Raul Ibanez is 41 years old. He's been playing Major League Baseball for 15 years. And yet, he still feels like a kid in a candy store.
"I'm 41 years old and I stand in the outfield and I look around and I pinch myself once in a while," Ibanez said. "I allow myself to get caught in the moment and look around and say, 'What would I have done to be in this situation 20 years ago? Or 25 years ago when I'm 16 years old and in high school and dreaming about playing Major League Baseball and what it's going to be like?'"
For Ibanez, the dream has always been there.
"I knew when I was 3 years old that I wanted to be a Major League player," Ibanez said. "It was instilled from my father in Cuba with a great love of the game. I have two older brothers, and they had an immense love of baseball. They instilled that in me and pitched to me and let me play with them. I would get my butt kicked by them on the field. And then they would let me win once in a while to make me feel good."
But before long, they didn't have to let young Raul win. He could do that all on his own.
"I wasn't one of the top prospects coming out of high school, but I know that nobody took more swings than I did," Ibanez said. "I know that nobody took more fly balls and ground balls than I did. I know that nobody worked until where everything was dark and there was no one around to hit except myself and four or five beat-up baseballs and one of those [traffic] cones. I used that as a tee. I had one in the trunk of my car and I would just hit it into the fence at the stadium with no one around. For hours and hours and there was nobody around.
"It has to start with a desire and a will, and a dream, a passion, a vision. I think probably first is the vision and the passion and having the desire and then the will to overcome obstacles in [my] way. Along the way, there are going to be obstacles. But having the will and perseverance to overcome those things is really what it's all about."
By 1992, the dream was beginning to develop itself into a reality. A 22-year-old Ibanez was drafted by the Mariners. Sure, it was the 36th round of the Draft, and the signing bonus was low. But all that mattered was that he was one step closer.
"I think once I got drafted, [it] seemed like, 'I have an opportunity for the Major Leagues,'" Ibanez said. "And then once you get into pro ball, you realize you're really far away, because everybody can play. Everybody else can catch. Everybody can hit. Everybody can run. Everyone can do all of these different things."
"I remember having a coach in Rookie ball, having a conservation with him, and he said, 'One, maybe two of you guys are going to make it to the Major Leagues.' And there [were] 50 guys there. I remember thinking to myself, 'OK, me and who else?' I had the mindset that I was going to be one of those two guys and make it to the Major Leagues."
And sure enough, there Ibanez was, 20 years after being drafted, still taking his hacks in the batting cage. Sweat on his brow and a bat in his hand, he reflected on the longevity that allows him to hit 27 home runs at age 41.
"There are days when I don't want to go to the gym or I don't want to go into the cage, but I force myself to do it. And at 40, you have to force yourself to do it with intensity and with passion at the same time," Ibanez said. "That's one of the difficult parts about being a professional, but it's also very rewarding. Once you overcome that inner barrier, that internal dialogue that tells you, 'Don't do it today, it's OK.' I think that in and of itself is also fun. The balancing act between preparation and enjoyment is a pretty difficult balance to maintain. The game is actually fun, but you also have to make the work fun. I find a lot of joy and pleasure in dong the actual work before the game happens. The game is the reward for everything else that you do."
Age has given Ibanez the gift of perspective.
"Now that I am a lot older and I realize that one day this will end, I find myself finding more enjoyment in a lot of the smaller things," he said. "I find myself getting more enjoyment out of one at-bat -- where it is a battle and the game is on the line. The pitcher is trying to do something to me and I am trying to do something to him -- it's a battle of wills. I find it a great deal of enjoyment. Right then at that moment, I realize, 'This is so much fun.'"
It hasn't been easy, staying in a game that is so physically demanding for so many years. Ibanez feels the mental pressure. He knows time isn't on his side, and he knows that with each year, fans place less stock in him. But Ibanez also knows that he can -- and has -- stopped time frozen in its tracks, out of sheer willpower.
"A lot of days, I tell myself what I want to happen," Ibanez admitted. "If I feel tired -- and everyone does over a grueling six-month season -- and [I] tell [myself] passionately enough what [I] really want to feel, eventually [I] will feel that way [by] consciously willing those things to happen."
Things like hitting 24 home runs before the All-Star break.
Regardless, Ibanez is still humbled every day.
"I feel very fortunate and blessed that I really, I get an opportunity to still do this," Ibanez said. "And there is no greater game, nothing else I would rather do than to play baseball."
Meggie Zahneis, winner of the 2011 Breaking Barriers essay contest, earned the job of youth correspondent for MLB.com in the fall of '11.