'YOU'RE ALWAYS on that quest for mastery," Raul Ibanez said. It was, in many ways, the perfect statement of the sportsman's dilemma. You do it for fun, and for money, and for glory, and for camaraderie, and those are all important elements of the experience. But at its most basic, the joust between the athlete and perfection fuels the rest.
Ibanez has been losing the battle lately. Before last night, the leftfielder had not hit a home run since May 30 (24 games) and had not driven in a run since June 12 (12 games). His season has been defined by streaks of extremes. His .238 batting average is a testament to his overall struggles.
In this game, cold turned to hot for Ibanez quicker than you could say "John Lackey." Fine career numbers against the struggling Boston righthander received this addendum in the Phillies' 2-1 victory: 3-for-3 with a home run and two RBI.
In a clubhouse famous for its hard workers, Ibanez - even at the age of 39, or maybe because of the age of 39 - is near the top of the list. He seems to know no other way, even if there are times when effort does not turn around a slump. Even after all of these years, and all of his experience with this most humbling game, Ibanez said he has never been able to deal well with failure.
"No," he said. "You still stress out about it. You would think it would get easier. My wife told me this one time: It's like when you're in college and you study all the time, you expect to get results. But it's like you study really hard all the time, and you pull these all-nighters studying, but you keep failing tests. That's probably what it's like."
You see enough ballplayers over the years and you recognize all manner of coping mechanisms during bad times. Some strive for simplicity and repetition - back to basics and try to relax. Others tinker, sometimes relentlessly, sometimes at-bat to at-bat, in an attempt to find an answer.
"I tinker," he said, smiling.
And when things are going well?
"You tinker a lot less," he said.
Through the struggles, Phils manager Charlie Manuel has stuck with Ibanez. It has been such a ride: a slow April (hitting .168 on May 3), and then a hot May (hitting .353 from May 3 through May 26), and then an awful June (.196 from May 27 through Tuesday night). Still, Manuel has continued to run him out there.
"That means a lot," Ibanez said. "He sticks with you through thick and thin. He puts you out there, and he stays positive. He also knows you're working, and you're doing everything in your power, literally, to try to make things work. He was that type of player, too, so I think he recognizes that and he sticks with you."
On the way to the office yesterday, Ibanez said he gave himself a personal pep talk consisting of three words: Be more aggressive. Once he got to the park, he was getting in some extra hitting in the cage beneath the stands when it was time for the 3:45 team meeting in which WBC light-heavyweight champion Bernard Hopkins talked to the Phillies at the invitation of manager Charlie Manuel.
Ibanez said he liked the talk. He said: "I really like when he said, 'If you think second, you'll be third.' I thought that was a really good line."
But they were only words. Performance is what will matter here in the end. You know the righthanded bat general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. so stubbornly insists he does not need? Well, that bat - if it were to get here, and, depending upon its pedigree - would likely take plate appearances away from Ibanez (and, to a lesser degree, Domonic Brown). That much seems obvious.
No one knows whether or when it might happen. In the here and now, though - beneath all of the stress and all of the tinkering and all of the hours in the cage - Ibanez portrays a serene confidence.
"Bernard Hopkins is a world champion at 46," he said. "If he can get in the ring with a man much younger and win, I think, at 39, you can keep playing baseball."
With that, the quest for mastery continues. *
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