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What's eating Raul: The blogger and the steroid controversy

Raul Ibanez is one of my favorite people in baseball. We can start there. His oldest son, Raul Jr., was born one day before our oldest daughter Elizabeth, and we exchanged little gifts for the kids once or twice. We talked often about playing chess against each other -- never have, but we talk about it -- and whenever we see each other (which, admittedly is not that often these days) we always have a good time catching up.

So, obviously, I love the Raul Ibanez story. The whole thing. I love everything about it: Here's a hard-working guy, taken in the 36th round of the draft, didn't get up to the big leagues for any extended time until he was 26, was basically released when he was 28, was signed by an abysmal Kansas City team in a "Hell, why not" move that offseason. He was first given 500 at-bats in a season when he was 30. He didn't complain, didn't feel slighted, didn't quit, didn't think about quitting, as far as I know. No, he just kept working and working and working on his game and in Kansas City he put up three pretty-good-to-very-good seasons in a row. Everyone in the clubhouse loved the guy, too.

He signed a long-term deal with Seattle, and even people in Kansas City -- the very people who helped Raul get his career going -- thought that the Mariners overpaid. Instead, he punched up a 120 OPS+ over those five years, drove in almost 100 runs per season, banged 22 or 23 homers a year while playing half his games in a pitchers' ballpark. Sure, maybe some people ripped his defense -- and his defense did fall off the last couple of years -- but he always played hard. Sure, maybe some people ripped his lack of speed, but when you totaled it up he was an average or above-average base runner because he kept his head in the game and played with such passion.

Sure, some people ripped the Phillies for signing Ibanez to a three-year, $31.5 million deal when he's 37. I thought it was great. I was proud of the guy. He's the essence of the self-made ballplayer. He has a lot of fans, too -- I don't mean to say he doesn't -- but I think with someone like Raul, well, he doesn't really flip any of those switches that gets the public or analysts excited. He's not quite a .300 hitter, not quite a 35-home run guy, not quite a big-time on-base percentage guy, not quite an All-Star, not quite ... Ben Oglivie is one of his comps, and that's a good one. Few people noticed Oglivie (except the one year when he just seemed to emerge from nowhere and lead the league in home runs). Harold Baines is another good comparison, I think. Raul's just a good player, a damned good player, who is most appreciated by those who are closest to him.

OK, so that was the Raul Ibanez story ... until this year. Then, this year, as everyone knows, he got off to a preposterous start. After 55 games, he was hitting .329/.386/.676 with 19 homers and 54 RBIs. He was tearing up the National League.

What followed, I think, was inevitable. A 37-year-old guy putting up those numbers? A guy few people had noticed the last five years? Yeah, inevitable. And inevitability played out in this blog post by a Midwest Sports Fans blogger named Jerod Morris.

I'll talk about the post in a minute -- I don't know Jerod at all but feel like in many ways he's getting a bad rap here -- but before that I want to say that the post is almost beside the point. Someone, at some point, was going to make an insinuation about Raul Ibanez. I know this because, privately, I received e-mails from people who made insinuations. How could it be any other way? In this day and age -- after A-Rod, after Manny, after Barry, after Clemens, after McGwire, after Palmeiro, after Giambi, after Sheffield after BALCO, after the Mitchell Report and Congressional hearings, after everything and more, after all of that -- there was no way around the whispers.

Then, what happened was this blogger, Jerod, took the whispers above ground. He didn't necessarily think he was taking it above ground ... it seems he was, as he says, mostly just responding to a friend in a fantasy league. But he wrote a long blog post -- something you know I can appreciate -- trying to get to the bottom of the great Ibanez start. He found himself running into brick walls. He could not credit it entirely to Ibanez's new home park. He does make the conclusion that Ibanez has hit most of his home runs at either: a) good home run ballparks or b) against terrible pitchers. But he doesn't find that to be compelling.

Now I'll say here that my personal opinion is that Jerod missed something in his analysis, and I'll get to that in a second. But the point is: He did not find the answer he was looking for, so he put a megaphone to the whispers. I don't think he was making accusations. I don't think he was some blogger in his mother's basement mouthing off. I really think it was a well-intentioned piece meant to make the larger point that so many of us have made -- in this day and age, it's hard to know what's real.

Trouble is, he pointed at Raul ... and that was unfair. Raul did not deserve that. And, beyond that, the Internet is an echo chamber. When the blog was Twittered and linked and finally written about, the shades of gray that I think are in the longer piece were gone. Suddenly, it was all about some guy -- some BLOGGER guy -- charging Ibanez with a steroid crime. Suddenly it was about a few buzzwords and a couple of juicy quotes and 140 characters. Well ... another sign of the times.

And then it turned into a bit of a scandal. Suddenly, there was all sorts of beside-the-point talk about blogging and accusations and responsibility and ... ugh. I often think that people are looking for excuses to get into these dreadful conversations.

