Imagine being in Andy Ibañez’s shoes Tuesday afternoon at Target Field.
From inside the batting cage, the strongest player on the Texas Rangers’ roster, a man layered in muscle, ran straight for Ibañez, put him in a bear hug and dropped him.
It sounds fairly frightening.
Alas, it was one of Ibañez’s best friends, teammate and countryman Adolis Garcia, lovingly planting him in the ground after Ibañez learned that for the first time in his career he was being added to a major-league roster.
“We’ve seen the joy with Adolis with some of the big hits he’s got, but when his friend got called up to the big leagues was probably one of the coolest moments I’ve been a part of,” Rangers manager Chris Woodward said. “He came running out of the cage, gave him a big hug and basically tackled him by the dugout.”
The path to the major leagues for most players is a long one. For players from Cuba, though, the journey is typically much longer.
Not every Cuban goes straight to the majors, as reigning AL MVP Jose Abreu and Yoenis Cespedes did. And they all have had to defect from Cuba, leaving loved ones behind to chase their baseball dreams and a better way of life for their families.
Ibañez’s path finally reached the Texas Rangers’ roster Tuesday.
He played a role in the Rangers’ 6-3 extra-innings victory over the Minnesota Twins, collecting his first career hit in his first career at-bat during the Rangers’ two-run ninth that tied the game.
He received his first start Wednesday as the designated hitter.
His teammates all know what he’s been through, which is why the Rangers were thrilled for him. The hit had long been a dream, Ibañez said, and the Rangers think there more to come.
“He can hit,” Woodward said. “We have some ways to measure how hitters and how they handle different ... pitches, and this guys is one of the few guys and handful of guys in the big leagues that can handle any pitch. This guy puts the barrel on the ball constantly.
“He’s the type of hitter, if he starts hitting in the big leagues, you’re going to start to see this guy put up some pretty decent numbers and a team, maybe that’s us, says, ‘You know what? This guy can’t go down.’”
A hamstring injury to Brock Holt created the opening for Ibañez, whose defense has lagged behind his bat. The Rangers think Ibañez is better at second base, though he said he is most comfortable at third.
Veteran infielder Charlie Culberson was at third Wednesday and will receive most of the playing time there while Holt is out, Woodward said. That’s not to say Ibañez won’t play third at some point, but he didn’t show well defensively in spring training.
Woodward said Ibañez has improved since then, working with infield instructor Corey Ragsdale while part of the taxi squad.
“He doesn’t take it lightly,” Woodward said. “He didn’t shy away from the work. He didn’t shy away from the conversation on how to improve.”
Ibañez, 28, defected from Cuba in 2014 and signed with the Rangers in 2015 for $1.6 million. He reached Triple A to begin his third season in the organization in 2018 but had been stuck there until Tuesday.
He has 1,732 minor-league at-bats, and the wait to reach the majors wasn’t easy on him mentally at times.
“It’s been tough getting here, but that’s all I wanted to do,” said Ibañez, who has a career .794 OPS in the minors. “I wanted to play baseball. I believed in God. It’s his plan. And I had the support of my family.”
And when that ball got past Gold Glove-winning shortstop Andrelton Simmons, it was the culmination of Ibañez’s path to the majors and perhaps the start of a new journey.
“I’d been waiting for a long time for that moment and had been thinking about it,” Ibañez said. “A lot of things were going through my head. I’m very grateful.”