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Raul Ibañez was a 36th-round draft pick who took four years to get out of Class A, five years to find a position and 10 years to escape the minor leagues for good. He spent his youth 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 the Royals and nearly exiled to the Orix Blue Wave in Japan. After he finally secured his place in the majors, in his late 20s, he played for mediocre teams in small- to middle-sized markets, a fixture only on "most-underrated" lists. So when Ibañez joined the defending-champion Phillies this year, a few months shy of his 37th birthday, he could not bear to waste any more time. He had waited 17 professional seasons for this one.
He batted .312 with 22 home runs in his first 2½ months, a welcome splash of cold water for a team still groggy from a World Series hangover. But by the third week in June, Ibañez was suffering from a sore left groin and, unbeknownst to the public, a small but serious muscle tear near his abdomen. On a trip to Toronto he was confronted with an excruciating decision: He could have surgery to repair the tear and miss a large chunk of time, or he could return after a short stint on the disabled list and play his dream season hurt. "We all asked him if he would have the surgery," Phillies first base coach Davey Lopes says, "and he told everyone, 'I won't do that. I'll do anything but that.'"
After consulting with a neuromuscular specialist in Toronto and a surgeon in Philadelphia, Ibañez chose the DL, followed by aggressive rehabilitation. Every day he drops onto a mat in the Phillies' clubhouse, performs core and hip exercises with trainer Scott Sheridan and then heads for the field. Lopes believes that Ibañez's swing, speed and statistics have suffered because of the injury—he batted just .232 with 12 homers in 72 games after coming off the DL—but his clubhouse cred clearly spiked. "A lot of guys in his position would have said, 'Oh, my God, I'll just have the surgery,'" says Phillies utilityman Greg Dobbs, who played with Ibañez in Seattle. "But he's the type who says, 'You tell me I can't, then I will.'"
The playoffs are a potent pain reliever. After hobbling to the end of the regular season, Ibañez batted .308 with a .471 on-base percentage in the National League Division Series against the Rockies. In Game 1 of the National League Championship Series he hit a three-run homer off Dodgers reliever George Sherrill, the first Sherrill had allowed to a lefthanded hitter all season. After Philadelphia thumped the Dodgers 11--0 on Sunday night, the Phillies led the series 2--1 and Ibañez was experiencing exactly what he saw on television last fall, shortly after which he told Dobbs, "I got goose bumps. I want to be part of that." As for his health, Ibañez 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?"
Ibañez is to baseball what Kurt Warner was to the NFL, a late-blooming talent no one knew how to develop. The Mariners drafted him in 1992 but were unsure whether he was better suited to be a catcher or a first baseman. Neither, it appeared, and he was moved to the outfield, where the club had him sit behind the likes of Rich Amaral, Brian Hunter, Butch Huskey and Stan Javier. When Ibañez did get to play, he wanted so badly to prove himself that he developed an uppercut in his swing and a tendency to pull every pitch he saw. After the Royals signed him as a nonroster invitee in 2001, then general manager Allard Baird told Ibañez, "Raul, I believe you're a better hitter than you do. And that's a problem." The Royals put Ibañez through waivers twice in '01, and both times he went unclaimed by all 29 other teams.
After passing through waivers the second time, in June, Ibañez called former Royals third baseman Kevin Seitzer, who was giving hitting lessons in nearby Overland Park, Kans. Before reporting to Triple A Omaha, Ibañez met with Seitzer, who instructed him to shorten his stroke and try to line every pitch the other way, at the shortstop's head.
The following spring Tony Peña took over as Royals manager, and he told Ibañez, "Just let me know when you get tired." Ibañez replied, "I won't." He got more than 300 at bats for the first time and over the next six years was a .291 hitter who averaged 22 home runs. Meanwhile, the teams for which he played—the Royals (2001 through '03) and the Mariners ('04 through '08)—averaged 91 losses per season. "Even I sometimes lost track of him," says Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez, who knew Ibañez when he was a student at Sunset High in Miami, where Gonzalez was a part-time security guard.
Ibañez was a devalued treasure, same as his father. Juan Ibañez was a college-educated chemist in Castro-ruled Cuba who fled to the U.S. in the late 1960s. He eventually settled in Miami, where he took a job stocking warehouses for Carnival Cruise Lines. Outside of family and friends, few recognized what this overqualified man had to offer. Juan would tell Raul, "Never complain, but believe anything is possible." An avid baseball fan, Juan died of a heart attack in 1992, two months before his son was drafted by the Mariners.
The Phillies seemed to be out of their minds last winter when they signed Ibañez to a three-year contract for $31.5 million, given the bad economy and the fact that he would be 39 when the deal expired. Philadelphia could have kept leftfielder Pat Burrell, who signed a two-year deal for $16 million with the Rays, or made a run at former Phillie Bobby Abreu, who signed a one-year deal for $5 million with the Angels. But Benny Looper, the Phillies' assistant general manager, was a Mariners scout when the team plucked Ibañez out of Miami-Dade Community College. Ibañez reminded Looper of a lefthanded Edgar Martinez, the sweet-swinging former Mariners DH who was just getting warmed up when he hit his 30s. Ibañez used to study Martinez and think, That's how my career is going to go.
To stall his biological clock, Ibañez bought an $18,000 hyperbaric chamber, hired a chiropractor and a masseuse, and employed every physical-therapy technique from joint alignment to muscle activation to Brazilian jujitsu. "Everything he does is as hard core as it gets," says his off-season trainer, Pete Bommarito, who also works out NFL running backs Frank Gore, Marion Barber and Maurice Jones-Drew.