NEW YORK – Nobody at Yankee Stadium could find a bad thing to say about the thunderbolt Raul Ibanez struck into the right-field stands Tuesday night, a ninth-inning, pinch-hit, game-tying, division-lead-saving, multi-hyphenate embodiment of clutch. When Ibanez arrived home, on the other hand, he wouldn't have been surprised to hear a cross word or two.
He may miss the birth of his child because of it.
Teryvette Ibanez has a C-section scheduled for Monday, and if the Yankees parlay their 4-3 victory Tuesday kept alive by Ibanez's homer and sealed by his 12th-inning single into an AL East championship, there's a chance he'll miss it. A Yankees victory against the Boston Red Sox on Wednesday night ensures them the league's best record – and games Sunday and Monday at the winner of the wild-card game, either Texas, Oakland or Baltimore.
Scenarios and possibilities abound, and a few of them end up with the Yankees seeded second, visiting Detroit on Saturday and Sunday and allowing Ibanez to jet back to his home in Philadelphia to greet his new son. Otherwise, he is handcuffed by a date set months ago – or the benevolence of doctors who may accommodate an otherwise-occupied father.
"We're going to see about pushing it back or forward," Ibanez told Yahoo! Sports. "It's close. Hopefully we can do it on the off-day."
By now, Teryvette Ibanez understands the baseball life: the highs and lows, the uncertainty and how October can take a 40-year-old role player and thrust him into the hero role on the season's penultimate day. During this offseason, when nobody wanted to sign Ibanez, she wondered aloud whether it was time for him to quit. Then she found out she was pregnant. When the Yankees came calling, she knew the answer to the former and the distinct possibility of his absence for the latter.
And while Ibanez's season has run hot and cold, his resurrection in September after months of languid play comes as no surprise to anyone who understands that his entire career is a revival. Ibanez rotted in the minor leagues for years, his power evident and his at-bats stifled by Lou Piniella in Seattle. His first full-time job came in Kansas City as a 30-year-old. From there, he grew into a productive slugger: murder on right-handed pitching, happy to take a walk, always better with runners in scoring position, his bat enough to overcome defensive shortcomings in the outfield.
Last season was a mess, Ibanez's first sub-standard year in a decade, and he heard the same things that plagued him early in his career: that he wasn't good enough, wasn't worthy of a major league spot – was finished. He unpacked the long-ago-buried feelings of unworthiness and remembered how he dealt with them: ignoring them and not allowing others' preconceptions to affect his outlook.
"It's all mental," Ibanez said. "Everbody tried to bring me down, tell me I was done. When I was a young player, guys say, 'Wait 'til you hit 30.' And I didn't feel different, so they said, 'Oh, 35 is the worst.' And I was OK. Then it was 40. And I'm still doing fine."
After spring training started, in need of a left-handed DH, the Yankees gave Ibanez a $1.1 million contract. Tuesday's home run was his 19th. Every one has come off righties, against whom he's slugging nearly .500.
[Related: Adam Greenberg's official at-bat ends in a K]
"Raul's a professional hitter," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said, and there is perhaps no greater compliment from one baseball man to another. It's not a term tossed around loosely. Almost always reserved for veterans, professional hitter embodies a sense of quality – a hitter who won't fritter away important at-bats, won't take asinine swings and will, in situations like Tuesdays, strike with precision. The home run ball was a cookie from Red Sox closer Andrew Bailey, a dead-red fastball that landed in the right-field bleachers. The single he popped the opposite way off Andrew Miller came from a wild angle and embodied professionalism in a baseball sense.
"It's a lot like anything else," Ibanez said. "It's not how many times you get knocked down. It's how many times you get back up. So you just get back up and keep fighting, keep working. That's really all I know how to do: just fight."
It's not just lip service when Ibanez calls himself a fighter. He has lived that. Baseball players without jobs by 30 usually end up selling insurance. Ibanez turned 40 in June, has six multi-hit games in the last 11 days and spent the aftermath of his biggest one trying to shake free of the celebratory postgame cooler dump that stiffened and numbed his back.
He deserved it, of course, because this was the biggest home run of Ibanez's season, one of the biggest of a career that still lacks a championship ring. It's why he came back. It's why Teryvette let him. There may not be a whole lot of baseball left in Ibanez's body, spry though it may be and eager though he may be to prove otherwise. If he was going to play again, he wanted to do it for a team that would give him one final crack.
"I mean, a home run and game-winning hit in October at Yankee Stadium?" he said. "Does it get any better?"
No, it doesn't. His wife understands that. And someday, whether Raul Ibanez is there to welcome him into the world or not, his son will, too.
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