BY Art Thiel 11:00AM 07/11/2013

Thiel: Raul Ibanez and Ted Williams: Who knew?

Home run production freakish for a 41-year-old has Raul Ibanez chasing the legendary Ted Williams. In the absence of contention, it’s what the Mariners have this summer.

Raul Ibanez and Ted Williams in the same baseball sentence? / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

Baseball’s lengthy history provides a marvelous connection between unanticipated current events and equally unexpected lore, so that something fresh can thrust into our bewildered grills for a summer’s examination.  I mean, who would have thought last winter Raul Ibanez and Ted Williams would find themselves in the same sentence?

Ibanez leads the Mariners with 22 homers, which, entering Wednesday night’s games, was tied for fifth in American League with Texas slugger Nelson Cruz — plenty implausible in itself. But peeling back the contemporary numbers for a deep dive into the library stacks shows he is the first player in MLB history to have 20-plus home runs before the All-Star Game  in a 40-or-older season.

Cooler still is that Ibanez is gaining on a more majestic milestone — topping Williams’ record of 29 by a 41-year-old, set in 1960.

Having Williams’ team, the Boston Red Sox, in town, helps make the deed worthy of reflection.  In the final season of his Hall of Fame career that began in 1939 — including time lost to World War II and the Korean War as a Marine naval aviator — Williams still had the strength and reflexes for 72 RBIs, a .316 batting average and a 1.096 OPS, as well as flair for the Hollywood ending — his 29th homer came on his final career at-bat.

So no suggestion here of any equivalence between Ibanez and Williams, who once famously said, when asked after his career was done how he’d liked to be known:  “When I walk down the street, I want people to say, ‘There goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived.’”

Fifty-three years after his final dinger, that description, more likely than not, still fits. What Ibanez is amid is a modest, unintended pursuit of a single-season feat, whose standard is held by the legendary Teddy Ballgame.

He’s not Raul Iballgame, but with eight homers in the last 14 games, he’s closed faster than anyone imagined to a record few figured to know or care about, because 40-year-old sluggers are rare as 30-year-old Olympic gymnasts.

Just ask a couple of Ibanez’s former Mariners teammates, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez, two of the great sluggers of the modern game. Griffey never cared much about weight training or general fitness, quitting overweight at 40 and a year too late, whereas Rodriguez was the opposite — a workout freak who cut many corners and, at 37, is breaking down, which some speculate has something to do with his use of PEDs.

It’s hard to know whether the 6-2, 225-pound Ibanez is more meticulous about his mental approach to each at-bat, each meal or each exercise, but he seems to have found a path between his more fabled teammates — the three were all with Seattle from 1996-2000, although Ibanez was mostly a backup who played in 231 games in those five years –  that allows him to endure.

“Your strength goes up in your late 30s, if you have a good base,” Ibanez told ESPN.com’s Jim Caple.  “I think the one thing you have to work on is your foot speed and your fast-twitch muscles.

“I’m physically stronger than I was five years ago. The weight doesn’t lie . . . Strength isn’t the problem — you have to make sure your reflexes and speed stay. And there’s so much science that allows us to focus on that.”

Fit and conscientious as he is, no one is impervious to injuries or slumps. He was supposed to be the fourth or fifth outfielder/DH with the Mariners, but injuries to others had him in 68 of the Mariners’ 90 games entering Wednesday. It remains to be seen whether the extra time in the field early will cost him late. But he’s had at least 425 at bats in each of his past 11 seasons with four teams. The guy is durable as gravel.

When the fan focus this summer is not on the misdeeds of ownership, it will be, rightly, on the progress of the Mariners’ youngsters. The individual pursuit by Ibanez is something of a sideshow, much as were the individual records of Ichiro, who accomplished a lot of feats but never played for a good team after 2001 until he was traded a year ago to the Yankees.

But when there is no main act –  a pennant-contending team — the sideshows are the reward.  Watching Ibanez, one of the most earnest, sincere toilers the Mariners have employed, chase down Williams will be a summer treat.

I admit to some bias, because I had a chance years ago to meet Williams on a flight and found that his graciousness and greatness were on par. I don’t remember where I was headed but the flight was long and I’d seen the on-board movie, “The Natural,” the syrupy 1984 baseball movie about fictional Roy Hobbs. The lead character, played by Robert Redford was an homage to his boyhood hero, Williams. So I walked to the back to stretch.

Standing next to the galley, alone, sipping a drink and staring into the same mid-distance as me, was Williams. After composing myself, I leaned over and said, “Was it your idea to have Redford play you, or did you want someone better-looking?”

