NEW YORK — Juan Soto was relaxing in late January, at home in Santo Domingo of the Dominican Republic, wasting time until baseball season when his cellphone rang.
It had already been a crazy few months in the city in which he grew up. When he left two winters before, bound for minor league spring training with the Washington Nationals, he was just another kid from the island with a big dream. But when he returned some eight months later, having lit the league on fire and finished second in rookie of the year voting, everyone knew his face and name. They crowded him at stores, at restaurants, in the stands of his younger brother’s games. He was 20 years old and, all of a sudden, famous.
But he wasn’t prepared for this call.
“I didn’t recognize the number and they were trying to FaceTime me,” said Soto, a huge smile on his face, by his locker at Nationals Park last week. “Then I swipe to answer and it is Robinson Canó. He starts talking and me? I am speechless. I didn’t know what to say.”
The two had never met. Soto had only idolized Canó for more than a decade. Canó, a second baseman for the New York Mets, had only watched Soto break into the league from afar. But a mutual friend was writing a book on Dominican baseball, told Canó that he was Soto’s childhood hero, and Canó asked for the rookie’s number so he could get in touch. Canó, also from the Dominican, had recently been traded from the Seattle Mariners to the Mets. The Nationals and Mets were scheduled to meet on March 28, for Opening Day, and 18 times after that.
So Canó, 36 and in the twilight of a storied career, wanted Soto to have his number. He wanted to tell Soto he could reach out any time, for anything, from now on. He joked that they would see each other soon, as division opponents, and face off a lot in the future. He did most of the talking, Soto unsure of what to say, and they have since become friends on and off the field. Soto still has trouble believing that it’s real. Canó feels that it’s important to bring the next generation along.
“I take a lot of pride in being someone that he looks up to,” Canó said at Citi Field on Wednesday, before the Mets beat the Nationals in a game he exited early with left quad tightness. “I got to play alongside my idol, Bernie Williams, and that was one of the most special things in my career. So for us, me and Juan, to be able to be in the same games is also an honor for me.”
Everyone in the sport has that player, the one they latched on to at a young age, the reason they put everything else aside to hit a baseball or throw it as hard as they can. It often depends on your generation, where you’re from, or what position you played growing up. Nationals bench coach Chip Hale loved Chris Speier, the San Francisco Giants’ shortstop of the 1970s and ’80s, because he was a Bay Area kid. Manager Dave Martinez thought the world of Roberto Clemente. Shortstop Trea Turner’s idols were Ken Griffey Jr. and Derek Jeter. Second baseman Brian Dozier had Jeter and Chipper Jones.
And Soto always watched Canó.
“Imagine being a kid in the Dominican one day, and the next you are playing against your hero,” Soto said. “It’s so special. It’s maybe the coolest thing that has happened to me.”
Soto debuted one year ago this week, on May 20, 2018, and he has packed so much into that time. He smacked 22 home runs as a rookie, set all kinds of records, finished his first year as one of the best 19-year-old hitters in history. He traveled with a group of MLB players to Japan for a handful of showcase games in November. He entered this season as a feared threat, fixed in the middle of the Nationals lineup, front and center on every team’s scouting reports.
But seeing Canó up close, right over in the opposing dugout, reminds Soto of how far he has come. He first saw Canó in YouTube videos and soon started looking for New York Yankees games on television. Soto was no older than 8 years old. Canó was in his early 20s, playing for the Yankees, starring in a city that seemed so huge and so far away. Soto tried to mimic Canó’s stance at the park, the way he wound his hands behind his left hip, the uppercut swing that produced all those towering home runs. Some friends even called him “Little Robbie.” He never objected to that.
Over the years, as Soto grew into a prospect and later signed with the Nationals at 16, he developed his own mechanics. He has a flatter swing plane than Canó. His stance is lower, a bit more crouched, and he shuffles between pitches as if there’s music playing in his head. Eventually he had to stop being Robinson Canó and become Juan Soto. And when they finally met in person, in the outfield ahead of Opening Day, Canó’s advice was exactly that.
“I just told him to be a good person,” Canó remembered. “People are going to eventually forget what you do on the field. That stuff fades. But your teammates, your coaches, they will remember how you were. That matters.”
Yet there are those who will remember everything, no matter what, because it’s all important to them. That’s what Canó was for Soto. In a lot of ways he still is. And so Soto wonders if there is a kid now, maybe 8 or 9 years old, maybe finding Juan Soto videos on the Internet and wondering what he could be.
And maybe, some day down the line, Soto will be in his mid-30s and look across some stadium in some city. And maybe that kid will be standing there, a big league uniform on, and the game will have been passed down once more.
“I wanted to swing like him, do everything like him, so maybe there is someone in the Dominican who feels that way for me,” Soto said. “I hope they make it and we can play together, too.”
Read more on the Nationals: