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Skip the Monuments And Come See Alfonso Soriano
“I knew what a great player he was when we traded for him. The one thing I didn’t know was what a hard worker he is.”
– Jim Bowden, Washington Nationals GM on Alfonso Soriano.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Things are normally pretty quiet during spring training. Rookies and minor leaguers are trying to catch on with their major league clubs. Players are trying to get themselves into game shape and prepare for the long season ahead.
This year saw some controversy over the timing of the World Baseball Classic, and whether it helped or hurt the participants, which could lead to some adjusting of the scheduling when the Classic returns in four years.
So perhaps no one was more surprised than Alfonso Soriano during this past spring training when he stood by his word not to play the outfield, and it became a national story.
A four time all-star second baseman for the Texas Rangers, Soriano was looked upon by Washington Nationals brass as a major upgrade in a lineup sorely needing a big bat. The 2005 Nationals were last in the league in nearly offensive category.
So, when the opportunity came to get Soriano for outfielders Terrmel Sledge, Brad Wilkerson and pitcher Armando Galarraga, general manager Jim Bowden jumped at the chance, and made the deal.
But the Nationals were not granted permission to speak with Soriano before the trade, and thus were unable to tell him about their plans to move him to left field. Soriano resisted the move.
And in an incident that became a lead story in the sports world, the Washington Nationals took the field with eight men, and no left fielder during an exhibition game in March against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Soriano refused to come out and take the position he had been penciled into in the line-up card. Manager Frank Robinson went out to the home plate umpire and made the necessary switch, placing Brandon Watson in center field and in the leadoff spot, and moving Ryan Church from center field to left.
The Nationals were criticized for trading for a player that didn’t want to play where they wanted to move him. Soriano was criticized for not being a team player, and for jeopardizing his $10 million contract. The team threatened to place Soriano on the disqualified list.
With three time all-star Jose Vidro already established at second base, and finally healthy after three injury plagued seasons with knee and ankle trouble, there was no chance that the Nationals would be able to accommodate Soriano’s wish to play second base.
Despite the firestorm however, Soriano has never had a reputation of being a difficult player. Quite the opposite, in fact. And after a meeting with Robinson during which he explained the team’s need to have him play left, Soriano agreed, and went about the work of learning a new position. The firestorm died, spring training went on as usual.
“The first thing on my mind was thinking if I had the ability to play the outfield,” Soriano said. “Now, I’m working hard and I’m proving to myself that I’m a very good athlete and I can play outfield, too.”
“But the first thing was those line drives in front of my head. That was difficult for me. But I’m working hard everyday and I’m trying to be better”.
On Opening Day at RFK Stadium, the fans welcomed Soriano with a loud ovation. The RFK faithful were thrilled to have a player of his caliber on the field, and the spring training flap about changing positions was all but forgotten.
Before long, Soriano would become a fan favorite. He has proven to be a tireless worker, has excellent speed, and homerun power that makes the cavernous dimensions at RFK, nicknamed ‘the place where homeruns go to die’ seem like a myth.
Soriano belts homers out of RFK with regularity, including an April 21st contest vs. the Atlanta Braves during which he hit three, two off of future hall-of-famer John Smoltz; the third, off of reliever Oscar Villeareal, which came after a two-hour plus rain delay.
“It makes me feel good (being a fan favorite). I think it’s because of how I play the game. I play hard everyday and I think the fans love how I play the game”, he added.
With a week to go until the all-star break, Soriano is batting .266 with 26 home runs, 55 RBI, and 18 stolen bases, and was just elected to his fifth consecutive All-Star game.
Monday night’s 9-1 pasting of the visiting Florida Marlins, during which he belted 2 more homers, marked his 3rd multi-homerun game of the season, and the 14th of his career.
He is showing signs of breaking out of a mild hitting slump that has seen his batting average drop into the .200’s, while hitting at or above the .300 mark for most of the season. He also leads the league in outfield assists.
A free agent at season’s end, Soriano, 30, will likely test the market. He is projected to be offered a deal somewhere around the five-year, $65 million range, or approximately $13 million per season.
It’s also possible that Soriano could be traded by the July 31st trading deadline, much to the dismay of baseball fans in Washington, who would love to see him stay.
With a below .500 team that may not be competitive in the playoff chase for a few seasons, Alfonso Soriano alone is worth a trip to the ballpark. He is the Washington Nationals lone all-star this season, and he’s been voted in as a starter. It will be his first appearance as a representative of the National League.
“Everyone knows what he can do out there on the field, and at the plate. It’s a great thing for Alfonso. You also have to give credit to Jim (Bowden) and Frank (Robinson) for putting him out there and giving him a chance”, said friend and teammate Jose Guillen about Soriano being named to the National League All-Star team.
“It’s an honor. I’m happy for him, and happy for the team. It’s an honor to be elected by the fans and the players. It’s nice for this ballclub and this organization”, echoed manager Frank Robinson, a veteran of 12 all-star appearances himself.
Known as a clubhouse guy with infectious energy and a great personality, Soriano took the trade to Washington from Texas in stride.
“When my agent called me and told me I got traded, I said, you know, it’s part of the game. I just have to play the game and play hard”, Soriano added. With the slate of inter-league games for 2006 just completed, Soriano pondered the difference between the two leagues.
“It’s not a big difference. I don’t see a big difference at all. The things they do in the American League, they do here. They throw a lot of sliders away and fastballs in”, he added.
While initially expressing a preference for the American League, Soriano now appears to be open to whatever league offers him the best opportunity. As for his future with the Nationals, Soriano remains noncommittal.
“I don’t have a preference”, Soriano said. “If I’m here, I’m here. If I’m back, I’m back. I’m pretty comfortable here and I felt comfortable in the American League. It’s very important that I also feel comfortable here in the National League.”
“I have plenty of time to think about things in the off season. Right now, I just play the game and have fun. After the season, I’ll think about what I want to do”.
In a season that has the Washington Nationals on pace to lose as many as 95 games, there are a few shining rays that baseball fans in this town need to hold onto and remember from this season.
Rookie third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, a superstar in the making. A brand new ballpark on the way. New ownership that plans to build a winner from the ground up.
And whether it’s for the long run, or one season, or even a half a season, we have Alfonso Soriano. It’s been a pleasure to see him in a Nationals uniform, for however long that turns out to be.