Rafael Soriano means no disrespect. He has always been a soul of few words. Growing up in the Dominican Republic with little paternal presence, he learned early in life to put his head down and work, and ask and hope for nothing.
So when at 14 years old he came to his mother and told her he couldn’t play baseball anymore because he needed to help provide for the family, the words from a normally quiet Soriano carried much weight. His mother, Magaly, earned a living — barely — standing on streets of neighborhoods in coastal Boca Chica, selling lunches of arepas and rice and beans and washing and ironing clothes.
“When he needed something, I couldn’t provide it,” his mother said. “He said, ‘When I’m a baseball player, you’ll see. Anything you need, I’ll give you.’ I told him, ‘Son, don’t worry. God will provide and much more.’ ”
Soriano, 33, is now the highest-paid reliever in baseball after the Washington Nationals, not out of need but a desire to build on a bullpen strength, handed him a surprising two-year, $28 million contract in mid-January to serve as the closer. After an unusual path to the major leagues, Soriano blossomed late as one of the best closers in baseball, and has already made good on the promise to his mother. The Nationals face his former team, the New York Yankees, on Friday in Washington, the final tuneup before the regular season.
On the surface, Soriano is reclusive. He operates on his own schedule. He slips quietly in and out of the Nationals’ clubhouse, hanging his headphones playing salsa or bachata music loud enough to hear from his locker while he dresses. He’s not particularly good with names. Before signing with the Nationals, he was already known as “El Silencioso” (“the Silent One”) by former teammates because he would often retreat to his locker.
But behind the quiet facade is a man who shares the wealth he now enjoys with his family and those back home who need it, and spends much of his time in the clubhouse at his locker, often talking to his family by cellphone.
“I’m like that,” Soriano said. “I don’t say much. Depending on the situation and how the team is doing. . . . That’s the way I am. I’ve always been like that.”
He plans to live in Chevy Chase this season so he can be near Montgomery County’s Latino population — and its grocery stores — in nearby Wheaton and Silver Spring. It just takes him time to open up to everyone else, even a little.
“He’s a good teammate, a guy that goes about his business, real quiet, under the radar kinda guy,” said starter Gio Gonzalez, a Hialeah, Fla., native who also speaks Spanish. “He’s from a different organization, different team, he’s trying to get into the mix here. He’s more of an observant guy. He’s not one to just go in there. He’s happy to talk to you if you approach him.”
If a teammate or staff member walks by, pats him on the shoulder or says hello, he responds warmly, even with a pleasantry in Spanish. One spring training morning, Soriano dropped off four plastic containers of food he made — stewed chicken (“pollo guisado”), rice and beans (“arroz y habichuelas”) — on the large banquet table in the clubhouse reserved for the team’s catered lunches. Ask him about his background, how he grew up without a father in his life and how he helps those who need it back home in the Dominican Republic, and he is expansive.
Soriano emerged unusually as a Dominican prospect. His father wasn’t around, so he leaned on some of his uncles, who taught him baseball starting around the time he was 7 years old. He dedicated himself to training. Unlike Latin American tradition, he took his mother’s last name and uses only one last name. Soriano briefly stopped playing baseball at 14 years old, when he went to work with a friend’s father at his carpentry shop out of financial need at home.
When he turned 15, he remembers his mother handing him all she could, 100 pesos, the equivalent of $2.40. “It was hard, being 14, 15, not really having clothes,” said Soriano, who has three younger sisters. “It was hard.”
Soriano signed with the Seattle Mariners in 1996 as a switch-hitting outfielder with a strong arm, an unknown prospect brought to the attention of scout Ramon De Los Santos. He struggled in his second year of rookie ball in Arizona, hitting .167 in 1998, and faced a crossroads: either convert to a pitcher or get cut, which would mean going home to the Dominican.
In extended spring training, Soriano said he hit 94 mph on the radar gun, and punched up a 3.11 ERA with 83 strikeouts over 751 / 3 innings in 1999. By 2002, when he made his major league debut with the Mariners, he was one of the top prospects in baseball.
The Atlanta Braves traded for Soriano in 2007 to serve as their setup man but gave him his a first true taste at closing. He saved nine games, the pressure fitting his even-keeled demeanor. He felt confident on the mound, his command improved and combined a 95-mph fastball with a deadly slider. “I liked the responsibility of pitching in the ninth inning,” he said.
Soriano, at age 29, saved 27 games for the Braves in 2009 and, after a trade, led the American League with 45 saves in his lone season with the Tampa Bay Rays, a 2010 campaign that earned him an all-star bid and honors as the league’s best reliever. He struggled through injury and inconsistency in his first year in New York as a setup man for all-time great closer Mariano Rivera in 2011. Last season, however, he rescued the Yankees when Rivera was lost with season-ending knee surgery and saved 42 games. With Rivera back this season, he opted out of his third year of his contract because he wanted be a closer.
At 6 feet 1, 230 pounds, Soriano cuts an imposing presence on the mound. He emerges from the bullpen to a song about his life written by a friend. He yanks off his hat after warmups on the mound and stares into it before pitching. He untucks his jersey shirt after every save. He doesn’t like facing division opponents during the spring. He pitched in only seven major league games this spring, an amount he set with Manager Davey Johnson. “He’s a character, to say the least,” Johnson said.
For an 11-year major league veteran, Soriano’s arm has logged relatively few innings and saves (132). Two elbow surgeries, including Tommy John surgery in 2004, a concussion, a sore shoulder and elbow over the years held him to 502 innings, or about 46 innings per season. “It’s like a car, when you have a car and it has 100,000-some miles, that’s not me,” he said.
Good or bad outing, twice a day, Soriano calls his mother to check in. Though she knows little about baseball, she watches his games on television from the Dominican Republic. Through her, Soriano has been able to help care for some of the needy. She fields the requests and he foots the bills.
When a devastating earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, Soriano called his mother and asked her to call the local Red Cross in the Dominican Republic to pay for some supplies out his pocket and ship them. Every Christmas, he visits the countryside and gives away presents and baseball gear. There was an elder lady who lived nearby who needed $3,000 to fix her collapsing house. Soriano paid. Or the local boy who needed money for back surgery, if not he would be paralyzed. Soriano donated.
“I once was there,” said Soriano, whose current wife is expecting their second child together. “I met someone once who didn’t have much, didn’t even know what an apple was, a grape or a pear,” he said.
“God has blessed me, he’s blessed my family and people who aren’t my family that we’ve helped.”
As he talks about his past in the Dominican Republic, Soriano’s eyes widen, his answers and stories are longer. He turns toward the center of the clubhouse, away from staring inside his locker. He’s not always so quiet after all.