He laughed. Then ensued the best 20 minutes of plane travel I’ve experienced.  We talked about the movie — Redford, now a friend, wanted him on set as technical adviser, but he declined, saying he was on a fishing trip and they were biting. We talked about fishing, more movies, a little ball, and Seattle, where in 1969 as manager of the Washington Senators, he went up against the fabled Pilots.

I don’t remember many details of the conversation, except he remembered Sicks Stadium, the minor league ballpark and temp home for MLB for what turned about to be one year.

“What,” he said, “a dump.”

We laughed, we shook hands and returned to our seats.

Seeking distraction on subsequent flights, I often think of that conversation whenever I’m seated next to a squalling baby, knowing it’s payback. This summer, I’m thinking about the moment again.

Get him, Raul.

 


YourThoughts

  • Trygvesture

    Terrific, heartfelt piece, Art. Sideshow. Well, maybe the feeling of seeing a unexpectedly great opening act when you know the main attraction has had chronic bronchitis for years on end and will disappoint yet again. Raul has been so much more than hoped for.
    Nice to hear good things about Williams, too. I’ve mostly heard about his arogant, grizzly side and your piece gave him a heart. Thanks

    • art thiel

      I suspect Williams has always been a hard-ass, only he was so good that he didn’t have to care what anyone thought of him.

      And if Raul’s first AB today had produced a drive three feet higher, we all would be chattering about the Mariners’ series split with the best team in the AL.

      • Trygvesture

        Game of inches and all, yes. If only… But in the end it’s generally the teams with the best talent that win the most games– by inches or by miles. You, I recall, tend to minimize even the influence of the manager in determining overall success or failure as a team, yes? The breaks tend to even out and the best teams end up in the post season. The Mariners have blamed the inches and the breaks — not their basic, ongoing lack of competitive talent. So, we narrow our focus to the near misses and the if-onlys and enjoy the few delightful crumbs of authentic big league magic that are offered by a few each year. Niehaus lent a magic to the game that, as Autry noted, transcended the actual play– and now we have, well, rare glimpses of greatness, heros and grit.

        (I think I’ve actually forgotten the feeling of a fan following a competitive team.)

        • art thiel

          You’re right, I think talent prevails, and managers manage a game mostly by a book any knowledgeable baseball observer can read. The best managers do their working manipulating egos in the clubhouse, ownership, front office and media. It’s a hard thing to do well.

          Being a Mariners fan is even harder. Knowing that ownership is not held accountable because the franchise can break even no matter what means there is little incentive for success beyond personal pleasure. So fans are left with secondary amusements. I happen to like Raul chasing down the ghost of Ted Williams.

  • jafabian

    When you watch Raul at bat his focus and concentration are evident. Only matched by Morales on the current team. And his patience is a study in hitting. He waits for the pitch he wants which reminds me of Junior and Edgar. Never saw ARod do that as a Mariner. (Sorry Bone, you were a hacker) And I don’t know why but he seems just a hair faster in the OF than he was the last year he played the OF as an M. Granted he’s no Ichiro, not even today’s version, but he seems to me just a little faster. A little more fluid. I imagine as he’s gotten older he’s focused on taking better care of himself.

    i could see clubs making a run for the playoffs making a bid for him. Especially if the Yankees are in it. Picture them and the Red Sox bidding for him. And then the Rays messing things up on that. I’d rather keep him but I can see some teams being interested in him.

    • art thiel

      There’s interest, but there’s also suspicion of a second-half fade. The Mariners can’t expect much beyond a C-level prospect, so why bother?

  • Craig H. – Bellevue

    Terrific column, as usual, Art, and particularly the evocative part about meeting ‘Teddy Ballgame’ Williams on the plane! I had always heard of his legendary prickliness in most social situations, but both you and we readers were obviously fortunate that day that he was in a more relaxed mood meeting you. Maybe your own imposing 6’7″ frame set him back a little?? I’ve told you before, Art, via e-mail (luv that strawberry-rhubarb pie!) and in-person over here a couple of years ago in Old Bellevue at a radio function @ the fab 520 Bar and Grill, that imho, I consider you (and I’m 63 years young now) the closest thing in print to THE MASTER….. the late, great sports columnist for the ‘L.A. Times’, Jim Murray. You’re consistently a compelling, thought-provoking, and humorous (‘if you want people to listen, make them laugh!’) writer of all subjects, and especially in that candy store of Life, sports, included. Continued good writing and success, Craig from dwtn. Bellevue (& Beyond?).

    • art thiel

      Craig, thanks for the warm words. Obviously, Murray was a hero of mine and anyone who is a fan of language, wit and original thinking.

