Glory Days

Emperor Alfonso

In baseball, it helps if you have speed. It helps even more if you can thump the ball a long way. Many players learn to master one of theses attributes, staying in the league by honing said skill as their forte. Accordingly, I’ve witnessed plenty of pesky base-stealers and mighty sluggers who heave deadly bats from their shoe-tops. There have been faster guys, stronger guys, and guys with more fearsome reputations, but few possessed the entire package of raw, game-changing speed and explosive, exciting power quite like an in-prime Alfonso Soriano, who did it all with the most enchanting smile.

Yet, quite incredibly, Sori doesn’t receive nearly half as much respect as his impressive career deserves. Nowadays, cynicism is in vogue, meaning the true quality of our sportsmen and women is easily distorted by fans taking the moral high ground and spewing garbage about statistical anomalies, personality traits and tainted legacies. It’s seemingly easier to be negative, rather than optimistic, when assessing the worth of a ballplayer and, accordingly, enigmatic heroes like Soriano are often overlooked. We see articles about his declining skills, tweets about his exorbitant salary, heated discussion centred around the phantom notion that Alfonso rarely produced. Largely, it’s all a load of bull! Here’s a guy who works harder than most; who had a tremendous impact upon his team not just with bat and glove, but with the kind of genuine leadership so rare in modern baseball. A guy who loves the game, just like us all.

In truth, I never saw a great deal of live Alfonso Soriano action during my childhood years. He was exiled with the lowly Washington Nationals, quietly stealing bases and rocking home runs in a baseball vacuum. Here in Britain, we received a steady diet of ESPN through Channel 5, with Red Sox and Yankees and Cardinals games seemingly on tap. There was little time for the cellar-dwelling Nationals, then only a couple of years old. However, an occasional highlight would appear in a small box in the bottom right corner of your television, informing of a change in lead or important game note. More often than not, Soriano would flash onto our screens, launching a bomb into the cavernous red-and-yellow seating bowl at the memorably monolithic RFK Stadium. His was a sensationally languid swing which produced the kind of easy, energetic, excitable home runs which made you laugh out loud.

I vividly remember those concise, in-game updates delivering news of Soriano’s historic 40/40 season in 2006. It was just magnificent. Due to his relative obscurity, Alfonso carried a kind of magical mystique for me. From afar, he struck me as a vivacious ball of life and danger and extreme skill. I saw this enthusiastic, turbo-charged guy who could bash homers, swipe bases, hit cleanup, lead-off, throw a strike to the plate from 300 feet…

In my mind, there was absolutely nothing which Alfonso Soriano could not do.

Every child needs a superhero in whom to believe, and Sori was undoubtedly mine.

The Dominican outfielder is an undervalued emperor of baseball. A lifetime .271 hitter, Soriano has clubbed thirty or more home runs in a season on seven different occasions and currently has 412 career round-trippers. That’s more than Adrian Beltre, Carlos Beltran and a host of contemporary players who receive far more acclaim than Alfonso ever did. Furthermore, this seven-time All-Star, four-time Silver Slugger has more than 2,000 career hits, 1,000+ RBI and almost 300 stolen bases. He swiped 43 bags in 2001, smashed 51 doubles in 2002, launched 46 home runs in 2006, and drove-in 108 runs just two years ago, proving all the while to be a devastatingly-effective player of awesome variety and impressive longevity.

An eighteen-year veteran, Soriano broke through with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp of Japan’s Nippon Baseball League before winning two World Series rings as a Yankee in the early Millennium. In New York, the spindly Soriano discovered a penchant for dynamic offensive danger; his astonishing 2002 season illuminated by 209 hits, 39 home runs, 102 RBI and 41 stolen bases.

This burgeoning reputation soared in Texas and Washington, where the converted outfielder became just the fourth man (and perhaps the very first without chemical enhancement) in the fabled history of Major League Baseball to whack 40 homers and pinch 40 bases in the same campaign.

A varied spell with the Chicago Cubs followed and, despite producing at a very respectable rate, Soriano’s efforts were all too often judged against the backdrop of an eight-year, $136m contract and the aches of a city yearning for success after a century of famine.

