Rafael Soriano arrives at Washington Nationals camp hoping to be a bullpen leader

An osprey flying above the field on Thursday at Nationals spring training disrupted the batting practice session when it dropped a fish in center field next to Denard Span. (Brad Horn/The Washington Post)
February 16, 2013

Rafael Soriano slipped quietly into the clubhouse here at 8:48 a.m. on Saturday, six days later than he hoped to arrive from his native Dominican Republic. The Washington Nationals’ splashy offseason acquisition made a beeline toward his locker, dropped off his bag and began changing into his Nationals gear for the first time. Eating a spinach omelet for breakfast nearby, pitcher Gio Gonzalez stopped, offered a hug and congratulations.

Soriano, the right-handed closer held up by a visa delay, was finally here. The man signed to help make the Nationals a World Series favorite had arrived at Space Coast Stadium, pulled headphones out of his bag, plugged them into his iPhone and played bachata music loud enough for everyone in his corner of the locker room to hear.

Eventually, he took a few questions.

“I’m so happy to be here,” he told reporters huddled around him at his locker.

After the team warmed up Saturday morning on a field behind the spring training complex, Soriano jogged toward the pitchers to take part in drills, dressed in Nationals’ red, white and blue from head to toe. General Manager Mike Rizzo turned toward him and said, “Looks good on you.”

Ideally, Soriano, 33, would have been here a week ago, two days before pitchers and catchers were expected to report to spring training. He wanted the time to familiarize himself with the team that signed him to a two-year, $28 million deal last month. But the former New York Yankee was forced to wait in the Dominican Republic as the U.S. Consulate verified information related to his visa. “I was surprised,” he said.

While Soriano waited at home in Boca Chica, he continued his five-times-a-week routine of training and playing catch, his bags packed. His personal assistant, who helps him with English, had been in Viera since Monday waiting for him to arrive.

On Friday morning, Soriano received word that he was cleared to travel. He arrived in Viera around 1 a.m. the next day. He played catch on Saturday and will throw his first bullpen session Monday. The 10-year major league veteran has thrown only one bullpen session so far this winter, normal for him as he likes to rest his arm in the offseason.

Soriano has the most major league experience on the Nationals and is the third-oldest player on the active roster, seven months younger than Jayson Werth. He said this is the first time in his career that he has been the most senior member of a bullpen.

This is also only the second time in his career that he has arrived to camp as his team’s clear-cut closer — noteworthy for a reliever with 132 career saves for four teams. The Nationals are counting on Soriano, an admitted introvert, to become a leader in the bullpen and help the younger relievers.

“It’s one of the things I like to do,” Soriano said. “If they need me to help and I see something, if they’re doing something wrong, I like to tell them, ‘Hey, do it this way.’ ”

Soriano was once given the nickname “El Silencioso” (“the Silent One”) by teammates because he would often retreat to his corner of the clubhouse to talk to his family by phone. After blown saves, he often avoided reporters. He turns to his family to help him cope after rough outings.

His agent, Scott Boras, however, told Soriano he needed to speak with media members after blown saves, especially in New York, and he has. Soriano insists that his quiet demeanor is no personal slight against his teammates. While some like to talk, he doesn’t.

“I’m like that,” he said. “I don’t say much. Depending on the situation and how the team is doing. Sometimes you’ll see me quiet or listening to music. That’s the way I am. I’ve always been like that.”

Soriano arrived in Viera knowing only one other person in the Nationals’ clubhouse, reliever Will Ohman, who was also on the 2008 Braves. (First baseman Adam LaRoche was also Soriano’s teammate on the 2009 Braves, but only for the final two months of the season after a trade and the two said they did not know each other then.)

“He generally is the tall, silent type,” said Ohman, here on a minor league deal with an invitation to big league camp. “He does his work. He’s very content to prepare himself and go out and do his job. Not a tremendous amount of flair about it. That’s just the way he goes about it. He gets outs.”

Slowly, the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Soriano said, he will get to know his other teammates. After Gonzalez welcomed him in the morning, Rizzo appeared in the clubhouse and shook Soriano’s hand. Pitching coach Steve McCatty emerged from the hallway and did the same. McCatty told him they would soon talk about his pitching schedule and see how he felt.

Then, before he walked away, McCatty asked Soriano a question that made both men laugh: “How you feel? Your back sore from carrying all that money?”

After Soriano had pulled on his red short-sleeve warmup jacket, he walked toward the opposite end of the clubhouse. He wore his hat backward loosely on his bald head, his glove on his left hand and bounced a baseball on the ground, the bachata music he listened to as he dressed still playing.

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.
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