And a Great Joy Visited the Team

By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, March 23, 2006

JUPITER, Fla. -- Jupiter aligned with Mars here on Wednesday afternoon. Harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounded. No more falsehoods or derisions. Dude, it was weirder than an "Age of Aquarius" acid flashback. Why, the park was so blissed out that Alfonso Soriano, a nonviolent conscientious objector as recently as Monday, made peace, not war, and played left field.

Nats Manager Frank Robinson, General Manager Jim Bowden and highest-paid player Soriano held an all-day love-in at Roger Dean Stadium, complimenting each other, seeing each other's points of view, vowing tolerance and burying hatchets -- just not in each other's backs. The Afternoon of Love culminated in Soriano trotting to the outfield without an armed guard in sight.

No one needed to hold his hand, wipe away his tears as he moved farther and farther from his beloved second base or paint yellow arrows on the grass so he wouldn't get lost. Soriano's new position is still located directly behind shortstop, right where it was when he refused to go there on Monday in an act of insubordination perhaps unparalleled in baseball history. (Or maybe it was just Alfonso's own protest movement.) Even in Florida, no alligators or rattlesnakes inhabit the outfield and, to no one's surprise except perhaps his own, Soriano survived the entire nine innings without bodily harm or buffoonery.

By day's end, Soriano had doubled, walked, scored two runs, barely missed a 400-foot homer that was knocked down by wind and -- on his only play in left field -- started an easy double play when a Cards runner lost track of the outs on a routine pop fly. "Who says Soriano can't turn the double play? First ball hit to him," quipped veteran St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Rick Hummel.

The explanations for this day of boundless joy for the Nats were something to behold. A breakfast of hallucinogens might have helped with the digestion. Soriano did it, he said, because "I love the game." The $10 million he ultimately might have lost if the team had put him on the disqualified list had nothing to do with it. Love conquered.

Bowden called Soriano's decision "an act of personal sacrifice" and said (several times) the team had "compassion" for the player's conflicted feelings. (Anyone wishing to trade for Soriano's services will have no trouble finding Bowden's private cellphone number. He's written it on every outfield fence in Florida, followed by the word, "Help!") Robinson added (several times) that he had "sympathy" for his player's predicament.

And did we mention that Soriano said he played for the good of the team because "I love the game." (Several times.) Unfortunately, there must have been some bad grass in the brownies. The Nats couldn't quite get their stories straight on short notice. Soriano insisted, once again, that the reason the Nats sent eight men onto the field to begin Monday's game -- with left field vacant -- was all just a miscommunication. Soriano says he left the park because a different lineup, posted earlier, did not include him in the day's festivities. Only a phone call from Nick Johnson tipped him off that he was AWOL. Riiiiiight. Some might find this plausible except for one problem. Frank's "Love Potion No. 9" must have worn off by the time he was informed that, once again, Soriano had dragged out the "miscommunication" confection. "It wasn't a missed communication," Robinson said. So, the Nats' star player and Hall of Fame manager now officially disagree about the nature of Truth. How retro.

Mr. Soriano, meet Mr. Robinson. No, not the one you've had breakfast with in coffee shops all over Florida as he tried to sweet-talk you into doing what every player has done since 1869 -- in a crunch, play where the team tells you. No, the real Robinson is back, finally -- the same 70-year-old who tried to punch Mike Scioscia in the mouth last year.

Several Nationals players also missed the pregame Kool-Aid. Maybe they were underserved. "Let's face it. He didn't really have a choice but to come back and play," said one Nats veteran. "We all know he's not happy. He's not going to be a good outfielder right away. He's going to drop some balls. Everybody will be on him. 'Was he really trying?' That's when I'll support him. He realized the team always has got to come first. Now, top to bottom, we have a lineup that's much better than last year."

In the end, that's what matters. This is high-pay hardball, not Ultimate Frisbee. Happy is optional. Soriano's been a Yankee, so he knows. And he flourished there.

Until such time as the Nats are offered a quality third starter in trade and he can escape, Soriano is being paid $10 million to hit 30 homers, steal 30 bases and not get killed in left field. Just because he's a speedster, he'll be better than past hard-hitting Washington left fielders like Frank Howard and Roy Sievers. "He'll be better than they were the first day," Robinson said.

The Nats and Soriano have now made the best of a bad situation. It's still pretty lousy. But it could have been historically miserable with a ground-breaking, head-cracking, career-changing arbitration case that could have cost Soriano millions, gotten Bowden fired for a high-risk trade that imploded and, in all likelihood, stuck the union with a labor precedent it hated.

Now, all those nightmares are past. Throughout baseball, a sense of order has been restored. "Good," St. Louis Manager Tony La Russa said on hearing the news. "I was just going to go over to the batting cage and give [Soriano] a little jab. Everybody knows he's a good guy. This is not consistent with the player we know. He has to understand that some guys want to bat cleanup, but they have to bat sixth. Some relievers want to be closers, but they have to be setup men.

"It's not about players. It's about team."

Is that how it will prove to be for the Nats after months of needless nonsense, due to Bowden's recklessness and Soriano's pride? Can they once again be about "team" and not "players?" No one knows.

Whether Soriano makes his peace with left field or the Nats' brass, whether the team trades him or tries to romance him into a long-term contract, remains as utterly up in the air as the next fly ball to left field -- one that Soriano may, or may not, catch.


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