Raul, for his part, came out forcefully ... and I thought he mostly handled it beautifully. I don't know that he needed to bring out the old blogger-in-the-basement cliche -- which sent this whole discussion reeling into another tedious Mainstream vs. Blogger argument -- but hey, he was emotional and hurt. He forcefully denied the charges, offered to take a blood test, said he would return every dime he ever made in the game if he ever tested positive. I know Raul, and I know that he's a proud man. He should be proud. All this time, so many people have not believed in him, but he fought through that, he kept swinging, he finally made it to the top ... and for anyone to question him now was simply too much for him to take.

I don't blame him for his reaction; I applaud him for it. In fact -- and maybe this is a pipe dream -- I kind of hope that Raul will take us into a whole new stage in the Selig Era. He's strong enough to do this too: I hope he DOES stand up, rail against steroid use, volunteer to take the most advanced tests, leave no doubt -- or as little doubt as possible -- so that people will see that, yes, a man who was on the brink of being run out of the game, a man who has faced doubters and critics at every turn, a man who had every reason to break the rules did not break them, did not even bend them. I come more and more to the conclusion that what baseball could use now in this era of doubt is a pioneer, someone who takes it upon himself to take on all comers and say, "That's it. Yes, some unfortunate stuff happened, and a lot of people are to blame, but you know what? We're moving on. The game is moving on."

It would be a hard thing for any player to do. He would have to fight wars on multiple fronts. Like I say, I think Raul is strong enough to do it.

Now, I can tell you the part that I think Jerod missed, the part a lot of people seem to have missed, the part about Raul Ibanez that you don't hear enough about: This hot beginning is not at all out of line with Raul Ibanez's career. I'm telling you: This is ABSOLUTELY TYPICAL for Raul.*

*I wish that Jerod had seen this ... and then he might have kept the regrettable steroid stuff out of his piece. Jerod really did seem to be looking for a reason why Ibanez is hitting like he's hitting ... and in my opinion that reason was right there in front of his eyes.

The reason: When Raul Ibanez is hot, he's HOT. There's aren't many people in baseball like him.

Look: Through 55 games, Ibanez was hitting .329/.386/.676 with 19 homers.

OK, let's start in 2002. That year, Ibanez had a 50-game streak -- June 7 to Aug. 2 -- when he hit .328/.385/.704 with 15 doubles, five triples, 15 homers. He drove in 54 runs. Few noticed because the Royals were abysmal that year, and it was in the middle of the season. But that stretch, you will note, is about as good as the stretch he's on now. In some ways, it's even better.

In 2003 he had a 55-game stretch where he hit .326/.360/.514 ... not as good, but pretty damned good.

In 2004 he hit .365 over a 54-game stretch. In 2005 he got off to a dreadful start and then hit .330/.400/.524 over his next 55 games. In 2006 he hit 18 homers and drove in 57 runs in a 52-game stretch.

Over the last 52 games of the 2007 season Ibanez hit .363/.425/.652 with 15 homers.

Last year, for 55 games, July 12 to Sept. 14, he hit .374/.435/.648 with 17 doubles, two triples, 13 homers. And that, you might remember, was in Seattle and a lousy hitters' ballpark.

This is a man who, when he gets hot, absolutely tears up pitchers. I've seen it up close. He has had a 50-to-60 game hot streak EVERY SINGLE YEAR since 2002. Now, true, this time around, his hot streak started with Game 1. And why not? He was in a new league, in a new ballpark, facing pitchers who had not seen him as much. He's in more of a fastball/slider/change-up league, which is in his comfort zone (rather than curveballs and split-fingered fastballs which, generally, have eaten him up).

Point is: Raul Ibanez got hot, and this is how he hits when he's hot. There's nothing out of the ordinary here, nothing at all. Now, if he goes on to do this all year, if he goes on to hit 55 home runs, then yes, that would be out of the ordinary; that would be an outlier year like the years of Roger Maris, Davey Johnson, Andre Dawson, Luis Gonzalez, Brady Anderson and everyone else who had a wild and out-of-character year.

But for now, Raul Ibanez is just continuing what he's done year after year. It's just that people are noticing.

* * *

I really liked Jerod's comment on my blog post ... so I'm going to publish the key points in it:

What I am the most disappointed in is that if I were to make a list of 10-20 players whom I "most" believe in, Raul Ibanez would be on that list -- which is why, combined with the whispers I was starting to hear about him, I decided to research and write the post in the first place.

I've been getting lots of e-mails tonight from people who have been saying that I will be vindicated "when Raul tests positive" and that it is somehow inevitable. I obviously think that speculating is warranted, but I am absolutely rooting for Raul Ibanez, for many of the reasons that you cited above. I understand why today's game of Internet telephone has made this a me-against-Raul Ibanez thing; I just think it's unwarranted and disappointing. But despite what some may think who have not read my post and simply have jumped on the bandwagon of controversy, I'm rooting for Raul Ibanez, think he's clean, and would be crushed if he ever failed a drug test.

That got lost in all of today's drama, but it's true.

I realize I am now the face of the Raul Ibanez speculation, but at the end of the day I'm a dedicated baseball fan who WANTS players to be clean and who is rooting for Raul.

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