This month’s “C” word is COACH, which, in the “C” You In The Major Leagues lexicon means that a person understands the game; is an independent thinker; is a good self-evaluator; and offers enthusiasm. As the Royals hit September, the last full month of the regular season, it’s a good time to look at a player from 2014 who fits the term COACH perfectly: Raul Ibanez.
Raul Ibanez had been a productive player for the Royals, batting .286 with 418 hits, 57 home runs and 252 RBIs during four seasons. But that was 11 years and five teams ago — if you count two stints with Seattle — before re-joining the Royals in 2014. When the Los Angeles Angels released Ibanez on June 21, 2014, he was batting .157 with three homers and 21 RBIs in 57 games, a drastic drop from his 29-homer season last year with Seattle. Although a solid outfielder in his prime, that was a few years ago.
It was curious, then, why nine days after it appeared his 19-year career was finished, the Royals would sign him.
“We’ve always been a big admirer of Raul, how he played and how he is as a person,” said Dayton Moore, who was more than two seasons away from becoming the Royals GM when Ibanez left and signed with Seattle after the 2003 season. “We felt by signing him … it makes our team as good as it can be today.”
“I knew that there would be opportunities, and there were multiple opportunities,” said Ibanez, who hit a ninth-inning game-tying and then a game-winning home run in the 12th inning for the Yankees in Game 3 of the 2012 ALDS. “I wanted to get an opportunity to win and be a part of something special. The Royals opportunity was by far the most intriguing one, considering the fact that they gave me the opportunity to play every day. They were the first team that believed in me and gave me a shot.”
On the field, Ibanez wasn’t a great contributor in his second tour with the Royals. After signing on June 30, Ibanez played in 33 games and hit .188 with two home runs and five RBIs. But, perhaps it’d be more accurate to say that he wasn’t a great contributor with his own play on the field for the Royals. About three weeks after he signed, the question of why the Royals signed him might’ve been answered.
After taking first place in June, the Royals hit a couple short losing streaks while the Detroit Tigers remained hot. After 98 games, on July 21, Kansas City had lost four in a row and was 48-50, eight games back in the division. Just a couple weeks earlier, on July 4, the Royals were 45-40. So, after seeing the team slide into a 3-10 funk, Ibanez called a player’s-only meeting the next afternoon in Chicago.
“I gave them my honest observations and told them about the potential and talent they had,” Ibanez said later. “I told them that looking in from the outside, every team hated to play them. Everyone saw the talent they had. This was their opportunity.”
For the ’14 Royals, the speech must’ve worked. They seized that opportunity and battled with (mainly) Detroit for the Central Division title and with Oakland for a wild-card spot.
On July 22, the day of the speech, the Royals beat Chicago, 7-1. That started a five-game winning streak. Whether it had anything to do with the speech or not, throughout the rest of the regular season the Royals went 41-23.
“It’s no coincidence it all started with Raul,” Royals left fielder Alex Gordon said. “Raul came in, a 20-year guy, and said to every player, you don’t know how good you really are. Other teams fear you guys when they come in here. Coming from a guy like that, it picked a lot of guys up. The rest is history.”
Ibanez retired following that season, but we got the idea toward the end of the postseason that he was OK with that.
“I’m totally fine. I’ve been blessed,” he told the New York Post during the ALCS. “Just being here, being a part of something greater than yourself, is always what it’s really about, anyway. It’s always about winning. And to get an opportunity to be connected to this team and to Kansas City for the rest of your life, the city will be connected to this team forever. So just to be part of that is phenomenal.”
Championship teams need that spark; that coach on the field. If you were to ask members of the 1985 Royals about their spark, about what got them over the hump, most of them would point to the late-season acquisition of Lonnie Smith. Thirty years from now, the 2014 Royals very well could point to the acquisition of Ibanez and his impassioned speech.