Nats Draw a Line in the Dirt

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Can you imagine Alfonso Soriano refusing to switch from second base to left field if Manager Sadaharu Oh had asked him to make the sacrifice for the sake of Japan's team in last night's World Baseball Classic championship? Such selfishness, placing the individual ego far above the team's needs, especially in response to a reasonable request, would be virtually unthinkable in Japanese baseball, where diva behavior is anathema.

To carry the illustration to an extreme, imagine Soriano refusing to change positions if he played for the Cuban team in that WBC title game. Fidel Castro might have disposed of the body before game time. Yet last night Soriano refused a direct order from Nationals Manager Frank Robinson to go to left field to start the game. The Nats took the field with eight men, underlining Soriano's insubordination, despite a $10 million contract.

By leaving left field momentarily empty, Washington took a stand for all of baseball to see. Sometimes, the world goes mad and somebody needs to say, "Stop. This is crazy." That's what the Nats have done. If Soriano refuses again in Wednesday's game, the team will put him on the disqualified list and not pay him. Such a stand, once taken, won't be reversed.

And it's the right decision. If Soriano and the Nationals go to war and stay at war, then Jim Bowden's trade last December 7th may live in local infamy and perhaps even cost the general manager his job. But at this point the team and the player are where they are. How they got there doesn't matter anymore. At some point, sanity has to prevail.

If anything, the recent experience of the WBC, with the embarrassing early exit of the rich U.S. "team" may have helped people in baseball rediscover common sense with the Nats as a prime example.

We don't need to emulate the cultures of Japan, South Korea, or certainly Cuba. But there's something for everybody to learn. The WBC's message is that major league self-centeredness is both ugly on its face and also vulnerable on the field, especially when confronted by teams that understand the value of teamwork, morale and unselfishness. We do not have to mimic other cultures to recognize that our own permissiveness has completely run amok.

Few can miss the symbolism of Soriano's last two appearances, or non-appearances, on a baseball field. On Saturday, the Dominican Republic sent Soriano to bat as a pinch hitter with two outs in the ninth inning against Cuba. A homer would have tied the game. Instead, Soriano struck out weakly, ending the WBC 0 for 12, one of only two players to bat .000 in the Classic.

Soriano was benched by his native country in the final games of the WBC as if to vindicate the Nats' view that he is an inferior second baseman and should switch positions (like Rod Carew and Pete Rose). Replacing him was Placido Polanco, a .300 hitter with little of Soriano's home run power or base stealing ability. Because of the absence of Manny Ramirez and Vladimir Guerrero, the Dominicans -- like the Nats -- were short-handed in the outfield and would have welcomed a raised hand by a volunteer like Soriano. But the 30-year-old, who is tied for the worst career fielding percentage at second base in the last 50 years (.971), apparently plays the outfield for no man, team or country. Instead, the Dominican outfield included young Willy Tavares, who has no power, and Wily Mo Peña, who has no speed.

All sports have watershed moments. Baseball is at one now. The public is sick of stars whose bodies are inflated by steroids or whose egos are inflated by wealth. Barry Bonds is stuck with being the poster child for the former. Somebody, presumably Soriano's agent, Diego Bentz, should tell him that he doesn't want to risk becoming the $10 Million Man Who Wouldn't Move.

As for the Nats, they have no choice but to stick with their decision. If they buckle on their disqualified list threat, they'll have no credibility left with any player on any issue.

In other words, the Nationals have already taken the full hit. They've admitted that trading Brad Wilkerson (and two others) for Soriano -- before asking him if he would switch positions -- may have been a disaster. Texas refused permission for the Nats to talk to Soriano. That alone was a red flag. So, the maximum possible amount of egg is already on Bowden's face. Moreover, Soriano's trade value has shrunk by the day. At this point, is there a trade available -- perhaps for a No. 4 starter -- that's even worth doing? As for Robinson, his ability to reach Soriano either through persuasion or authority has been spurned.

The only conceivable compensation in this calamity might be that, when all grievance machinations are done, the Nats might save $10 million in payroll for other uses. As silver linings go, that's pathetic.

The Nationals are now "all in" on this one. They didn't wait for an Opening Day showdown. They took it now. They don't claim it was smart to trade for Soriano without talking to him. It was a calculated risk -- one that, so far, has blown up. Now, with a disqualified list threat, the team has burned its bridges.

Will Soriano burn his?

Will he run the risk of sitting out all or part of the season at a cost of $61,728 a game? Does he grasp that his main reason for refusing to play in the outfield -- that it might diminish his free agent value -- may be nothing compared to the damage he can do to himself in his next contract if he refuses to honor his current deal?

For the Nats, Soriano has provided an opportunity as well as a crisis. In their second year in town, with a new owner soon to arrive, the Nats have a chance to establish a fundamental operating principle. Are they a club that expects its high-paid players to act like adults when faced with sensible demands to help the team? Or like weak parents, do they let the kids run the family?

Right now, Soriano feels sorry for himself. He has his reasons. But there are limits to sympathy. In the end, he's not a victim, but a $10 million employee who'll be free after this season.

Let him play left field. Or let him sit home and sulk. The Nats can send him a satellite dish so he can see what he's missing.


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