CHERRY HILL, N.J. — Raul Ibanez showed up for an offseason training session with something on his mind.
“He came in one day and he’s rattling off who had the best years at what age,” said Steve Saunders, CEO of Power Train Sports Institute. “He was telling me that Dave Winfield hit .290 with 26 homers and 108 RBIs at age 40. He says, ‘I wanna beat that.’ Who talks like that? He wants to have the best season possible.”
If Ibanez, who turns 39 in June, approaches or surpasses those numbers, he’ll owe some of his success to Saunders. Ibanez and his wife decided to stay in Philadelphia with their four children after the Phillies’ season ended last year instead of returning to their home in Miami. Before the left fielder made that decision, he needed to find the right personal trainer to conduct his offseason workouts.
A friend told Ibanez to see Saunders, who trains several members of the Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers. Saunders has five training sites, including one in Pittsburgh and one in Lancaster.
“He’s great at what he does,” Ibanez said. “I was sold on him from the first 15 minutes I talked to him. My family was going to stay in Philly, and I was considering going back to Florida. Because Steve was there, it made it possible for me to stay because somebody of this quality was right in our backyard and I can work with him.”
The results from all those grueling workouts was quite evident when Ibanez arrived at spring training with a new look. Yes, he was sporting a beard — not quite Jayson Werth-esque. But he also had packed on some muscle.
“He came in weighing in the low 220s and left at 233,” Saunders said. “Body composition wise, he lost fat and put on muscle. He looks great. He holds his weight well.”
Ibanez is known for being a fitness freak. He took it to a higher level after injuries hampered him the last two years. Ibanez hit .309 with 22 homers and 60 RBIs in the first half of 2009. An abdominal tear bothered him the rest of the season, and he hit just .232 with 12 homers and 33 RBIs after the All-Star break.
Ibanez had surgery following Philadelphia’s loss to the New York Yankees in the World Series. The recovery altered his offseason training regimen and contributed to a slow start in 2010. His first-half numbers were .243, seven and 39. But he finished strong, carrying the Phillies’ offense at times and hitting .309 with nine homers and 44 RBIs after the All-Star break.
Ibanez never blamed his injury for his lack of production, even when manager Charlie Manuel took him off the lineup card. Getting benched was extra motivation.
“I definitely don’t want to sit,” he said. “You’re not happy about it. But at the same time, I think you understand. Charlie is the manager. He had every right. I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to do. You get fired up about it and you make sure it’s not going to keep happening.”
Ibanez met Saunders in the latter part of last season. The training guru could tell Ibanez wasn’t right physically and it was affecting his performance.
“He’s not somebody who complains and he doesn’t like to miss games,” Saunders said. “Once I started watching his swing, I could tell he was using his arms a lot and not generating anything from his core. He had so much stuff wrong with him from his offseason surgery and everything affects something else. The better the athlete, the more they start compensating for stuff that’s wrong with them, so they shift here and there and before you know it you have a bunch of stuff wrong with you.”
Saunders corrected all those issues when Ibanez began reporting to him four times a week after the season.
“This was a much more normal offseason for me,” Ibanez said. “Working out this way, I feel significantly better going into this season than I did last season. I’m very fortunate to have worked with Steve.”
Ibanez is entering the final season of a $31.5 million, three-year contract he signed with the Phillies in Dec. 2008. He has no intention of retiring any time soon.
“I know because of all the hard work I put into it, the determination, the desire, the preparation. You don’t prepare for this when you’re 35. You prepare for this when you’re 25,” Ibanez said. “So all the years of doing that, I was thinking about playing at 35, 39 or 40 when I was 25, 28 or 29. It’s an accumulation of resiliency you build up your body to do a certain thing. That and the combination of the desire. I love playing. I’ll go home when I feel like I’m not going to be good anymore.”
That might take a while.
“It’s amazing how disciplined that guy is,” Saunders said. “I firmly believe he can play till he’s 45. He has the drive to do it.”
The four-time NL East champion Phillies are going to need Ibanez to play the way he did the first half of ’09 and second half of ’10. The team struggled collectively on offense and must overcome losing Werth’s bat in the middle of the order.
Manuel is counting on Ibanez to pick up some of the load. Since becoming a regular with Kansas City in 2002, Ibanez has hit .288 and averaged 23 homers and 95 RBIs.
“He’s in tremendous shape,” Manuel said. “He cares. This guy to an extreme takes things real serious. He takes the game real serious. He takes his at-bats serious. He’s very dedicated. I think he’s gonna have a good season. He had two good halves. I think he’s due to put things together and be a real consistent player.”