What's eating Raul: The blogger and the steroid controversy
A blogger created a firestorm by merely mentioning "Raul Ibanez" and "steroids"
Ibanez vehemently denied that he has ever used performance-enhancing drugs
His hot start this year is actually consistent with his career performance
Raul Ibanez is one of my favorite people in baseball. We can start there. His oldest son, Raul Jr., was born one day before our oldest daughter Elizabeth, and we exchanged little gifts for the kids once or twice. We talked often about playing chess against each other -- never have, but we talk about it -- and whenever we see each other (which, admittedly is not that often these days) we always have a good time catching up.
So, obviously, I love the Raul Ibanez story. The whole thing. I love everything about it: Here's a hard-working guy, taken in the 36th round of the draft, didn't get up to the big leagues for any extended time until he was 26, was basically released when he was 28, was signed by an abysmal Kansas City team in a "Hell, why not" move that offseason. He was first given 500 at-bats in a season when he was 30. He didn't complain, didn't feel slighted, didn't quit, didn't think about quitting, as far as I know. No, he just kept working and working and working on his game and in Kansas City he put up three pretty-good-to-very-good seasons in a row. Everyone in the clubhouse loved the guy, too.
He signed a long-term deal with Seattle, and even people in Kansas City -- the very people who helped Raul get his career going -- thought that the Mariners overpaid. Instead, he punched up a 120 OPS+ over those five years, drove in almost 100 runs per season, banged 22 or 23 homers a year while playing half his games in a pitchers' ballpark. Sure, maybe some people ripped his defense -- and his defense did fall off the last couple of years -- but he always played hard. Sure, maybe some people ripped his lack of speed, but when you totaled it up he was an average or above-average base runner because he kept his head in the game and played with such passion.
Sure, some people ripped the Phillies for signing Ibanez to a three-year, $31.5 million deal when he's 37. I thought it was great. I was proud of the guy. He's the essence of the self-made ballplayer. He has a lot of fans, too -- I don't mean to say he doesn't -- but I think with someone like Raul, well, he doesn't really flip any of those switches that gets the public or analysts excited. He's not quite a .300 hitter, not quite a 35-home run guy, not quite a big-time on-base percentage guy, not quite an All-Star, not quite ... Ben Oglivie is one of his comps, and that's a good one. Few people noticed Oglivie (except the one year when he just seemed to emerge from nowhere and lead the league in home runs). Harold Baines is another good comparison, I think. Raul's just a good player, a damned good player, who is most appreciated by those who are closest to him.
OK, so that was the Raul Ibanez story ... until this year. Then, this year, as everyone knows, he got off to a preposterous start. After 55 games, he was hitting .329/.386/.676 with 19 homers and 54 RBIs. He was tearing up the National League.
What followed, I think, was inevitable. A 37-year-old guy putting up those numbers? A guy few people had noticed the last five years? Yeah, inevitable. And inevitability played out in this blog post by a Midwest Sports Fans blogger named Jerod Morris.
I'll talk about the post in a minute -- I don't know Jerod at all but feel like in many ways he's getting a bad rap here -- but before that I want to say that the post is almost beside the point. Someone, at some point, was going to make an insinuation about Raul Ibanez. I know this because, privately, I received e-mails from people who made insinuations. How could it be any other way? In this day and age -- after A-Rod, after Manny, after Barry, after Clemens, after McGwire, after Palmeiro, after Giambi, after Sheffield after BALCO, after the Mitchell Report and Congressional hearings, after everything and more, after all of that -- there was no way around the whispers.
Then, what happened was this blogger, Jerod, took the whispers above ground. He didn't necessarily think he was taking it above ground ... it seems he was, as he says, mostly just responding to a friend in a fantasy league. But he wrote a long blog post -- something you know I can appreciate -- trying to get to the bottom of the great Ibanez start. He found himself running into brick walls. He could not credit it entirely to Ibanez's new home park. He does make the conclusion that Ibanez has hit most of his home runs at either: a) good home run ballparks or b) against terrible pitchers. But he doesn't find that to be compelling.
Now I'll say here that my personal opinion is that Jerod missed something in his analysis, and I'll get to that in a second. But the point is: He did not find the answer he was looking for, so he put a megaphone to the whispers. I don't think he was making accusations. I don't think he was some blogger in his mother's basement mouthing off. I really think it was a well-intentioned piece meant to make the larger point that so many of us have made -- in this day and age, it's hard to know what's real.
Trouble is, he pointed at Raul ... and that was unfair. Raul did not deserve that. And, beyond that, the Internet is an echo chamber. When the blog was Twittered and linked and finally written about, the shades of gray that I think are in the longer piece were gone. Suddenly, it was all about some guy -- some BLOGGER guy -- charging Ibanez with a steroid crime. Suddenly it was about a few buzzwords and a couple of juicy quotes and 140 characters. Well ... another sign of the times.
And then it turned into a bit of a scandal. Suddenly, there was all sorts of beside-the-point talk about blogging and accusations and responsibility and ... ugh. I often think that people are looking for excuses to get into these dreadful conversations.
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