CLEVELAND — At the start of winter mornings, Raul Ibanez resembles most well-to-do fathers in middle age. He rises early at his home outside Seattle, enjoys breakfast with his family and drives his five children to school. Then he begins the three-hour exercise routine that allowed him, at 42, to emerge as a potential midseason upgrade for the Royals.
He engages in extensive sessions of “prehab” exercises and “multijoint movements” to prevent injury. He sprints through an hour of track-and-field drills. His lifting circuits combine strands of yoga, Pilates, plyometrics and other disciplines with which he has experimented during more than two decades in baseball.
“I don’t necessarily like going in there and beating the hell out of myself,” Ibanez said. “But I pretend I do when I’m doing it. When you’re really focusing on trying to be the best you can be, it’s a necessary evil.”
His ethic extends outside the gym. Ibanez’s diet eschews dairy and gluten. He avoids corn-fed beef and packaged and processed food. To supplant the mental challenge of hitting and “feed my appetite for technical” exertion, Ibanez grapples in Brazilian jiu-jitsu a couple of times a week. He recovers inside a hyperbaric chamber.
The regimen has earned Ibanez an almost mythic status among his peers.
“His work ethic is ridiculous,” Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer said, shaking his head. “He’s got something figured out. If you’re still doing this at 42 years old, then you’re ahead of the game.”
The irony is Ibanez always operated on a delay. He was a 36th-round pick by Seattle in 1992. He earned his first full-time spot in the majors with the Royals at 30. He made his first All-Star Game at 37 with Philadelphia. After an early season swoon in Anaheim, which resulted in his release by the Angels, the Royals scooped him up on Monday and assigned him a part-time role.
In his second start, Ibanez thumped his first home run in a Royals uniform since Sept. 22, 2003. Ibanez’s production at his age places him in lofty company. Since 1914, 139 players have swatted home runs after the age of 40. Ibanez ranks ninth on the list with 39. With four more, he can leapfrog Hank Aaron (41), Ted Williams (41) and Stan Musial (42). He needs 11 to pass Carl Yastrzemski (49).
Ibanez felt flattered at his inclusion in this company. His motivation now stems from his insistence on milking each ounce of ability before his career ends. The preconceived notions of age ring hollow to him. He compared turning 40 to the Y2K craze, an excessive amount of hysteria for an event that offered no substantive change in his life.
“I want to be able to impart that to the younger guys,” Ibanez said. “I want to be able to show that to my own children. I always preach anything is possible, if you believe and you keep driving forward, work smart and hard.”
Despite his trouble in Anaheim, where Ibanez hit .157 in 57 games, rival evaluators believe he can aid this club in a limited role with favorable matchups. He provides power from the left side of the plate against right-handed pitchers. Team officials have already begun to rave about his influence on the roster.
“His best work may be on the bench and in the locker room, mentoring the young guys with the great intangibles he has,” one rival American League executive said.
For an inexperienced club like the Royals, the appeal is obvious. Ibanez represents a model of consistency and health, a rarity for aging players.
Jason Giambi, a 43-year-old bench player with the Indians, is currently on the disabled list because of knee soreness. Derek Jeter fractured his ankle at 38 and played only 17 games the subsequent season. After his 35th birthday, Chipper Jones averaged one stay on the DL for each of his final six seasons.
Ibanez has spent two stints on the disabled list since 2004. He prides himself on retaining his athleticism. He executed an awkward, but effective, stumbling catch on his knees in right field on Friday. The physique and ethic of Ibanez remind manager Ned Yost of an ageless player he coached in Atlanta.
“Julio Franco was like, man, I want to say like 38 when we got him,” Yost said.
Franco was actually 42. A three-time All Star for the Rangers in the early 1990s, he crashed out of the majors at the end of the decade. In August 2001, the Braves bought his contract from the Mexico City Tigers.
As Yost recalled the story, Franco joined the team during the middle of a rain-delayed game. Yost went to greet him in the clubhouse, and reported his findings to his boss, Braves manager Bobby Cox. Franco had not had an at-bat in the majors since 1997, and yet his condition astounded Yost.
“Man, he looks great,” Yost told Cox. “He looks good.”
“Does he have gray hair?” Cox asked.
“Bobby,” Yost told him, “he doesn’t have no hair. He’s bald.”
So is Ibanez. Franco played until he was 48. Ibanez does not know how much longer he will continue to punish himself each offseason morning. But he still relishes the fruits of his labor, the ability to connect with a younger generation and finish a two-decade career with a flourish. A playoff berth in Kansas City would do the trick.
“What I would like to do is I’d like to be a part of something that hasn’t been done in 29 years,” Ibanez said. “That’s exciting to me. That’s more exciting to me than home runs.
“Unless they’re walkoffs.”