Actually, it took a couple of phone calls just to get Ibanez a tryout for Miami-Dade College. Two years later the Mariners snapped him up just before his 20th birthday in the 1992 draft.
It’s safe to say Ibanez just might be the best 36th-round draft pick in baseball right now.
But after six trips back to the minors after making his big-league debut in 1996, a release and two turns on the free-agent market, Ibanez went from a catcher with no baseball future to his first All-Star Game at age 37. In fact, the All-Star Game was just his third game back after going to the disabled list with a strained groin.
In his fourth game back he pushed his team-leading homer total to 24. That’s one more than he had in 2008 at pitcher-friendly Safeco Field. Better yet, Ibanez missed 21 games with the strained groin in which the Phillies went 10-11. With Ibanez in the lineup the Phillies are 39-27.
But let’s make no mistake about it – Ibanez’s success isn’t measured by statistics. That’s just too easy. No, there’s a pretty good reason why Ibanez is the favorite player of a lot of jaded media types, teammates and fans. Sure, he is turning in a career year in his first season with the Phillies, but if Ibanez had slugged half as many homers it’s doubtful that would make him any less popular with the ink-stained wretches and veteran ballplayers.
Call it simply humanness and grace. Ibanez actually looks at people when he talks to them. He remembers names and faces. He is borderline obsessed with his daily workout regime, but always has time for a quick conversation.
Yes, it’s a cliché, but Ibanez is a regular guy in a business where there aren’t too many regular guys.
“He can go out to eat with his family at Islas Canarias restaurant on a Sunday and nobody will look at him twice,” said Greg Tekerman, a former assistant who coached Ibanez at Miami Sunset High to the Miami-Herald.
Joe Posnanski, the columnist for Sports Illustrated and the Kansas City Star, got to know Ibanez a bit when the player was finding his way with the Royals. Quite simply, Posnanski says Ibanez is his favorite player.
And there is no second place.
I thought about this quite a bit during the All-Star Game in St. Louis because there I saw an old friend … Raul Ibanez. I should say that Raul has this ability — and you know people like this — he is everybody’s friend. I would never say that anyone is IMPOSSIBLE to dislike because, let’s face it, some people don’t need any reason at all to dislike. But I would put it this way … anyone who dislikes Raul Ibanez would have a hard time defending it in a court of law. He’s smart and thoughtful and humble, three pretty great things to be. You probably know that Raul was the oldest first-time All-Star position player ever, and so reporters were gathered around him, firing all the questions that get asked at such things — from the absurd (“So, what kind of wine did Ichiro send you as congratulations?”) to the more absurd (“When did you realize you were here?”) — and he answered every question in his usual attentive way (in both accent-free English and accent-free Spanish), and you could see every person (no matter their country of origin) leaving the table with the same “Raul is my friend” expression on their faces.
That expression is all over the place these days. Seattle, Kansas City, Philadelphia, St. Louis and back home in Miami. A good guy is having a good year… it’s about time.