When things go wrong in Wrigleyville, every Cubs fan searches for answers, explanations and scapegoats. Alfonso Soriano, a strong performer, shouldered an unfair portion of blame throughout his tenure in Chicago, a fact which dawned on many Cubs fans when he was finally traded back to New York in 2013.

Admittedly, Alfonso failed to reach his stratospheric potential as a Cub but, in isolation, his performance was still very good. At the time, perhaps Cubs fans got a little above their station, buckling under the heat of finally having a chance to win, and demanding too much of their players as a consequence. During those complicated years, maybe Chicago lost sight of its identity, with Cubs fans acting like their arrogant counterparts from Boston and New York when presented with an opportunity for success.

Now, long after the event, Cubs fans miss Alfonso Soriano and, in difficult times, finally realise how lucky they were to have players of his calibre wear those fine pinstripes with such passion.

Sori hails from San Pedro de Macoris, a place bursting with baseball passion. That diverse municipal city has been transformed into a veritable warehouse of talent, with players such as Mariano Duncan, Tony Fernandez, Sammy Sosa and, more recently Robinson Cano, flocking from its rudimentary plains to Major League superstardom. Naturally, Alfonso Soriano loved the game just like any other Dominican kid, dreaming about playing shortstop for the Yankees and lifting his family to prosperity through sport. He began playing pick-up games in the local neighbourhood aged six; a life of baseball beginning in earnest.

However, in the early going, Alfonso wasn’t great. Sure, he had enough skill to play with friends and family but, by the lofty standards of Dominican ball, Sori lacked that added sparkle inherent in those destined for success. Alfonso was surprisingly slow on the basepaths, and his awkward lollygagging after ground balls warranted a less than complimentary nickname: The Mule.

As Alfonso grew, he saw close associates sign with Major League teams and wondered whether his chance would ever arrive. Many were deeply uncertain, including Uncle Hilario, then a journeyman catcher in the Dodgers system. Hilario would bring home equipment each winter so that Alfonso and his siblings could practice, eager to better their odds of living their own American Dream.

But it wasn’t with a US team that Sori got his start. Sure, the Florida Marlins had shown interest in converting his cannon arm into that of a pitcher, but the Soriano family dismissed such a notion. Rather, Alfonso worked hard to show his worth, show his talent, show people to be wrong. Thus, in typical fashion, he took the unconventional route, working at the rather secretive local academy of Japan’s Hiroshima Toyo Carp as a teenager.

The Carp liked what they saw in Alfonso and, with help from his family, choreographed a deal which would see him develop in the Dominican before progressing through the minor league system and onto professional baseball in Japan. He didn’t always like the brutal, relentless training methods, but those early, sweat-filled sessions with Hiroshima coaches were the very making of Soriano as a ballplayer. His skills were polished and honed and highlighted. He improved no end.

Alfonso has always been a quick and perceptive learner, which aided his progress halfway around the world, where adjusting to a new language, new cuisine and notoriously unique baseball culture became hurdles to his progress. Soriano learnt enough Japanese to converse with teammates, concocted a rather risky diet of ice cream and candy, and generally let his burgeoning talent speak for itself. Quickly, he rose through the Carp system, one grueling training session after another.

When Kozo Shoda, the incumbent Hiroshima second baseman, went down injured in 1997, Soriano got the call for his professional debut, aged nineteen. Amid a sizzling cauldron of 30,000 frenzied fans, Sori froze and managed to hit only .118 in the nine games preceding his inevitable demotion back to minor league Ono.

However, Soriano continued to demonstrate his boundless potential, with prodigious feats of athleticism punctuating his complicated relationship with the Carp. Nonetheless, stingy executives refused to pay him like the phenom prospect he so evidently was. Indeed, they refused to even pay him half the average salary afforded most foreign-born players. Thus, when a dismal renewal offer of “just” $45,000 arrived, Soriano hired esteemed agent Don Nomura to help pries open a loophole previously utilised by stars Hideo Nomo and Hideki Ibaru as a gateway to baseball in America.

Essentially, Soriano retired from Japanese baseball; a move which, following a protracted and unsavoury legal squabble, saw Bud Selig grant him Major League free agency in 1998. A complex-yet-beneficial chapter in Alfonso’s heroic story drew to a close. As a result of his lengthy, begrudging work with Hiroshima, Soriano had a core baseline of skills and potential to use as leverage in negotiations with US teams. He just needed to find the right one.

