THE DESIGNER SUIT hangs off a pair of shoulders custom-built for power-hitting. The tie is knotted up to a muscular neck. The contract will pay him $31.5 million over the next 3 years, and the fans will surely react with glee the first time he sends a ball sailing over the fence in rightfield.
By 21st-century, American standards, Raul Ibanez is a successful man.
But America in 2008 is a different world from Cuba in 1972, and the measure of a man back then meant something far different. Back then it meant leaving a job as a chemist to work in the sugar-cane fields in order to win an exit visa for the family, even if it meant being branded a traitor by Fidel Castro, even if it meant embarking on a blue-collar life in a foreign land with a pregnant wife and two young sons.
"Guts," is the word Raul Ibanez uses when he speaks of the Freedom Flight his father pioneered for his family back in 1972.
"I'm everything I am today because of my parents," Ibanez said. "They busted their tails. They never complained. They were thrilled to be Americans and they loved this country. They instilled that view in me and in my brothers and no matter what, they always said that you can be anything in this country."
Yesterday, after Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. introduced his new 36-year-old leftfielder to the city of Philadelphia, both men were met with the expected baseball questions. But regardless of the query, whether it dealt with Ibanez' age or his lefthanded stroke or his fielding ability, the answer always seemed to come back to one word: Character.
"I've learned a lot over the years, and one of the major things I've learned is that character matters, and talent matters," Amaro said.
Ibanez always has found a way to make things work, an observation that, more than anything else, encouraged the Phillies to move forward with their first big splash of the offseason.
Born shortly after his family arrived in New York City from Cuba, he was raised in Miami amid an influx of Cuban immigrants who had also fled Castro's communist regime. His father, Juan, a college-educated professional in his homeland, started a new life working in warehouses for various cruise lines. In the process, he instilled in his youngest son two characteristics: an intense work ethic (Raul's first job was as a fruit-basket-maker for Carnival Cruises), and an intense love for baseball.
Raul starred at Miami's Sunset High, eventually moving on to play for a year at Miami-Dade Community College, where he caught the eye of major league scouts, including current Phillies assistant general manager Benny Looper, who at the time worked in the Seattle Mariners organization.
Ibanez wasn't a blue-chipper. Though he received some interest from 4-year colleges - Miami assistant coach Turtle Thomas, who later recruited a young standout named Pat Burrell, tried to get him to play for the Hurricanes - Ibanez was viewed more as a project by the professional ranks. The Mariners selected him in the 36th round of the 1992 draft in the now-extinct draft-and-follow program which involved junior college prospects. Ibanez might have waited until his draft stock improved, but earlier that season, he had suffered the biggest loss of his young career.
His father, Juan Ibanez, died of a heart attack.
"I was a 20-year-old kid and I felt like my dad would have wanted to me to play," Raul said, "so I wound up going for it."
The early years were not easy. The Mariners attempted to convert him into a catcher, a position he struggled for 4 years to learn. They eventually moved him back to the outfield. But even as he established himself as one of the top prospects in the organization, he struggled to land a full-time spot on the big-league roster. From 1996-2000, he bounced back and forth between the majors and the minors. Though he was never awarded an everyday job, he poured himself into the sport, monitoring closely the words and actions of veteran designated hitter Edgar Martinez and veteran lefthander - and current Phillie - Jamie Moyer.
"I know this," Looper said. "With Raul Ibanez, you put him on any of the 30 clubs in the big leagues, the character of the clubhouse got better."
After Seattle declined to offer Ibanez a contract following the 2000 season, he spent 2001-03 with the Royals, blossoming into an everyday outfielder.
In 2004, he returned to the Mariners, signing a 3-year, $13.5 million contract that would prove to be a bargain for the organization. He hit .304 with 16 home runs the following season, numbers he would sustain throughout his eventual 5-year stay with the club.
But the Mariners struggled, failing to make the playoffs in all five of his seasons. Last year, they went just 61-101, despite Ibanez' hitting .293 with 23 home runs and 110 RBI.
"You find out what you are made of during times like that," Ibanez said.
Now, he finds himself a member of a championship team that returns every major piece except the one he is charged with replacing. He will be the oldest regular on a star-filled team, a lefthanded bat in a lineup full of them. He will face questions. But Ibanez is confident he will once again provide the answers.
"The good Lord has blessed me with ability," Ibanez said. "He's blessed me with what I believe to be an incredible work ethic, and an incredible drive to succeed no matter what. So I think I can continue doing this for a while. As a man, I wouldn't have come here unless I knew that I was able to do that."
Minor league changes
P.J. Forbes, who managed Double A Reading last season, has accepted a managing job in the Pirates organization, Ruben Amaro said yesterday. Steve Roadcap, who spent the previous two seasons at Class A Lakewood, will replace Forbes. Pitching coach Steve Schrenk and coach Frank Cacciatore will join Roadcap in Reading.
Dusty Wathan, who managed Williamsport last season, will take over as manager in Lakewood, where he will be joined by former big-leaguer Bob Milacki as pitching coach and Greg Legg as a coach.
Williamsport will be managed by Chris Truby, who played parts of four seasons for the Astros, Expos, Tigers and Rays from 2000-03.
Former Phillies bullpen coach Ramon Henderson, who left the team for personal reasons midway through last season, will remain in the organization working with Class A Clearwater. Former big-league catcher Ernie Whitt, a coach with the Blue Jays the last four seasons, will manage Clearwater. *