CINCINNATI — Hernan Iribarren sat at his locker in the Cincinnati Reds clubhouse Tuesday afternoon staring at a plaque and he was close to tears.
The plaque was emblematic of him winning the International League batting title with a .327 average, the first member of the Class AAA Louisville Bats to win a batting championship since they became affiliated with the Reds 17 years ago.
As a reward, Iribarren was a September call-up. And it is strictly a reward. Iribarren is 32 years old and his prospect days are deeply into his past.
IT IS HIS PAST THAT HAUNTS him, which makes Iribarren a good story. He admits he wasted his baseball life. He didn’t work hard. He coasted. He enjoyed the life — enjoyed it too much.
Only when he injured his knee in 2011 and nearly lost his career did he snap to attention. And he found faith and the gospel and the Lord. But he was 27, nearly decrepit for a minor league player trying to claw his way to the majors.
He was originally signed by the Milwaukee Brewers in 2002 and languished in the minors until 2008 when he played 12 games with the Brewers. Then he played 12 more in 2009 and has spent a baseball lifetime chasing the dream ever since.
SEVEN YEARS AFTER HIS LAST major league appearance Iribarren made it back. When he started a game this week it was his first major-league start since 2008 with the Brewers.
“This means a lot to me,” he said, fondling the plaque. “I know you guys know my story and it has been a long road for me. I’m just thankful to God that He gave me this time and the talent to do what I am doing. It has been a blessing this year.
“Getting back to the majors means all my hard work has paid off,” he said. “Everything I have done since 2011 when I hurt my knee, up to now, it has paid off.”
Iribarren has batted more than 4,400 times in minor league games, a lot of long bus rides, commercial flights with connections and fast food meals. At 31, when he signed a minor-league deal with the Reds in 2015, most players would give it up. Iribarren wouldn’t consider it.
“I never doubted and if doubted I just would have hanged it,” he said. “I had a lot of job offers for coaching for some organizations and I always said no. I always believed.”
IRIBARREN WAS SOMEWHAT SURPRISED to get the call-up and said, “I knew I had a chance, but because of my age and a lot of prospects down there that were doing a good job, well, I’m not going to lie, I had it in my mind. We put it in his God’s hands and if it happened we thank God. If not, we just go home (to Venezuela) and still thank Him.”
Iribarren considers himself a walking role model, first on how not to do it, and now on how to do it.
“Since I learned my lesson, I don’t want the young players to go through what I went through,” he said. “Nobody told me all the things I had to do, to work hard, so now my purpose is to encourage them to do the right things, to work hard, because nothing is free.”
Iribarren says Latino players are at a disadvantage when they come out of poverty and are suddenly flush. They think they have it made, even before they get started.
“Latin American players, when they come here, whether we get a good bonus or not, we think the baseball is in our hands,” he said. “It’s not. We have to work hard to get to this level.”
MANAGER BRYAN PRICE IS pleased to have Iribarren for several reasons. His experience and his life story is beneficial to the prospects. And while at Louisville Iribarren played eight of the nine positions, including a couple of pitching appearances in blowout games. The only position he didn’t play was catcher.
“It is huge for him because of his age and the long time since he has been in the majors. Quite often your mind can drift,” said Price. “He can be thinking, ‘What’s in this for me?’ He’s still playing at 32 in Triple-A, he’s filling in, he is pitching now-and-then to finish a game. What does that mean. For him, it means, ‘I have to get better for my chance to get back to the big leagues if I want to continue playing professionally.’
“And he has been wonderful since being in our system,” Price added. “All of our coaches and managers have raved about his professionalism and his work ethic. Those qualities play if you have phyiscial skills and he has shown us and the International League by leadingr the league in hitting that he can play and he can hit.
“He played all over the diamond and that combination and with him being a left handed hitter, a smart player, a guy who makes guys around him better — that has value,” said Price. “What he established is that he not only has organizational value but he still has major league value.
“I’m a big fan of players having great years in the minors and coming up and performing at this level,” he said. “There are a lot of benefits for players to be here in September and I want to feel they’ve earned it.”
Iribarren has earned it — in many more ways than winning a batting title.