Ibanez soaks it up

Ex-Mariner caught break with Phillies

NEW YORK – Raul Ibanez is determined to savor his first trip to the World Series after a career spent toiling quietly and productively for also-rans in Seattle and Kansas City.

“To come into Yankee Stadium and play in the World Series, how is that not a lifelong dream?” he asked. “You have a job to do, so you tend to get caught up and focused on what you’ve got to do every day to prepare and bring that home.

“But … I’ve got to remember to really enjoy this.”

Ibanez batted sixth Wednesday night as Philadelphia’s designated hitter in the Series opener on a cool, wet night in the South Bronx. He delivered a two-run single in the eighth inning and finished 1 for 4 as the Phillies won 6-1.

“I wouldn’t say that I’m pinching myself right now, but I am excited,” he said. “I do feel blessed for the opportunity. At the same time, I want to try to maximize this opportunity. You might only get this opportunity once.

“These guys (the Phillies) have gotten it twice. Hopefully, I’ll the get opportunity five, 10 or whatever more times. But at the same time, you understand how difficult it is to get here, and you want to capitalize on the opportunity.”

Ibanez reached the postseason in 2000 with the Mariners as a backup outfielder on a team that beat the White Sox in the first round before losing the American League Championship Series in six games to the Yankees.

That offseason he became a non-tendered free agent who eventually landed with the Royals. Ibanez became immensely popular over three seasons in the Heartland while establishing himself as a reliable run-producer – batting .291 and averaging 18 homers and 82 RBIs.

But the Royals, believing Ibanez had maxed out, chose to low-ball him in their free-agent offer to retain him following the 2003 season.

It was, in retrospect, an enormous mistake.

Seattle lured Ibanez back to the Pacific Northwest, where he batted .288 over the next four seasons while averaging 24 homers and 107 RBIs, over the last four seasons in Seattle. The Mariners, though, never reached postseason.

So it’s no surprise that Ibanez had postseason in mind last winter when he evaluated his value on the free-agent market. He was 36 at the time and knew, realistically, that time was running out.

When Philadelphia, the reigning champions, expressed interest, he jumped at the opportunity – especially when the offer represented a raise at $31.5 million over three seasons.

“When I signed here, I thought, ‘You’d better bring it, man, because it’s the same exact team pretty much except for me,’ he said. “So, yes, when I signed here, I thought we had a good opportunity of being here and doing this.”

He did wonder how he’d fit in as the newcomer on a World Series champion.

“It was the complete opposite of what I expected,” Ibanez said. “It was a bunch of normal, hard-working, funny, quirky, get-on-each-other, say-anything-to-anybody-at-any-time clubhouse.”

Ibanez warmed to his new surrounding with the best start of his career; he carried a .332 average into June with 17 homers and 46 RBIs through 48 games.

A strained left groin in mid-June torpedoed Ibanez’s career year and resulted in a four-week stay on the disabled list. Even now, although he insists otherwise, the problem seems to linger on.

Ibanez finished the season at .272 with 34 homers and 93 RBIs in 134 games. He then contributed nine RBIs in nine games over the first two rounds of the playoffs.

“I honestly wish that every player could have the opportunity to do this,” he said. “And I honestly wish that every player could be on my team because I want to keep doing it. This is what you play for.”

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