SEATTLE — Revel in the thrilling boredom of Raul Ibanez.
At 41, he is the Mariners’ MVP. That stands for most valuable player — and most vapid personality.
Ibanez only appears to be dull, however. Actually, he’s engaging and fascinating when he has the time to be. But the man is so dedicated to routine, so committed to the everydayness of baseball, that he can make Ichiro seem like a couch potato.
The grinder in Ibanez often masks his intrigue, except during times like now, when he hits the baseball as if it did something wrong to a family member. Now, you see the full Ibanez, out of his boring, preparatory shell, producing thrill after thrill, keeping the Mariners from toppling over.
The old man is having a potentially historic season. When the Mariners signed him for a third go-round in Seattle during the offseason, few were excited. The common reaction was to roll your eyes, shake your head and declare the Mariners were about to punish themselves through nostalgia again. They’re always holding on too long and bringing back a band member to try to recreate magic. It usually backfires on them. But we should know by now that Ibanez isn’t just any old ballplayer.
He leads the Mariners with 17 home runs and 42 RBI in 56 games this season despite a .240 batting average. Over the past 13 games, he has six homers and a .949 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. The hot streak has put him on pace to hit 36 homers. And with a little more than a half season remaining, Ibanez has a realistic chance to hit the most home runs ever for a player age 41 or older. Ted Williams holds that record; he hit 29 in 1960 at age 41.
Of course, Ibanez doesn’t care much about the fuss. He’s just playing the game like he always has. Ask him about his power surge, and he’ll tell you that he’s doing nothing differently, that he’s simply looking for a good pitch to hit and hoping to hit it hard. He’s not so much boring as he is focused. When you consider his story, you understand why he isn’t willing to celebrate, not even as his career closes.
Ibanez is a former 36th-round draft pick who probably shouldn’t still be here. He didn’t get 100 games of playing time until he was 29. He didn’t post a 100-RBI season until he was 30. He didn’t hit 30 homers until he was 34. He didn’t become an all-star until he was 37. He has worn eight different jersey numbers in his career and played for four teams.
You could call Ibanez a late bloomer, but geez, when he arrived at the party, everyone was cleaning up.
So excuse him for playing hide-and-seek with Father Time.
Ibanez is going to get everything he can out of his career. That’s why his offseason workout regimen is legendary. That’s why he is so diligent about maintaining his body during the season.
Because of baseball’s recent doping history, it’s almost impossible for a player to defy logic without whispers. But in Ibanez’s case, there is no smoke, and until there is, it’s best to enjoy him for what we know he is: good man, great teammate, persistent player.
Soon, Ibanez will surpass the 19 homers and 62 RBI he produced for the New York Yankees a year ago. With 12 more homers this season — which would tie Williams for the Powerful Old Man lead — Ibanez will reach 300 for his career. It would be a remarkable feat for a player who didn’t get rolling until age 29.
But even more remarkable is the fact that Ibanez still influences winning. The Mariners have better overall hitters. Kyle Seager has been their most consistent hitter. Kendrys Morales is their best all-around hitter. But Ibanez gets the nod as the half-season MVP because, when the struggling Mariners (34-43) actually play well, he’s usually at the forefront of the effort.
The Mariners are only 22-34 in the 56 games in which Ibanez has appeared. But in those 22 victories, Ibanez is hitting .310 with 13 homers. In those 34 losses, he is hitting only .190 with four homers.
And during that 13-game Ibanez tear we previously mentioned, the Mariners are 7-6.
We’re not trying to make him out to be Miguel Cabrera, but when you consider the Mariners’ injury-prone and futile outfield, Ibanez has been a savior. Without him, the outfield situation would be an epic disaster.
Can Ibanez keep it up? That’s the natural question. Despite his physical fitness, he figures to wear down in the second half. Manager Eric Wedge will have to use him wisely.
But don’t expect Ibanez to disappear. He still has some thrills left in him. We know this not because he thumps his chest and talks a good game.
We know this because, when everyone else is tired, Ibanez is grinding, trying to get better, even at 41.
He’s neither boring nor obsessed. He’s smart.
And in his own way, thrilling.