      I remember the 520 gig and someone saying nice things, and he wasn’t a relative. That’s the great thing about the randomness of bars, and planes. Ya never know. I think Ted was in a good mood knowing that the entire plane was enthralled with a movie that was an homage to him.

      • Craig H. – Bellevue

        Thanks, Art. I tried replying yesterday, but the comment never made it into your system. Definitely DOA. Is there a size limit for messages, perchance?

        The three Jim Murray-isms I remember the most from the time I spent reading him in the ‘LAT’ while living in L.A. during the 80s: his wonderful own homage/memorial to his just-passed on wife (brought me to tears); his column about his failing eyesight (same evocation from my tear ducts); and his description of the then-power forward of the Celtics, Kevin McHale, as ‘someone who looks like they were made from spare parts’ – (as players in those skimpy old NBA suits, both players McHale and Phil Jackson with the early 70s Knicks had broad shoulders that looked like they were suspended by XL-sized coat hangers; were both about a gangly 6’10″; long legs; short torsos; and both….incredibly efficient in their team roles. awww…..when the NBA actually had team, and not individual, play. Those were the days!

        And as a History major at the UW, Art, I always am interested in the historical context and research you do in all your own columns. Like your fine work reporting from Athens for the Greek Summer Olympics. Great stuff! And the great nugget in your present piece here about ‘The Natural’ being based on Teddy Ballgame – first I had heard of that – thanks again! Craig H.

        • Craig H. – Bellevue

          And maybe I WAS that relative who approached you, sitting next to Gas, that fateful day @ the 520 Bar & Grill? We both love straw.-rhubarb pie; we both like the GO2GUY (w/his own finely written column and homage to his just-passed Murphy the Golden in the ‘P-I’ some 10 years ago); and we both love the free eats @ area teams’ media buffet lines. Gotta check Ancestry.com now! Scared much? :)

          • art thiel

            You’re not a relative. There’s no Internet in maximum security.

          • Craig H. – Bellevue

            Then YOU must be the one in max ad seg, cousin! . I’m still doing 10 to 20 down here in Purdy (aka Rug Muncher’s Paradiso). get my drift? Namaste.

            PS. Moore says his dogs do NOT shed in the back seat of his rigs! You slandered him in print back at the ol’ ‘P-I’. The next tall cold one @ the 520 is definitely now on you – k? With that side order of strawberry-rhubarb. Should be coming up on work release soon with some of the other ‘girls’, particularly now that Mary Kay leT. is back as my personal mentor & spirtual guru. Lord hep;’ us all.

            Or, as Chas. Darwin was wont to say: ‘Back up, we f@@ked everything up!’.

        • art thiel

          *No length limit; but since your comments made it, we write it off to an NSA summer intern gremlin;

          *The Murray columns on the loss of his wife and sight were seminal works of literature that should be the bedrock of any college-level English class in how to make each word count, as well as poignant storytelling free of maudlin triteness;

          *Regarding your recall of my Athens coverage, you made my day. My No. 1 sports coverage experience was covering the shot put on the original grounds of the first Games 3,000 years earlier in Olympia (the first Olympia, not the South Sound replica).

          • Craig H. – Bellevue

            Actually, Prof. Art, my comments from yesterday did NOT make it. Just that silly lil’ dot going in circles forever and anon and then…..crickets…and finally…..gone the way of the Dodo bird & the ball on top of ur ol’ Elliott Ave. palace: POOF! So being the persistent sort that being raised in Havre, MT (home to your Ryan Divish & Moore’s & R. Leaf’s Matt Kegel and former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, btw) would dictate, I typed in a couple of new comments this AM over a steaming (non-Schultz) brew, and a 2-day old lo-cal Krispy Kreme from their E. Lk. Samm. Store. Not TOO gullible – am I?

            You’re definitely spot-on about Murray’s two columns you mention here. I remember vividly reading the piece about his wife’s passing while sitting on the curb outside my mechanic’s shoppe in Hawthorne, CA. Just blocks from Mattel Hqs., and blocks the other way from Hawthorne High – home to the Beach Boys. And yet…w/ all that pop culture largesse’ in my midst, there I was crying about the passing of Jim Murray’s wife, who by what I read was not only the love of his life (the Nell to Coach Wooden, e.g.), she was also instrumental in helping him navigate his world with his increasingly failing eyes. I felt great empathy for him that day.

            And I seem to remember the 1st piece (I believe) you filed in the ‘P-I’ from Athens was about that very 3,000 year-old grounds you mention above – just magical stuff! If you have the time in the near future from slinging more bon mots my way, Art, how about returning to fix that crazy economy of their’s? Just a thought.

            Cheers.

  • just passing thru

    great story, Art. Glad you got to experience and share it.