By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 24, 2006
VIERA, Fla., Feb. 23 -- In grand baseball tradition, the Washington Nationals unveiled their new offensive player -- position to be determined -- at a news conference just before noon on the day position players reported to spring training. Alfonso Soriano donned the Nationals' jersey and cap, smiled for the cameras and said how happy he was to be here, and management spoke glowingly of the player's abilities and said how happy they were to have him.
Still, during the 30-minute session Thursday, none of the parties had definitive answers to the pressing questions that have been stalking the Nationals since the team traded for Soriano, a four-time all-star second baseman, on Dec. 7: Where will Soriano play? What will happen if he refuses a move to left field? Is Jose Vidro still the Nationals' second baseman?
"We have a lot of respect for Alfonso as a player and as a person," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "And he understands our situation, and where we're coming from. At the end of the day, when you all know you have the same goal -- which is to win -- we'll figure out a way to have a good solution. . . . It will work itself out."
Only one thing was certain, at the end of an extraordinary day that proved the Nationals, in little more than a year in Washington, had already mastered the fine art of spin: Soriano will work out with the Nationals as a second baseman for the next week or so, alongside Vidro, as he prepares to play that position for his native Dominican Republic in the upcoming World Baseball Classic.
"The only thing that I know is that I'm happy to be here in Washington," Soriano said, in response to a question about a potential move to the outfield. "I have one week to practice second base because I have to go to the [WBC]. And that's what I have now in my mind. I no think about outfield."
Any further examination of the two-hour meeting Thursday morning between Nationals officials (including Manager Frank Robinson) and Soriano and his agent at a restaurant near the team's spring headquarters requires reading between the lines. And such a reading can leave only one obvious conclusion:
Nothing had changed fundamentally in either side's position. The Nationals still want Soriano to play left field. Soriano does not want to. And in what amounts to a compromise, the sides essentially agreed to put off a confrontation over the subject for about a month, until Soriano returns from the WBC -- the final game of which is March 20.
"Is he going to play left field? . . . Who knows?" Robinson said. "No decision is going to be made -- as to whether he is going to play left field or second base -- today, tomorrow or the next day, or when he comes back. Those decisions will be made before we leave Florida."
Addressing reporters after the news conference, Soriano's agent, Diego Bentz, cautioned, "I wouldn't assume anything one way or the other."
In one regard, the timing of the WBC actually benefits the Nationals. Soriano will be gone for nearly three weeks -- leaving after a March 2 exhibition and returning when the tournament is over (or sooner, in the unlikely event the powerful Dominican team is eliminated early) -- during which time the team can make a more informed opinion about the health of Vidro's right knee, which has bothered him for much of the last three seasons and was operated upon in September 2004.
Vidro, who had been expected to play for his native Puerto Rico in the WBC, said Thursday he was pulling out to focus on getting ready for the Nationals' season.
Vidro, who sought multiple medical opinions before declining to have a second surgery, said he is 100 percent healthy following a winter of rehabilitating the knee. However, in putting off for a month a decision about Soriano, the Nationals apparently believe there is a serious question about whether Vidro's knee will hold up.
"What's going on here is not [Soriano's] problem," Vidro said, after speaking briefly to Soriano in the Nationals' clubhouse. "What's going on here is not my problem. It's the team's problem."
Team officials ruled out moving Vidro, who is considered a far better defensive player than Soriano, to another position.
The Nationals ultimately could trade Soriano, who reaches free agency after this season, although thus far the team has found his trade market less robust than it had hoped. Vidro, too, could be traded if he proves his knee is healthy. Bowden, however, said he hopes to avoid solving the problem through a trade.
"I'd like to keep them both," he said, "because if we have them both we're a much better team."
Both sides said Thursday morning's meeting was productive, and Soriano seemed genuinely reverent toward Robinson, a Hall of Fame outfielder who has his own stories about being moved against his will from the outfield to first base as a 23-year-old in 1959.
"The talk this morning was great," Robinson said. "It was nice and loose. And we talked. And we got to know each other. We've got some things to think about, and he has some things to think about. And we'll get it done, as simple as that."
Soriano never said explicitly that he would never accept a move to left field. When asked whether he would respect his manager's authority, Soriano said: "Yeah, because he's the manager. I think I have a lot of respect for Robinson."
Although both sides did their best to appear conciliatory during Thursday's news conference, privately they are far less so. A source close to Soriano said the player is "very mad" and remains adamant about refusing the position switch. "It's going to be ugly," the source said, "because I'm telling you, he won't play."
Should Soriano return from the WBC to find a fully healthy Vidro still occupying second base, it remains unclear what the endgame to a serious confrontation would be. The team believes it holds the ultimate hammer, since Soriano could not simply quit without forfeiting his $10 million salary. Perhaps the team hopes he will suddenly change his mind in the next month, or at the very least seethe his way through 162 games in left field this season.
It is unlikely there will be any more answers in the coming weeks. A team spokesman announced before the news conference that neither team officials nor Soriano will discuss the matter after Thursday.
Between GM jobs, Bowden spent most of 2004 as a baseball analyst for ESPN, and he clearly has a vivid understanding of the media business. Perhaps sensing the media's impatience at the lack of clear answers, Bowden stopped in the middle of a spirited defense of the organization's methods.
"We've been pretty clear," he said with a sly smile, "about being unclear."