Ibanez set to pay dividends in playoffs

Ibanez set to pay dividends in playoffs

PHILADELPHIA -- The problem with a shaved head is that champagne and beer rolls more easily into the eyes.

Raul Ibanez felt the burn Wednesday at Citizens Bank Park, but he hardly minded. The Phillies had clinched their third consecutive National League East championship, which was why he came to Philadelphia in the first place.

He wanted to win, and he wants to feel that burn three more times.

"It's incredible," Ibanez said, wiping the champagne from his eyes. "Being a part of this team, being with these guys is unbelievable. It's a special group of guys."

The Phillies signed Ibanez to a three-year, $31.5 million contract in December, ending Pat Burrell's nine-year tenure in Philadelphia. The move paid off. Ibanez hit .273 with a career-high 34 homers and 93 RBIs in 499 at-bats, despite missing almost a month with an injured groin. Fans elected him a starter for the National League All-Star team. Burrell, meanwhile, hit .223 with 14 homers and 64 RBIs in 408 at-bats for the Tampa Bay Rays.

"This was a really easy place to fit -- a very welcoming place," Ibanez said. "Everybody is an equal here, and that's a great thing. You have great players, but nobody acts like it. Nobody acts like a superstar. Everybody puts the team ahead of themselves, and that makes a great environment."

Ibanez quickly became a fan favorite with "Rauuuuuuuuuuuul!" cheers every time he comes to the plate, gets a hit or makes a catch in left field. But fans were guarded when Ibanez arrived. He had replaced Burrell, who had turned into a fan favorite. Ibanez also signed a multi-year contract at 36, with other younger corner outfielders such as Adam Dunn and Milton Bradley signing for less.

"If we had waited, we would have lost him to a deal that was much higher than what we paid," Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "I had strong indications that there were a lot of teams that were very interested in him."

The Cubs, who would swap Ibanez for Bradley in a heartbeat, and the New York Mets expressed interest in him.

"Anytime you get more than two teams interested in a player, it has a tendency to escalate," Amaro said. "But right from the very start when we first spoke with him, it was pretty clear that Raul Ibanez wanted to be a Philadelphia Phillie."

Amaro's predecessors recently praised the first-year GM for cutting loose Burrell and signing Ibanez.

"Even though Pat did a great job for us in 2008, I think it was time to make a change," said former Phillies general manager Pat Gillick, who serves as a senior adviser to Amaro. "I don't think Ruben could have picked up anybody -- not only from a production standpoint, but a teammate standpoint -- better than Ibanez."

"There were lots of reasons why people would have emotional ties to a guy like Pat Burrell," said Houston Astros general manager Ed Wade, who preceded Gillick in Philadelphia. "But to get Raul Ibanez, I thought it showed that the focus was on 2009 and not necessarily basking in the glow of 2008."

Ibanez has been asked a couple times recently about his individual accomplishments this season -- the All-Star appearance, the career high in homers -- but he has no interest in that. He played for the Seattle Mariners in 2000, when they made the American League Championship Series, but that was a long time ago.

"The individual stuff is kind of meaningless at this point," Ibanez said. "Moving forward, the postseason is what really matters. It's a whole new season. That's really where my focus is right now."

Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.