Ibanez, Morse talk Mariners in Chatting Cage
Both players' returns to Seattle have been fruitful in tough AL West
NEW YORK -- When the Mariners came calling this offseason, the decision for Raul Ibanez to sign a one-year deal was an easy one.
After all, Ibanez's professional career started when Seattle drafted him in 1992. He then made his debut with the Mariners on Aug. 1, 1996, and hit his first career home run at Seattle's Kingdome in 1997.
Yet for Ibanez, the decision to return to Seattle for a third stint with the Mariners wasn't entirely nostalgic.
"We've got an up-and-coming team -- but actually a little bit better than an up-and-coming team even, I think we have an opportunity to do some special things," said Ibanez, who -- along with teammate Michael Morse -- stopped by the MLB.com headquarters on Wednesday to field questions from fans via social media and a live video stream inside the Edward Jones Chatting Cage.
"Obviously, with the additions like Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales, the stuff we've done this winter and a great young nucleus of guys that can play and guys that believe. You put that all together and you pull together, great things can happen."
Ibanez, who also played for the Mariners from 1996-2000 and again from 2004-08, is just the fourth player in franchise history to come back for a third stint with the club. This time, however, he had some company in his return.
Morse, too, made his Major League debut with the Mariners and played for the club from 2005-08 before spending the last four seasons with the Nationals. He returned to Seattle this offseason as part of a three-team deal involving the Mariners, Nationals and Athletics.
During his first stint with Seattle, Morse appeared in just 107 games over four seasons. After appearing in 72 games and hitting .278 with three homers in his debut season, Morse went homerless while playing just 34 games over the next three years.
"It's been great so far, with the whole homecoming thing," said Morse, who has nine home runs through 33 games entering play on Wednesday. "When I left here, I didn't get a chance to show what kind of player I was. I didn't get that many opportunities. Now, I get a chance to prove myself. I'm excited, it's kind of like a dream come true."
As for what Morse missed most about Seattle in spending the last four years away from the city, the 31-year-old's answer was a bit out of the ordinary for the typical baseball player.
"The weather. I like rain. I don't know why, but I like rain," Morse said. "I love the stadium, too, though. And I've just got a lot of memories there since it was the first team I got called up with ... so it was a little bit of everything."
In his return, the right-handed-hitting Morse seems to be taking advantage of the facelift Safeco Field received during his absence.
Prior to this season, the walls at Safeco were moved in, with the biggest adjustments coming in left-center field. The fences were moved in between four to 17 feet at varying points in left field and four feet from straightaway center to the right-center gap. The 16-foot-high hand-operated scoreboard that formerly formed the left-field fence was also moved back, leaving the outfield wall an even eight feet all the way around.
"I think it's playing really fair," Morse said of the new dimensions. "Since they brought in the fences and made them level all the way around, it plays fair just like any other park. You've still got to hit it to get it out, but from foul pole to foul pole, I'd say you can hit it out. Before, the gaps were a little too big and the walls were kind of different levels and stuff, but I think they made it really fair."
The changes aren't as noticeable for the left-handed-hitting Ibanez, who spent last season calling the notoriously left-friendly Yankee Stadium home. Though Ibanez is the all-time Safeco Field leader with 69 home runs at the venue, he said hitting for power at Safeco still "obviously isn't as nice as Yankee Stadium."
That was more than evident on Tuesday night when Ibanez, playing in his first game back in New York, crushed a two-run homer to the short porch in right field off former teammate CC Sabathia. Ibanez hit .240 with 19 home runs and 62 RBIs in 130 regular-season games last year for the Yankees before playing a pivotal role in the postseason with three homers and five RBIs while hitting .318 (7-for-22).
"It was definitely a great feeling to be able to come back," Ibanez said of Tuesday's return to the Bronx. "It was a lot of fun to come back and see the fan reaction and be a part of it. It's always fun to come to New York."
Yet for Ibanez, it's been just as fun this year returning to his roots this season in Seattle. Though much of the preseason focus in the American League West revolved around the Rangers, Angels and Athletics -- and even the Astros' transition from the NL -- the Mariners still believe they can make some noise by season's end.
"I think that's a great position to be in," Morse said of being the underdog. "We're a team that's going to sneak up on people. When we go into series against the Rangers, Angels, A's -- they know already it's going to be a tough series. We're learning, as a team, that we win two out of three and just win the series, we've done our job.
"I think all the tools are there, now it's time to just put it all together and win games."