Soriano Has More Left Than Ever Expected

Alfonso Soriano, right, beats the tag of Orioles shortstop Miguel Tejada for a stolen base in the first inning. He's on pace for 37 swipes this season.
Alfonso Soriano, right, beats the tag of Orioles shortstop Miguel Tejada for a stolen base in the first inning. He's on pace for 37 swipes this season. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Thomas Boswell
Monday, May 22, 2006

When everything is perfect at a ballpark, sometimes you don't want to leave, even if the Nationals just beat the Orioles, 3-1, to win the first Battle of the Beltways in 35 years. The afternoon sun on a breezy spring day makes you wish for a second game so you could move down to a box seat, put your feet up on an empty seat, then properly digest the day.

Luckily yesterday there was a second game -- the Class A Potomac Nationals against the Salem Avalanche. So, a couple of thousand fans from a crowd of 32,152, those who just couldn't get enough baseball, could kick back and ponder the mysterious unexpected confluences of the game. And what could be stranger than the sharp focus into which the Alfonso Soriano-Jose Vidro drama of spring has finally emerged? Suddenly, the whole picture is in high def.

Check the calendar. Two months ago on March 22, Soriano jogged to left field in Jupiter, Fla., leaving second base the property of Vidro, the vet coming back from two years of leg injuries. Who'd have imagined where they'd be now? After reaching base four times and stealing two bases, Soriano has 15 homers and 10 thefts, silly paces for 55 homers and 37 steals. After an infield single and a stretch double, Vidro is hitting .346, higher than he ever did as an Expo. Why, if Albert Pujols weren't in the league, these two multiple-time all-stars could daydream about a homer or batting title.

In one sense, everything has worked out far better than the Nats could have hoped in March. The Nats would prefer that both players be part of their future. But, if not, both now command the highest possible trade value. In a month or so, when trades get made, the Nats may have some elegant leverage. For example, the Yanks need an outfielder. Their GM remembers Soriano's stellar days as a Yank. Across town, the Mets need a second baseman. GM Omar Minaya remembers Vidro fondly from Montreal. Familiarity breeds trades, not contempt. Jim Bowden's spring disaster may yet become his summer opportunity.

However, with each passing week, the idea of trading Soriano, rather than signing him to a long-term contract, becomes an increasingly painful thought. In March, some worried he was a pouter, a problem. In May, now that they know him, many Nats suspect that losing Soriano would be a different kind of disaster. The team might have a cornerstone player -- in talent and temperament -- yet not be able to sign him, even at market value, because of the hurt feelings of the past.

Soriano is pleasant and diplomatic. "I always want to do something to help the team," he said after a weekend series in which he hit homers Friday and Saturday night and had a perfect day Sunday in a win that gave the Nats the rubber game in the series against the Orioles. "The fans are very nice with me in left field. They understand my situation here."

Ah, his "situation." If we gave him truth serum, would we find out that, for Soriano and Washington, there is no "here" here?

Fans may not get the full picture yet because every ball to left field is still a Six Flags ride. Isn't this guy replaceable?

Maybe not.

"We didn't know it when we got him, but Soriano is the hardest worker on our team," Bowden said. "He's a young 30. He has another decade left in him. In left field, he's working hard. He'll be adequate by the end of this year."

Bowden has every reason to flatter Soriano. He needs to ingratiate himself after burning so many bridges. Soriano's teammates have no reason to volunteer detailed praise for a teammate who may be gone in weeks, but they do.

Those of us who have praised Soriano for not sulking have missed the point. In quick order, he's close to becoming the team's exemplar -- the model in work habits and attitude. If he has no desire to stay in Washington at any plausible midseason price -- and that's still the best bet -- the club may wonder, "How many years will it take us to get another one like him?"

"Soriano's daily routine is insane. I'm known as a hard worker, but I can't keep up with him. He's off the charts," said outfielder Marlon Byrd. "He works out twice a day, six days a week. He doesn't just study video before the games, he finds a way to come in the clubhouse and study every at-bat before his next at-bat. Then he studies more after games. He doesn't take pregame fungos in the outfield. He stands out there for two rounds of batting practice to take balls off the bat. That's harder.

"Just before the game, he's taking more BP under the stands. I thought Bobby Abreu [in Philadelphia] was the best-prepared player I'd seen. Soriano is better. Around us, he's always smiling. He makes the room feel happy and confident. I don't know how long he's going to be here, but it's a privilege to watch how he does his job."

Vidro is also already in the tank, too. That's not entirely in his self-interest. But he can't help himself.

"I learned this year to make singles here [in RFK]. If you try to hit long balls, you are going nowhere, unless you are Soriano. A lot of guys have been frustrated here, but he is a real home run hitter," said Vidro, who is gradually learning to love the vast spaces in the RFK outfield as well as the fast infield, both of which help a high-average line drive hitter. "I don't think any of us can do what Soriano [eight homers in 16 RFK games] is doing. And we shouldn't feel bad.

"He is just a great player. His bat weighs about two tons. It is a good combination for the ballclub for him to hit first and me second. I told him, 'Anytime you want to run, run. It's not a problem for me.' We've both handled [the controversy] well. We've gotten together pretty good. He's a great guy."

These days, the Nats are just beginning to imagine a decent season despite a horrid start. Livan Hernandez had his second back-to-form start in a row Sunday with seven innings. John Patterson is due back in a couple of weeks. Maybe things won't be so bad after all. Then the Nationals look at Soriano, their best slugger, best base runner, best worker, one who is coming off a Beltway Battle in which he was the brightest light on either team, outshining Miguel Tejada.

On March 21, the Nats wondered if Soriano would ever take the field for them. By May 21, they learned to admire, praise and even imitate him. What will be the impact if, by July 21, they look around and realize how badly they suddenly miss him?

© 2006 The Washington Post Company