By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 23, 2006
JUPITER, Fla., March 22 -- In the top of the first inning on a brilliantly sunny Wednesday afternoon, Alfonso Soriano stepped to the plate wearing a blue Washington Nationals jersey and a red Washington Nationals helmet, his first at-bat for his new team. More importantly, in the bottom of the inning, he grabbed a large, black baseball glove, one borrowed from a teammate, and ran to left field, seemingly ending the controversy that had defined the club's spring.
Soriano, a second baseman who has never played a regular season game in the outfield, thus agreed to switch positions for the Nationals not only on Wednesday afternoon, but for the upcoming season. Yet what emerged after a day that began with Soriano saying he hadn't decided what he would do and ended with him playing nine innings in left was a confusing tale in which the Nationals and Soriano differed on whether he had outright refused an order to play left field two days earlier.
"I love this game," Soriano said after he went 1 for 3 with a double and a walk, scoring two runs in a 9-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. "That's why I changed my mind."
Soriano's appearance in left, and pledge to do what the club wants, at least momentarily defused what had threatened to become a legal battle. From the moment Soriano was acquired in a trade with the Texas Rangers in December, he said he would not move from second base. The Nationals already had three-time all-star Jose Vidro at that position, yet because Vidro's right knee has caused problems for the past three seasons, and because Soriano has a reputation for being a solid teammate, the team's front office thought it could smooth over the differences, explain to Soriano the team needed him in the outfield and avoid a public and prolonged clash.
"Obviously, if we knew his position would be what it was, we wouldn't have made the deal," said General Manager Jim Bowden, who traded outfielders Brad Wilkerson and Terrmel Sledge, along with a pitching prospect, for Soriano. "We took a risk. We knew we were taking a risk, and that's part of life.
"We didn't think it would play out this way. It's unfortunate that it did. But do we think we have a better lineup after the trade than before? Yes, we do."
The most dramatic moment of a tumultuous three-day period came Monday night, when the Nationals put Soriano's name on the lineup card, yet sent out eight men when they took the field, highlighting Soriano's apparent refusal to play left. Soriano and his agent, Diego Bentz, both said Wednesday that there was a miscommunication among Soriano, Bowden and Manager Frank Robinson about whether the Nationals intended to keep his name in the lineup when the game started. Bentz was not present for the conversation.
"I say, 'If you put me in the left field, I'm not sure,' " Soriano said Wednesday. "I'm not ready to go there. . . . I didn't know that situation when I left the ballpark on Monday."
Robinson, though, said flatly that he made things clear to Soriano on Monday afternoon, when Soriano returned to the team's training site in Viera, Fla., after a stint playing for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic. Robinson met with Soriano privately Monday, and Soriano relayed his intention to take ground balls at second base rather than fly balls in left field when the team warmed up. Robinson said he reiterated that he would be in the lineup in left field.
"It was not, in any way, a lack of communication," Robinson said Wednesday. "I told him, very seriously, that we wanted him in left field."
Wednesday was only the first step in rectifying the situation. Soriano was warmly received by his teammates, who clearly wanted the distraction left behind. "No doubt, we're a better team with him," catcher Brian Schneider said. And not everyone was surprised by his apparent change of heart, especially considering that the Nationals had stated outright that had Soriano not agreed to switch positions, they would have placed him on the disqualified list, meaning he would have forfeited his $10 million salary.
"When you make $10 million, and you're going to say, 'No,' when you know what's coming?" outfielder Jose Guillen said. "Come on. What do you think? That's a lot of money, man. I didn't see him leaving all that money on the table and moving on and not playing, just go and sit at home for a year."
But even as things came to a resolution, there are indications that Soriano wasn't the only National whose pride and comfort level were disturbed by the controversy. Vidro, for instance, has been with the franchise for 14 years, longer than any other player. His knee has been healthy this spring -- "Perfect," he said Wednesday -- surprising club officials. And though he has welcomed Soriano as a teammate, he said he would rather not have been put in the middle of a controversy.
"It's a very delicate situation," Vidro said. "Really, I would like to get an explanation from the ballclub as to what happened now that everything is looking good. Just indirectly, my name has been involved in all this stuff, and I'm really not pleased with that.
"Honestly, I like the way things are looking right now. But at the same time, my name's been involved in this. I'm not a kid. I'm not a rookie here. It's kind of frustrating that my name is thrown out there every day."
Soriano's appearance in left was his first and only since spring training in 2001, when he was with the New York Yankees, and he admitted, "I'm not comfortable." His first chance in the outfield came on a single in the third, and an inning later he caught a lazy fly ball and doubled David Eckstein off second base.
"I never think I was going to make a double play in the outfield," Soriano said. "But I did it today."
At the plate, Soriano flied deep to center in his first at-bat, then blooped a double to left, lined softly to shortstop and walked. And his day ended with a swarm of cameras and tape recorders surrounding him in a hallway outside the visitors clubhouse, then with a walk to the team bus for the nearly two-hour trek back to Viera. Bowden said he would "never close the door" on still pursuing possible trades, and there is a chance, because Soriano is a free agent at the end of 2006, that he might only be in Washington for a matter of months.
But for now, he is the Nationals' left fielder, a position that wasn't clear till Wednesday.
"I hope that I stay healthy, and I hope they play me over there every day," Soriano said. "Like I say, I love the game."