SEATTLE — Raul Ibanez speaks carefully on the topic of his .180 batting average, because he doesn’t want to be misunderstood.
He notes that it’s far too early — 61 at-bats — to worry about numbers. One short hot streak will take care of that.
“I’ve always hit, and I’ve always gone through stretches like this,” he said during the Mariners’ recent series in Pittsburgh. “If you went through a 50 at-bat stretch in July, it wouldn’t be something you’d even think about. You’d know, but you wouldn’t really know.”
But that’s standard ballplayer mindset, particularly from a ballplayer that has gone through the ups and downs of 18 seasons.
The part that fires up Ibanez, and leads to passionate words that he realizes might raise eyebrows, has to do with the reaction of the world at large to his struggles. Mainly, the insinuation that the end is near, that at 40 he is finally succumbing to the inevitable ravages of age.
“I’ve gotten to the point where, no one likes to get knocked down, but I embrace getting knocked down, because I loooove, I absolutely love, getting back up,” he said. “There’s more character in getting back up. It takes more character, more will, more determination to get back up than when everything is great.”
Ibanez, thus, views his low average, the doubters, the 1-for-23 streak accumulated mostly on the previous trip that got him into this predicament, as mere fuel to drive him toward recovery and ultimate success.
“I’m not saying I love stinking up the place. I’m not saying that. But I love, I thrive in adversity,” Ibanez said. “I always have. Always, when my back’s against the wall, that’s when I do my best fighting.
“I’m comfortable where I am right now. It’s gotten to the point where I know they say, you have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Throughout the last 10, 11 or 12 years, whatever it is, I understand what that means, because I thrive in that environment.”
On the subject of age, Ibanez believes that his fitness regimen has served him well, along with a change in his diet about four years ago in which he cut out gluten and dairy products.
Though he turns 41 next month, Ibanez said he feels no different than he did early in his career — better, in some respects.
“I remember before I hit 30, people said, ‘Wait until you hit 30,’.” Ibanez said. “Then I got to 30, and they said 35 is the number. Then they said 40 is the number. Now I’m thinking, when is that number?
“I’m sure at some point, it will happen. But physically I feel great, I wake up every morning, I feel good. I come to the ballpark, and I can take as many swings as I want and physically do anything I want, and I don’t feel fatigued or anything like that.”
Ibanez is convinced that his dietary changes, particular the absence of gluten, have allowed him better recovery from his workouts and games.
“I don’t have any joint soreness ever,” he said. “It’s kind of a weird thing, but it’s a tested thing. Time tested. I’ve told other guys about it, and they’ve had the same results.
“Soreness is a thing of the past. I have to really get in the gym and really blast, have a really intense, crazy workout, and I’ll feel some soreness the next day. But doing normal activity, I don’t feel anything.”
That’s obviously not to say Ibanez is the same player he was in his prime, and exceeded 20 homers seven times (twice over 30), and drove in 100 runs four times. But the Mariners still believe he can be impactful in a part-time role.
“You want everybody to do well, but you can only play so many guys,” manager Eric Wedge said. “But it’s a long season, and with his track record, you know he’s going to contribute.”
But even while mired under .200, with his playing time reduced, Ibanez still is providing the guidance and counseling the Mariners coveted from him when they signed him as a free agent over the winter.
“He’s always watching,” Michael Morse said. “He’s a good guy to go to for help. He’s a good guy on any team. It doesn’t matter if you’re the Yankees or a young team, he’s always going to help guys in a certain way.”
“He has something to offer whether he’s playing or not,” Wedge said. “Of course, he’d rather be playing. Everyone would rather play, and I respect that. He’ll have more opportunities.”
Ibanez is pleased with the way the Mariners hung together through the recent adversity of seven losses in nine games, including their 1-5 trip to Texas. They have rebounded by winning eight of their next 12, which Ibanez sees as a collective manifestation of his theory about getting back up even stronger after being knocked down.
“When things are great, we can’t tell the things we may need to work on,” he said. “It’s great that situations or weaknesses get exposed now so that we can work through them, pull together and move forward, and be a better team for it. I think that’s what’s happened.”