HE WAS CUT twice in a 2-week span once, was out of work with a pregnant wife, was forced to move, like a lot of people out there these days.

That was just one of Raul Ibanez' baseball seasons.

"It's why," Ibanez said after yesterday's 2-0 Phillies victory, "I don't ever want to take a day off."

It's also why Raul Ibanez had to work real hard to keep his emotions in check yesterday after the final All-Star vote confirmed his status as a first-time starter, and a first-time All-Star. And why his rehab assignment, which begins today in Reading, is really more than that, more like the latest dramatic chapter in a career that already reads like Bernard Malamud fiction.

Will Ibanez play in the All-Star Game 8 days from now? Should he, if he doesn't feel 100 percent? It's no secret the Phillies' offense has sputtered without his bat, no secret that his absence with a groin strain has been one of the large factors in the team's June swoon. Should all go well today, tomorrow and Wednesday, and Ibanez rejoins the team and plays through the weekend, is that enough to bless his first All-Star appearance at age 37?

It certainly sounded that way yesterday.

"The only time you feel 100 percent in this game is the first day of spring training," he said. He's played at least 149 games the previous four seasons. He is a human fitness machine, at least has been until this point, but he has learned that 100 percent is a state of mind more than it is a physical condition. As any Flyer will tell you, groin injuries don't really go away without long stretches of rest, and the All-Star break offers an opportunity for 3 additional days of that next week.

Ibanez went to Reading last Wednesday for what was supposed to be the start of a rehab assignment. He was due to come off the disabled list Friday. But the groin still felt iffy and the return was delayed, and although he said he felt "good" after yesterday's pregame sprints, no one is quite sure how today will turn out.

If this was even Ibanez' second All-Star selection, it might be a no-brainer to not go. If he was a reserve even, maybe you could say the same thing. If he had not struggled so mightily over the first half of his career, if his story wasn't so compelling . . .

Ah, but it is. All of it. A 36th-round selection of Seattle. Released by Pat Gillick. Signed by the Royals in 2001, then waived.

"Twice, all 29 teams passed on me," he said. "In a span of a month. A month."

His wife was pregnant with their first child then. Yesterday Raul Jr., now 7, stood to his father's left and listened to a story he has heard before. That very year, before his birth in late August, his father finally had established himself as an everyday player. An arranged meeting with Kevin Seitzer, an adjustment of his swing began a second productive life and an incredible string of consistency, culminating in the 3-year, $31.5 million free-agent deal he signed with the Phillies last winter.

"I would say it trained me to be more persistent than the average guy," Raul said of his journey. "It's trained me to know and believe that the only thing that matters is what I think. It doesn't matter what other people think.

"It also has trained me to realize the reason why scouting will always be flawed . . . You can't measure what's inside of somebody. You can't measure somebody's determination. You can't measure their desire, their heart, their mind-set. Their willingness. You're dealing with people. And each person is different."

He tells his four children this almost every day. He talks about his faith and battling, battling, battling. It's what makes sports so compelling, so special, so enjoyable; these recurring tales.

It's also what makes these next 8 days both excruciating and expected. Nothing has come easy for the guy and now, not even this, his first All-Star berth. It adds to his story, for sure. But it's a story already rich with this sort of detail. Just this once, couldn't it be easy?

"Things happen for a reason, they say," he said at one point yesterday. "I believe that." *

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