By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 4, 2007
CHICAGO, May 3 -- He came for a summer that was, in so many other ways, forgettable. The Washington Nationals went nowhere in 2006, starting with a poor April, languishing in last place every day after the Fourth of July, on their way to having Manager Frank Robinson dismissed at season's end.
But each night, there was the possibility -- at times, it seemed the probability-- that eyes might pop, that even jaded baseball players might see something they didn't think possible. Alfonso Soriano was a National last summer, and last summer only. The memories of that 46-homer, 41-steal, 41-double season will be fresh beginning Friday, when the Nationals come to Wrigley Field and Soriano will be the first batter they face, wearing the blue pinstripes of the Chicago Cubs.
With that, they will no longer anticipate the spectacular. They will dread it.
"I kind of, a few times, caught myself just sitting there watching him," Nationals right fielder Austin Kearns said.
With every reunion comes a review of the breakup, thoughts of what might have happened had the pairing stayed together. For Washington baseball fans, this weekend will be no different. "He was great in every way for us," Nationals President Stan Kasten said.
Indeed, there will be pangs for some Nationals themselves when Soriano takes his position in left field, when he leads off for the Cubs. For Soriano, a month into his first season with his fourth big league team, awash in more money than he ever imagined growing up in the Dominican Republic, those pangs are more easily dismissed.
"Washington," Soriano said, "was only one season."
Barring an unexpected trade, he will spend eight seasons in Chicago. He will be paid $136 million for doing so. That deal came after the lone season with Washington, one in which he was the hottest commodity at the July trade deadline only to remain with the Nationals through September. The departure, in a way, defines his experience in Washington even more than becoming the first man to hit 40 homers and 40 doubles and steal 40 bases in a single season.
The Nationals traded for Soriano in December 2005, before the new ownership group led by Theodore Lerner was chosen, before the Lerners and Kasten put in motion a massive rebuilding project. In baseball, "rebuilding" is code for "trading your talented, high-priced players for prospects," and while Soriano was routinely performing the spectacular, it all seemed likely to end with one spectacular trade.
It didn't. At the end of the season, his contract expired. And he left.
"If you don't trade me, I expect you're going to make an offer just in case I like it," Soriano said this week. "Then maybe I can stay. But they never made an offer. I don't know what their position is. I always said I'd give them the first opportunity, but they never called."
Such quibbling is likely irrelevant, because the Nationals couldn't compete with Chicago financially. But Kasten and General Manager Jim Bowden continue to believe that at the trade deadline, as Kasten said Thursday, "there was no offer even close to the value of the two draft picks that we wound up getting" as compensation for losing Soriano, the 31st and 68th choices overall.
"At the end of the season, we had the first contact with him," Kasten said. "We had an understanding that those conversations would continue. I'm not going to get into the detail of any offer made, either to him or his agent. But we understand his decision to take a contract that far eclipsed anything that made sense for us."
So what is left over is the impression Soriano made not only on Washington, but on the Nationals' clubhouse. "I had no clue what to expect from him," said Kearns, acquired in a midseason trade. What each and every National approached this week about Soriano remembers was some combination of work ethic, talent -- and joy.
"You play an extra-inning game, and you're so tired and beat-up, and you come in the clubhouse and you see him already changed and getting ready to go to the weight room," catcher Brian Schneider said. "It was amazing, that work ethic. Plus, how much fun he had doing it."
Soriano said those memories are happy for him, too. Upon seeing third baseman Ryan Zimmerman make a pair of spectacular plays last weekend, he fired off a text message to his old teammate. He and first baseman Nick Johnson, with whom Soriano played coming up through the New York Yankees farm system, likely will go out and "have a good meal" this weekend, Johnson said.
After signing the contract -- the fifth richest, in terms of total compensation, in baseball history -- Soriano struggled to start the season with the Cubs. He moved to center field and suffered a hamstring injury that cost him nearly a week of playing time. When he returned, he went back to left -- where Cubs Manager Lou Piniella said he would remain -- and didn't hit his first home run until Tuesday in Pittsburgh.
He followed that with another Wednesday, and coming into the three-game series with his former team, his numbers look more Soriano-like -- a .310 batting average, .512 slugging percentage, though he has just the two homers and four RBI.
"As soon as the weather warms up," Kearns said, "I'm sure you'll see some 'PlayStation' numbers going up."
Thursday, the weather in Chicago was in the 60s. By Sunday, it could be in the low 70s. Three days continue his turnaround, to put Washington behind and embrace the City of Broad Shoulders.
"I try to impress my new teammates, my new city," Soriano said. "But, like Lou says, sometimes you want to show too much. But that's not the best way to do it. I had to calm down and do what I did last year."