Plank, inside the practice batting cage Saturday at Dick’s Sporting Goods in Baileys Crossroads, tilted his head. He recognized the voice and face, too, now that he thought about it. His eyes narrowed. He pointed his index finger at Santa, as if to say, “Where have I seen this before?”
Then, Plank threw one more soft-toss pitch. Santa watched it go by and shuffled again. Finally, he lowered his white beard and unveiled a well-known face. It was Juan Soto, dressed as Santa as a surprise for 10 unsuspecting Little Leaguers.
“I was kind of confused because I didn’t think it was going to be him,” Plank said afterward, still dazed. “It was just weird to see him coming out of nowhere.”
When Soto revealed himself, the 10 kids, aged between 8 and 13, expressed shock more than any other emotion. It took a moment for them to connect the man in the red suit and hat with the one from the World Series. Soon, reality sank in.
“We were so freaked out,” 13-year-old Emily Keefe said.
Devyn Carlson, 13: “He’s my favorite baseball player.”
Margaret Flannery-Goodman, 13: “During the games, we only watched him.”
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Soto Santa made his rounds early this year at @dickssportinggoods to surprise some awesome young baseball and softball players 🎅🏽⚾. Had a great time unwrapping the #magicofsport and checking a few gifts off their wish lists. But first we took some cuts and the kids offered some nice additions to the #sotoshuffle . Feliz Navidad and Happy Holidays! #Sotosanta #ad
Here’s how the surprise went down: Before the store opened, Soto, in street clothes, rehearsed the act with a public-relations aide. All 10 kids arrived, and Dick’s staffers funneled them to the back of the store. Soto changed in a hallway and returned to take cuts in the cage.
The kids were told nothing, about Soto’s presence or about any funny business at all. They went to the store, they thought, to shop for shoes. Soto gave them swing tips and helped them shop for baseball gear and World Series champion hats and T-shirts. Most of the kids looked as though they floated through the whole hour.
“I think they see me like a role model, so they want to follow me,” Soto said. “Just being here with them and trying to teach them and help them, maybe I can change their minds, can change their lives. Maybe they like [baseball more] now.”
The 21-year-old World Series champion is still fairly new to all of this. A year ago he had played in just 116 big league games; now, he’s among the most recognizable Nationals players. He still finds it “amazing how they react.” He also took a moment to smile about the lightness of the experience. He ripped a small hole in Santa’s red velvet pants when he swung.
Soto was in the Washington area for less than 24 hours: to a hotel, to Dick’s and then back home to the Dominican Republic. He spent two weeks relaxing after the World Series and the accompanying obligations, and then he was back to working out.
Soto thought back to his own Christmas memories, which not surprisingly involved baseball. Every year he asked for a ball and a bat, and every year he got them. He hoped that he would be a new Christmas memory for the kids.
“That’s why I do it,” Soto said. “That’s why I do this, because of the kids and how they enjoy it. When I was a kid, I didn’t have that much time to meet some big leaguers. Now I just do it for them.”
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