The New York Yankees are in a precarious position, down 2-0 to Detroit in the American League Championship Series.
By PETE GRATHOFF
The Kansas City Star
But things might be worse if it weren’t for Allard Baird.
How’s that? Well, though Baird is Boston’s vice president of player personnel, he was instrumental in resuscitating Raul Ibañez’s career in Kansas City.
Ibañez has been the Yankees’ best hitter this postseason, saving New York from defeat in game three of its series against the Baltimore Orioles with a tying two-run homer in the ninth inning. He added a solo shot that won it in the 12th.
Saturday night, Ibañez hit a two-run homer in the ninth that tied game one of the ALCS with the Tigers at 4-4.
“I texted him after the (Orioles) game,” Baird said in a phone interview. “He’s just so darn humble, so it’s easy to pull for a guy like that.”
Ibañez’s career appeared to be on thin ice when he was granted free-agency by the Mariners after the 2000 season. After five seasons, the 28-year-old Ibanez had batted just .241 with 14 homers and 58 RBIs in 231 games.
At that point, it was hard to imagine he’d be the first player in baseball history with three home runs in the ninth inning or later in one postseason. At age 40, no less.
But Baird, then the Royals’ general manager, saw something and signed Ibañez to a minor-league deal in 2001.
“At the end of the season I went into Seattle to watch a couple of their guys, him in particular,” Baird said. “The one thing that I thought was a little bit different was that his swing path had altered a little bit where he was forcing the lift to try and hit the ball out of the ballpark at that time.
“That wasn’t the swing path I had remembered when he was in junior college at Miami-Dade or coming up through the minor leagues. In the offseason, I went pretty aggressive as far as recruiting him and talking with him on the phone.”
Ibañez’s first full season as a starter was in 2002, when he batted .294 with 24 home runs and 103 RBIs.
“Tony Peña (then the Royals manger) put me out there every day against lefties and righties,” Ibañez told MLB.com in 2002. “(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.”
In 2003, when the Royals made their last run at a playoff spot, Ibañez batted .294 with 18 homers and 90 RBIs. He helped the Royals get out of the gate fast that season, batting .330 with four homers and 12 RBIs in 24 games by the end of April. Although the Royals faded after the All-Star Game, he batted .307 in 66 games.
After the season, the Royals offered a two-year contract, but the Mariners swooped in with a three-year deal worth $13.25 million.
“That’s the business,” said Baird, who added that he and Ibañez are still friends. “That’s the one thing in this game. It’s broken up in two parts: there’s a personal side and there’s a business side. The business side always wins out, but it should never take away from the personal side.”
In 2004, Ibañez hit .304 in 123 games and then had the most productive stretch of his career during 2005-08, when he averaged 24 homers and 107 RBIs. That led to a deal with Philadelphia, where in three seasons, he played in the postseason each year, including the 2009 World Series when he batted .304.
Ibañez joined the Yankees this season and struggled for the most part. However, during his final 11 games of the season, as the Yankees were battling for the division title, Ibañez hit .405 with three doubles, four homers and nine RBIs.
On Sept. 22, Ibañez hit a three-run homer in the 13th inning that tied the score against Oakland, which had put four runs up in the top half of the inning. The Yankees went on and beat the A’s in 14 innings.
In the penultimate game of the season, Ibañez had a pinch-hit, two-run homer in the ninth inning and then had an RBI single in the 12th in a 4-3 victory as the Yankees remained a game up on Baltimore in the AL East with one game to play.
That was a precursor for his playoff heroics.
“You can usually evaluate the physical ability of a player and have an idea of when that’s going to end,” Baird said. “The toughest thing for anyone to do is to evaluate under the skin and in the heart.
“His intestinal fortitude, if you think about it, team after team says I think this is his last year. It’s tough to bet against him.”
To reach Pete Grathoff, call 816-234-4330 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org