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.