Just after 2 p.m. Friday, Juan Soto walked down the long ramp from the players’ parking lot at Nationals Park, taking the same path he has before so many games, heading to the clubhouse he once called home.
Then Soto had a few hundred more steps to go. For the first time in his four-year career, he was in D.C. and playing for the road team, his locker next to first baseman Josh Bell’s on the visitors’ side. When the Nationals traded Soto and Bell to the San Diego Padres on Aug. 2, Soto immediately realized a reunion was coming.
Ten days ago, he knew nothing but the Nationals, the team that signed him as a 16-year-old outfielder out of the Dominican Republic.
Ten days later, Soto, 23 and a veteran of the brightest spotlights, faced them in a 10-5 win for the Padres.
“There’s just a lot of emotions, a lot of feelings that I have in this stadium,” Soto said in the Padres’ dugout Friday afternoon, surrounded by more than 30 media members and six cameras. “A lot of memories that I’ve had in the past, so it feels pretty good to be back and see these guys and enjoy the moment. It was some great moments here, but now we just got to keep going on.”
About 30 minutes before first pitch, the Nationals played a video for Bell and Soto, who were both stretching between the third base line and center field. While Soto watched, he chatted with Nelson Cruz, Luis García and Yadiel Hernandez, then hugged each of his former teammates. Soto’s section of the tribute began with a 19-year-old launching his first career homer in 2018. It ended with some of the biggest hits in club history: Soto’s game-winning single against the Milwaukee Brewers in the 2019 wild-card game, his favorite moment at Nationals Park; his score-knotting homer in Game 5 of the National League Division Series that fall; then his towering shot off Gerrit Cole in Game 1 of the World Series, the one that landed on the train tracks at Minute Maid Park.
After the early-arriving crowd gave the pair a standing ovation, Soto’s face popped onto the big screen. Wearing a backward Padres hat, having traded red for brown, he had taped a message for D.C. fans.
“I love you all, even if I have another team’s uniform. I am still going to love you guys,” Soto said through the stadium’s speakers. “Thank you. You guys made me who I am today.”
To start the three-game series, Soto went 2 for 6 with a 111-mph double, an RBI single and a loud flyout to the warning track in center. Both hits came in the Padres’ seven-run fifth against starter Cory Abbott and reliever Victor Arano. Bell finished 0 for 5 with a walk.
Trent Grisham ripped the game open with a three-run homer off Arano, who recorded two outs and was tagged for five runs on five hits. During the rally, García, who eventually exited in the eighth with groin tightness, went to turn a double play and threw to first before stepping on second, ultimately retiring no one.
Screens around the stadium were already malfunctioning — and would for much of the contest — leaving fans without direct access to the inning, count or score. And ahead of that relative blackout, Soto was mic’d up on the Apple TV Plus broadcast, discussing The Trade while playing defense in right.
For most of July, after Soto turned down a 15-year, $440 million extension offer, he was the biggest story in Major League Baseball. Would he land with the Los Angeles Dodgers, following the path Trea Turner and Max Scherzer took at last year’s trade deadline? How about the Padres? The St. Louis Cardinals? Or might Soto stay in Washington if the Nationals didn’t find an offer to match a huge asking price?
Thanks to the Padres and General Manager A.J. Preller, the Nationals’ bar was met. Soto and Bell were shipped out for six players: shortstop C.J. Abrams, outfielders Robert Hassell III and James Wood, left-handed pitcher MacKenzie Gore, right-handed pitcher Jarlin Susana and first baseman/designated hitter Luke Voit. But before he joined San Diego, in the weeks of questions about his future, Soto had repeated a few sentiments.
He loved Washington. He understood the sport is a business. He would be very relieved when the circus closed shop.
The timing of Friday, though, kept a heavy weight on Soto’s first trip back to Washington. When Bryce Harper left for the Philadelphia Phillies in free agency, he returned a whole offseason after playing his final game for the Nationals. After Scherzer and Turner were dealt last summer, they didn’t come to D.C. until this season, with Scherzer having moved from the Dodgers to the New York Mets in that time. Anthony Rendon, on the other hand, has yet to make it here as a member of the Los Angeles Angels.
With those star-sized departures, fans had months to process before seeing them in this building in another uniform. But with Soto, it was more like pouring alcohol on a fresh wound.
“It feels different,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “It just feels kind of weird because it feels like he was just here yesterday.”
There was a stark difference, too, in how Soto was introduced before his first at-bat. For the past five seasons, public address announcer Jerome Hruska lent his signature touch to Soto’s name. He drew out the vowels in Juan. His voice rose toward the last consonant in Soto’s first name. And when he reached Soto — the two syllables that, before this month, were synonymous with a smile and massive swing in Washington — Hruska would spring for his high notes.
But not Friday. When Soto left the on-deck circle, Hruska flatly spoke his name, just as he does for all opposing players. To leave room for another ovation, catcher Keibert Ruiz walked in front of the plate and Abbott stepped off the mound. Soto raised his helmet, the cheers getting louder until they faded into a cloudless evening. Then Soto kicked dirt around the batter’s box and prepared to hit.
“You never realize until you’re there,” Soto said when asked if he was more emotional than expected. “And when I stepped to the plate and see my teammates and see everybody clapping, it was very cool.”