#58 Raul Ibanez
That was a rallying cry in 2003 when the Royals made their sensational run. Raul was a fan favorite who played the game hard, always had a smile on his face, and came from nowhere to become a formidable slugger. In the first Royals game I ever took my then girlfriend to (now wife), Raul Ibanez and Jeff Suppan appeared in a commercial on the Jumbotron for the Royals Wives' Cookbook. They were dressed in chef hats and called each other "Chef Jeff" and "Chef Raul". She got a huge kick out of it and Raul was immediately her favorite player. To this day, if the Royals are playing the Mariners, she'll ask how Chef Raul is doing.
Raul's parents fled from communist Cuba to New York, where Raul was born. He attended high school and college in Miami, Florida. In 1992, he was selected in the 36th round of the draft by the Seattle Mariners out of Miami Dade College, a round in which teams are usually looking to fill out the rosters of their lower minor league affiliates. He began as a catcher and hit .304 in his first professional season, earning him a promotion the following season. After hitting .284 in low A ball, he earned another promotion to A ball where he hit .274. In 1994 he hit .312 and was named a Midwest League All-Star at catcher. In 1995, he posted a terrific season, hitting .332 with 20 home runs and 108 RBI. He was again named an All-Star, and was named by Baseball America as the top catcher in Class A.
Ibanez continued his torrid hitting at AA, and was promoted after just nineteen games and a .368 average. He didn't seem to be overmatched at AAA Tacoma, posting a .284 average, and earning a taste of big league action with five at bats in September with the Mariners.
For the next two seasons, Ibanez would toil in Tacoma, but get only a handful of at bats in Seattle. He hit .304 as a minor leaguer in 1997, but dropped off to .216 the following season. Out of "options" in 1999, Raul finally made the Mariners roster serving as a fourth outfielder and appearing in 87 games. He hit a decent .258, showing modest power with seven home runs and a .421 slugging percentage.
He would appear in 92 games in 2000, hitting just .229 with a weak .329 slugging percentage. He was called upon to play all three games of the American League Division Series, collecting three hits in eight at bats. In the American League Championship Series against New York, he took the collar, going hitless in nine at bats.
The Mariners had kept Ibanez around as a bat off the bench, and because he was out of options, and some also felt they kept him around because of his close friendship with superstar Alex Rodriguez. With A-Rod departing for Texas, the team felt the 29 year old Ibanez was more expendable, and they non-tendered him that December. The January, the Royals signed him to a minor league deal and invited him as a non-roster player to spring training.
He has the best running times to first base of anybody on the club. He's putting forth a tremendous effort."
-Manager Tony Muser
After impressing Royals coaches in spring training, Ibanez made the ballclub as a reserve outfielder. He hit just .208, forcing the Royals to demote him to Omaha on May 12, which required clearing waivers. No team wanted him and he accepted his minor league assignment. He returned to the majors a week later, but was even worse, going 1-16 and dragging his average to a paltry .150 before clearing waivers and being demoted to Omaha again.
"Why doesn't anybody want me? I don't put the blame on the Royals, I don't put the blame on the manager, I don't put the blame on anybody else....I hold myself accountable and go out and work on the things I feel like I need to work on."
Injuries to outfielders Dee Brown and Mark Quinn forced the Royals to bring back Raul and this time he made the most of his opportunity. He collected two hits and a home run on June 19, and drove in three runs in a game a week later. In a series in Cleveland, he hit a home run in three straight games, driving in six. On July 21, he collected three hits to raise his average to .300. He finished the year having appeared in a career high 104 games, hitting .280/.353/.495 with 13 home runs and 54 RBI. Ibanez credited his turnaround to an intense three day hitting session with former Royal Kevin Seitzer, adopting the Charlie Lau philosophy of hitting and getting regular playing time in Kansas City.
"In Seattle sometimes I went a week, then got one pinch-hit at-bat. Then go another week and get one pinch-hit at-bat and that starts getting tricky. But if you're playing more, you can stay fresh, stay sharper, keep your swing shorter and more compact, and you'll be more productive."
Ibanez was pencilled into the starting lineup for the 2002 season, spending most of the time as designated hitter. Playing every day, Ibanez struggled mightily, and by June his average was below the Mendoza Line. From that point on he went on a tear, hitting .321/.371/.543 the rest of the way. On July 14, he hit a grand slam and a three run home run for a career high seven RBI. He finished the year at .294/.346/.537 with 24 home runs and 103 RBI.
After giving Ibanez a $3 million contract for 2003, the Royals were counting on him to be a major part of their offense in left field.
"I know I can improve,...I feel good about the numbers I had last year, but I can top them. I'm just getting started, hopefully."
The Royals got off to a surprisingly good start that season, and for awhile it looked like they would never lose. On April 10, Ibanez drove in three runs, including a two run home run in the eighth to give the Royals a 4-2 win, their seventh straight win to begin the season. The Royals would win their first nine games, and sixteen of their first nineteen. Ibanez was a big part of the hot start, hitting .330/.392/.549 in the month of April.
In May, Raul got some revenge off the club that had written him off when he hit three home runs in a series in Seattle. He had a hot July, hitting .341/.370/.516 as the Royals went 15-11 and ended the month still clinging to first place. On August 17, he hit a critical two run home run against the Twins to keep the Royals in first place. Just a week later, the Royals would fall out of first place. By September they were out of first place for good.
Raul enjoyed another great season, hitting .294/.345/.454 with 18 home runs and 90 RBI for the year. That winter he filed for free agency, although he had made earlier comments about how much he had enjoyed living in Kansas City. General Manager Allard Baird made it clear he wanted to get a deal with Ibanez done quickly and offered Raul a two year $8 million deal. The Mariners offered the thirty-two year old slugger a third guaranteed year for a total value of $13.25 million. Ibanez returned to Seattle, leaving a void in the lineup in Kansas City.
"We wanted to keep Raul...That was our first priority. But as things turned out, it was just not a good (financial) fit for us."
To fill that void, the Royals turned to Juan Gonzalez. Oops.
In Seattle, Ibanez earned every penny of that three year contract and more, earning a contract extension through 2008. Over his four years in Seattle, Ibanez has averaged .290/.353/.476 with 23 home runs and 95 RBI. In 2006, he had his finest season ever, hitting .289/.353/.516 with a career high 33 home runs and 123 RBI, good for third in the league. He even garnered some MVP votes, even though he played for a losing ballclub.
Many thought Raul was close to washed up when he signed with Seattle. Every year critics say he's about to decline his performance. Every year he proves his critics wrong. He'll be thirty-six years old this year, and continues to enjoy a better career in what should be his twilight, than he did when he was a young athlete.
And every time he comes back to Kansas City, I'll chant: