the minors, switching positions and riding the bench before his first full-time big-league shot in 1999.
Ibanez now admits he’d planned to turn down Seattle’s low-round signing bonus, but felt overwhelmed by the constant grief his father’s death had wrought upon his family’s home.
“I just couldn’t take hearing my mother cry every night,” he said. “It was so hard. I had to get out. So, I signed.”
Greg Tekerman, 52, remembers the impact Ibanez’s father had on his work ethic. Tekerman was the security guard at Miami Sunset Senior High School and doubled as a coaching assistant on Ibanez’s baseball team.
“I remember we coaches went out to dinner after practice one night,” Tekerman said. “We came back two hours later and Raul was there under the parking lot light hitting baseballs against a fence.”
Tekerman gave Ibanez the Williams book, “The Science of Hitting.” Tekerman knew the book’s co-author, John Underwood, and figured his players would appreciate its insights.
But Ibanez seemed to take the book to heart.
“He was very open-minded and he liked to try different things,” Underwood said. “He was always trying to soak up everybody’s information.”
Behold the Tek Bat
The pair kept in touch over the years while Tekerman — who had no formal training as a coach — studied hitting techniques and began giving private hitting lessons to high-school players. Along the way, he developed several teaching contraptions.
Last year, when Ibanez played for the Yankees, Tekerman visited him toting a paddle-like bat with an ultra-thick handle and flat-sided barrel — looking like something better suited for cricket, or boarding school discipline.
Ibanez humored his pal with practice swings, but never intended to use the device again. Then came this past May, when Tekerman visited Ibanez at the team hotel during a series in Pittsburgh and brought a duplicate of the same makeshift bat, dubbed Tek Bat. Ibanez, by then hitting .180 and with little to lose, brought the bat to hitting coach Dave Hansen, his onetime teammate who’d taught him to play guitar. They tinkered with it, looking for ways it could be of any use.
“I’m just fortunate he has such an open policy on that stuff,” Ibanez said. “A lot of hitting coaches on a lot of teams would have said, ‘Are you kidding me with this?’ ”
The heavy black bat is designed to keep a hitter from rolling his wrists as he makes contact. It forces the back elbow to stay down and tight to the body, so a hitter can swing with his upper and lower halves combining forces.
Ibanez used it in an indoor cage and liked how his swing changed. He homered his next game against Oakland, kept practicing with the bat, then hit another homer a few days later at Yankee Stadium and two more the game after that.
Since practicing with the bat — always indoors, never in regular batting practice — Ibanez has hit .292 with a .336 on-base percentage, .642 slugging mark, 22 homers and 50 runs batted in.
“We had to find a way to make it work for him,” Hansen said. “Not every hitter is going to be able to use it. I know I can’t use it. It just depends on the type of swing you use.”
The bat actually causes physical pain if a hitter rolls his wrists on contact. Ibanez and Hansen fine-tuned their approach during checked-swing drills and underhand toss sessions.
“It’s like one piece to all of these other elements we’ve worked on,” Hansen said. “But it’s an important piece. It’s about what you’re doing the moment that bat meets the ball.”
Hansen said some of the team’s younger players are starting to use the bat in their workouts. Part of it, he figures, is just because they see Ibanez using it and tend to follow his every move.
“You’ve got to give him credit for trying something like that so late in his career,” Hansen said. “I wish I’d had it in me to do something like that. But that’s just Raul. He’ll be open to anything if he thinks it might help.”
Last Sept. 22, Ibanez was hitting .222 and assumed the games ahead were the final ones of his career.
“At that point,” he said, “I began treating every game like it was the last one I’d play.”
That night, he clubbed two home runs in a 10-9 win over Oakland in 14 innings. He hit two more the final week to lift New York into the postseason, then cranked a pair against Baltimore in a pivotal Game 3 comeback win in the Division Series.
When the Yankees were finally eliminated by Detroit in the American League Championship Series, Ibanez felt he still had something left.
“I was sitting on the dugout bench in Detroit and thinking ‘It can’t end this way — not now’.”
Ibanez had planned to retire and move his wife, Tery, and children Raul, 11, Sophia, 9, Victoria, 7, Carolina, 4, and newborn son Luca permanently to the Eastside home he’d kept since last playing here.
$2.75 million bargain
They stuck to the relocation part, while he cast a free-agent net. That the Mariners signed him for $2.75 million as a left-handed hitting specialist who could mentor younger players was merely a bonus.
He geared his body over the winter for the grind. The in-home hyperbaric chamber he’d built helped him recover quickly from punishing leg and cardiovascular routines.
He’d learned years ago that older athletes can maintain power, but speed and agility are easily lost. That’s where he focuses his biggest workout efforts.
“I wasn’t supposed to get all this playing time, so it’s not like this was part of some grand plan I had to go out with a bang,” Ibanez said. “I’ve been truly blessed and am trying to take it all in.”
There are days the grind wears on him, so he tells himself, “I feel great!” over and over until his mind believes it. The mind, he added, can help a person do unimaginable things.
“It really is a mindset as much as anything physical,” he said. “You have to be able to push yourself to limits that where your body screams at you to stop, you keep on going.”
And so he does, hoping that, if he can believe in himself, others will too. That they’ll make that leap of faith along with him, knowing that, once in a while, fairy-tales can come true.