Lou Piniella was a great manager that saved baseball in Seattle and I admired him greatly. In the thousands of decisions he had to make as the Mariner leader he was correct a high percentage of the time. But he had a blind eye toward Raul Ibanez who was never given a fair chance in his early years ages 25-28, when he only got a total of 473 at-bats over four years. He was kept in Tacoma for most of the year in 1997 despite having 84 RBI’s in 111 games.
Lou used him as a bench warmer and played a bunch of marginal players instead of Raul. He competed for playing time with Brian Hunter, defensive wizard Charles Gipson, Ozzie Timmons, Al Martin, a washed up Rickey Henderson, John Mabry, Rob Ducey none of whom were more than average players for Seattle. Other outfielders who had at-bats during this four-year window were Mieske, Haskley, Monahan, Kelley and Jose Cruz. Jay Buhner and Stan Javier were also in the mix and better than average performers.
He hit the first grand slam in Safeco history three days after the inaugural game July 15th, 1999 but only got 204 at-bats that year. Raul never got more than 500 at-bats until he was 30 years old. And he had sign with Kansas City to do that which he did as a free agent after the 2000 season with the Mariners in which he only got 140 AB’s. When he got an opportunity to play for the Royals he produced by not before he had to do another year, 2001, as a part-time player. Finally, in the year 2002 at age 30, he was penciled into the lineup daily, his first full-time opportunity.
“[During my career], my confidence sometimes wavered because I wasn’t playing as much. I put a lot of pressure on myself to perform. But I knew if I got an opportunity to play consistently then I would be able to perform,” was his quote to MLB.com about his great numbers for 2002. He hit 24 homers, 37 doubles, and had six triples ending up with a .294 average, a .346 OBP and an OPB of .883. He had another good year in 2003 and then remarkably returned to Seattle.
He had a five-year stretch from 2004-2008 in which he hit 113 homers, had 469 RBI’s, 174 doubles, averaged .294 with an OBP of .352 and an OPS of .830. He had a 24-game go-ahead RBI streak, two five-hit games, and in 2004 also ranked third among all left fielders in UZR-a fielding statistic. Perhaps his best year was in 2006, when he scored 103 runs, knocked in 123 more, and had 33 doubles and home runs.
In 2009 he finished second to Jim Thome in a Sports Illustrated poll of 290 MLB players that measured the “nicest player in baseball.” Raul Ibanez’s two homers last evening were thrilling and I was so happy for this truly great guy. It takes some training for this old Seattle fan and life-long Yankee hater to root for those wearing the evil pinstripes but I can’t help it. Raul, my idol Ichiro and pitching stud Rafael Soriano, all ex-Mariner stars, makes it easier. Seeing the New York headline: A-Whoooo! Is one of my favorite things ever, after seeing Raul come through while pinch-hitting for A-Fraud, a scenario I never could have even imagined but is so perfect.