By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 21, 2006
VIERA, Fla., March 20 -- When the Washington Nationals took the field Monday evening, Alfonso Soriano's name was the first blared over the public address system, the man due to lead off and play left field. But as the Nationals trickled out of the home dugout to warm up for the first inning of their Grapefruit League game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, only eight men emerged. Manager Frank Robinson strode to home plate, where he made the lineup change that foretold the growing controversy here: The Nationals' highest-paid employee, and potentially their most dynamic player, is refusing to play his assigned position, and there is no resolution in sight.
Soriano, a four-time all-star acquired by the Nationals in an offseason trade with the Texas Rangers, has steadfastly declined Washington's request that he move from second base to the outfield, and the issue came to a dramatic head Monday, resulting in a situation that seasoned baseball men believe could be unprecedented. Soriano returned to Nationals' camp from his stint playing for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic, met one-on-one with Robinson and then in a joint session with Robinson and General Manager Jim Bowden. The Nationals' top officials made it clear: To be part of this team, Soriano must play left field, for Jose Vidro is entrenched at second base. Soriano, for his part, was equally clear: He doesn't want to.
So shortly after the bizarre scene played out before a crowd of 4,554 at Space Coast Stadium -- with Brandon Watson reporting to center field and Ryan Church moving to Soriano's spot in left -- Bowden stood in his office and said that Soriano would be placed in the lineup in left field for the Nationals' next game, Wednesday in Jupiter, Fla., against the St. Louis Cardinals. Should he refuse to play then, the club will file a request with the commissioner's office to place Soriano on the rarely used disqualified list, which, according to Bowden, would mean Soriano would earn no pay or service time until he chose to play for the club.
Bowden said the team believes Soriano's refusal to play his assigned position is a violation of his contract, which will pay him $10 million this season.
"We do not want it to come to that," Bowden said. "We have compassion for him. But we're in a position for this ballclub that if we can't make a trade that makes sense, we're not going to give him away, and we have a team to run. Our feeling is we don't want to wait till Opening Day to do this."
Whether the situation can be resolved in the two weeks before the season was murky at best Monday night. Soriano, 30, has averaged more than 35 homers and 97 RBI over the past four seasons. But he has yet to appear in a spring training game for his new team, nor has he taken fly balls in the outfield. He left the ballpark in the second inning after a clubhouse attendant drove his white Cadillac Escalade nearer to the back entrance of the stadium.
As he walked to the parking lot, Soriano declined to comment on the situation, as he had all day. Asked if he would play Wednesday, he said only: "We'll see. We'll see. I don't know."
Soriano's clandestine departure ended a strange day in which he indicated that he needed to play to prepare for the season. Robinson subsequently told him if he played, it would be in left. Yet when the Nationals practiced fielding situations in the afternoon heat, Soriano promptly reported to second base, where he took grounders and turned double plays as the second-teamer, behind Vidro. Robinson said Soriano had not been assigned to second base for the drills. Soriano joked with a few teammates as the players stretched and went through their workout, but for the most part seemed isolated.
"He didn't want to talk to no one," one staff member said.
Soriano then spent more than 30 minutes sitting in a hall outside the Nationals' clubhouse speaking on his cellphone. Diego Bentz, Soriano's agent, said the two spoke, but even Bentz was unclear about what would happen next. In a telephone interview, Bentz said he would "probably" travel here in the next two days to meet with his client and team officials.
It's unclear how the parties could come to a solution. Bowden reiterated that the Nationals have made several attempts to gauge the trade market for Soriano but haven't found a good fit.
"Therefore, we told the player we needed him to play left field, that Jose Vidro was at second base," Bowden said, "and for our team, that gives us the best chance to win."
Robinson said he would not give Soriano any time at second. "If he's going to play here," Robinson said, "he's going to be out in left field."
So if there is no trade, and Soriano doesn't have a change of heart, the most likely resolution is a trip to the disqualified list. An interesting wrinkle to that possibility is the fact that Soriano would not earn service time if he were disqualified. Therefore, though Soriano is due to be a free agent after the 2006 season, his contract would in effect be suspended, "and he would not be a free agent," Bowden said. "He would still be our property."
Rob Manfred, Major League Baseball's executive vice president for labor relations, said in San Diego that the league is advising the Nationals on the legalities involved. Ultimately, though, "it's a player-club issue," Manfred said. Commissioner Bud Selig and Gene Orza, the chief operating officer of the players' union, declined to comment. It's possible, though, that the union could eventually take up Soriano's case, arguing that the club would be diminishing the player's value by moving him to left.
Those possibilities will arise in the coming days and weeks. Meantime, Soriano's would-be teammates went out and lost to the Dodgers, 11-5, without him. First baseman Nick Johnson, who came up through the Yankees system with Soriano, and reliever Mike Stanton, who played with him in New York, swore by him as a teammate.
"He's not a troublemaker," Stanton said.
But there is no question that he is causing heaps of trouble for the Nationals. He has Tuesday, an off day, to think things over. And the direction of the Nationals' season could be determined by whether Soriano decides to walk out to left field on Wednesday.
Staff writer Dave Sheinin contributed to this report from San Diego.