Raul Iba√±ez was a36th-round draft pick who took four years to get out of Class A, five years tofind a position and 10 years to escape the minor leagues for good. He spent hisyouth learning to be a catcher and his prime sitting on the bench in Seattle.He was nontendered by the Mariners, designated for assignment twice by theRoyals and nearly exiled to the Orix Blue Wave in Japan. After he finallysecured his place in the majors, in his late 20s, he played for mediocre teamsin small- to middle-sized markets, a fixture only on "most-underrated"lists. So when Iba√±ez joined the defending-champion Phillies this year, a fewmonths shy of his 37th birthday, he could not bear to waste any more time. Hehad waited 17 professional seasons for this one.
He batted .312with 22 home runs in his first 2½ months, a welcome splash of cold water for ateam still groggy from a World Series hangover. But by the third week in June,Iba√±ez was suffering from a sore left groin and, unbeknownst to the public, asmall but serious muscle tear near his abdomen. On a trip to Toronto he wasconfronted with an excruciating decision: He could have surgery to repair thetear and miss a large chunk of time, or he could return after a short stint onthe disabled list and play his dream season hurt. "We all asked him if hewould have the surgery," Phillies first base coach Davey Lopes says,"and he told everyone, 'I won't do that. I'll do anything butthat.'"
After consultingwith a neuromuscular specialist in Toronto and a surgeon in Philadelphia,Iba√±ez chose the DL, followed by aggressive rehabilitation. Every day he dropsonto a mat in the Phillies' clubhouse, performs core and hip exercises withtrainer Scott Sheridan and then heads for the field. Lopes believes thatIba√±ez's swing, speed and statistics have suffered because of the injury—hebatted just .232 with 12 homers in 72 games after coming off the DL—but hisclubhouse cred clearly spiked. "A lot of guys in his position would havesaid, 'Oh, my God, I'll just have the surgery,'" says Phillies utilitymanGreg Dobbs, who played with Iba√±ez in Seattle. "But he's the type who says,'You tell me I can't, then I will.'"
The playoffs are apotent pain reliever. After hobbling to the end of the regular season, Iba√±ezbatted .308 with a .471 on-base percentage in the National League DivisionSeries against the Rockies. In Game 1 of the National League ChampionshipSeries he hit a three-run homer off Dodgers reliever George Sherrill, the firstSherrill had allowed to a lefthanded hitter all season. After Philadelphiathumped the Dodgers 11--0 on Sunday night, the Phillies led the series 2--1 andIba√±ez was experiencing exactly what he saw on television last fall, shortlyafter which he told Dobbs, "I got goose bumps. I want to be part ofthat." As for his health, Iba√±ez insists he has not been limited,regardless of the statistical evidence. "Absolutely I worry about it,"says his wife, Tery, "but how do you tell him not to play?"
Iba√±ez is tobaseball what Kurt Warner was to the NFL, a late-blooming talent no one knewhow to develop. The Mariners drafted him in 1992 but were unsure whether he wasbetter suited to be a catcher or a first baseman. Neither, it appeared, and hewas moved to the outfield, where the club had him sit behind the likes of RichAmaral, Brian Hunter, Butch Huskey and Stan Javier. When Iba√±ez did get toplay, he wanted so badly to prove himself that he developed an uppercut in hisswing and a tendency to pull every pitch he saw. After the Royals signed him asa nonroster invitee in 2001, then general manager Allard Baird told Iba√±ez,"Raul, I believe you're a better hitter than you do. And that's aproblem." The Royals put Iba√±ez through waivers twice in '01, and bothtimes he went unclaimed by all 29 other teams.
After passingthrough waivers the second time, in June, Iba√±ez called former Royals thirdbaseman Kevin Seitzer, who was giving hitting lessons in nearby Overland Park,Kans. Before reporting to Triple A Omaha, Iba√±ez met with Seitzer, whoinstructed him to shorten his stroke and try to line every pitch the other way,at the shortstop's head.
The followingspring Tony Pe√±a took over as Royals manager, and he told Iba√±ez, "Just letme know when you get tired." Iba√±ez replied, "I won't." He got morethan 300 at bats for the first time and over the next six years was a .291hitter who averaged 22 home runs. Meanwhile, the teams for which he played—theRoyals (2001 through '03) and the Mariners ('04 through '08)—averaged 91 lossesper season. "Even I sometimes lost track of him," says Marlins managerFredi Gonzalez, who knew Iba√±ez when he was a student at Sunset High in Miami,where Gonzalez was a part-time security guard.
Iba√±ez was adevalued treasure, same as his father. Juan Iba√±ez was a college-educatedchemist in Castro-ruled Cuba who fled to the U.S. in the late 1960s. Heeventually settled in Miami, where he took a job stocking warehouses forCarnival Cruise Lines. Outside of family and friends, few recognized what thisoverqualified man had to offer. Juan would tell Raul, "Never complain, butbelieve anything is possible." An avid baseball fan, Juan died of a heartattack in 1992, two months before his son was drafted by the Mariners.
The Philliesseemed to be out of their minds last winter when they signed Iba√±ez to athree-year contract for $31.5 million, given the bad economy and the fact thathe would be 39 when the deal expired. Philadelphia could have kept leftfielderPat Burrell, who signed a two-year deal for $16 million with the Rays, or madea run at former Phillie Bobby Abreu, who signed a one-year deal for $5 millionwith the Angels. But Benny Looper, the Phillies' assistant general manager, wasa Mariners scout when the team plucked Iba√±ez out of Miami-Dade CommunityCollege. Iba√±ez reminded Looper of a lefthanded Edgar Martinez, thesweet-swinging former Mariners DH who was just getting warmed up when he hithis 30s. Iba√±ez used to study Martinez and think, That's how my career is goingto go.
To stall hisbiological clock, Iba√±ez bought an $18,000 hyperbaric chamber, hired achiropractor and a masseuse, and employed every physical-therapy technique fromjoint alignment to muscle activation to Brazilian jujitsu. "Everything hedoes is as hard core as it gets," says his off-season trainer, PeteBommarito, who also works out NFL running backs Frank Gore, Marion Barber andMaurice Jones-Drew.
Fans have heardthis story line before, about ballplayers who defy the aging process. In Junethe blog midwestsportsfans.com posted an article about Iba√±ez that includedthis passage: "Any aging hitter who puts up numbers this much better thanhis career average is going to immediately generate suspicion that the numbersare not natural, that perhaps he is under the influence of some sort ofperformance enhancer." The piece might have faded into cyberspace, but thenext day Iba√±ez told The Philadelphia Inquirer, "You can have my urine, myhair, my blood, my stool—anything you can test." And if he tested positive?"I'll give you back every dime I've ever made."
For Iba√±ez, justmaking the blogs represents some sort of progress. After Philly's Game 3victory on Sunday night, he reflected on his potholed path and laugheduproariously at some of the more difficult moments—.220 seasons, minor leaguedemotions, the close call with Japan. "I'd be lying if I told you I alwaysthought it would work out," Iba√±ez said, "but this is what you do itfor."
DAVID J. PHILLIP/AP
WHAT A CATCH Newcomer Iba√±ez helped carry his new team in the first half and threw in his best season in the field for good measure.
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