When the New York Yankees came calling in the late 1990s, very few players turned them away. George Steinbrenner, the inimitable Boss, was about to embark on an unprecedented campaign of spending; his checkbook helping to assemble a galaxy of superstars around the hallowed, organic core of Rivera, Pettite, Jeter, Williams and Posada. Thus, when rookie General Manager Brian Cashman showed an interest in the young Soriano, few questions were answered. Alfonso would head to New York.

Joe Torre finally gave Soriano an extended opportunity to prove himself in 2001; the Yankees, attempting to win a third consecutive World Series, trying anything to get this livewire into the everyday lineup. Typically, Alfonso played second base and hit seventh or eighth, tucked in behind the star-encrusted bulk of Tino Martinez and David Justice. It worked a treat, with Soriano quietly becoming an invaluable member of the Yankees. Whilst other players received the infamous acclaim of glitzy New York, Alfonso kept churning away, working hard to be the best he could. A .268 average, coupled with 18 home runs, 73 RBI and 43 stolen bases saw Sori finished third in Rookie of the Year voting; just reward for a sublime debut season.

The 2001 World Series, which felt like a natural birthright for anybody associated with the Yankees, was a huge motivating factor behind Soriano’s continued development as a ballplayer and man. When he powered a Game 5 walk-off and lashed a go-ahead home run off vaunted Diamondbacks pitcher Curt Schilling in the eight inning of Game 7, Alfonso was on top of the world. But, when Arizona mounted a rousing comeback and won on Luis Gonzalez’ fabled single, the world came tumbling in.

One can tell a lot about a person by the way he or she reacts to such setbacks. Alfonso Soriano could easily have receded into his shell and let the bigger stars with bigger egos take a vast proportion of the blame. However, the sensational second sacker placed his head above the parapet, and, in 2002, delivered one of the greatest sophomore seasons in the entire history of this game.

That year, baseball had an almighty collection of offensive monsters. Barry Bonds was bopping balls out of every yard in the land; Alex Rodriguez blazed a trail through the game; Ichiro was relentless; Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro kept doing what they had done for seemingly decades; Jim Thome was in his astonishing prime; Jason Giambi, Vladimir Guerrero, and Lance Berkman were sights to behold; Manny Ramirez, Albert Pujols and Carlos Delgado were invincible. Yet, no hitter in all of baseball stroked more hits in 2002 than Alfonso Soriano. Nobody scored more runs, either.

That year, his second as an everyday player, Alfonso Soriano was irrepressible. Of his 209 hits, 39 were home runs and 51 were doubles. The guy went to the plate on 741 occasions, and still caressed a pristine .300 batting average. Once on base, he terrorised opponents, with 41 stolen bases from 54 attempts. Indeed, Soriano became the first second baseman in baseball history to steal 30+ bags and whack 30+ round-trippers in the same season. Moreover, his was a feat matched previously in Yankee pinstripes only by Bobby Bonds twenty-seven years earlier.

As the Yankees won 103 games and again marched to the postseason, Soriano drove in 102 runs and finished third in American League MVP voting, behind Miguel Tejada and Alex Rodriguez but ahead of Garrett Anderson, Giambi, Torii Hunter and Thome. In every way, it was a historic season for Soriano. A season, however, which ended rather abruptly as New York lost to Anaheim in four games.

In 2003, Alfonso put up similar numbers, finally proving that he possessed the consistency to become a Major League Baseball powerhouse. Leading-off for Joe Torre, Soriano set the table and tone for a lineup jam-packaged with monstrous talent. As if the order unfurling beneath him (Jeter, Giambi, Williams, Matsui, Posada…) wasn’t dangerous enough, Soriano honed his firebrand version of go-it-alone baseball. He set the all-time single-season mark for home runs to lead-off a game, with thirteen. He hit .290 with 38 home runs, 91 RBI and 198 base knocks. He led the American League in at-bats, whilst finishing in the top five in hits, doubles, home runs, and stolen bases. Rarely had modern baseball happened upon a player who could hurt opponents in more ways. Alfonso Soriano was a freak.

Similarly, the 2003 postseason was quite unlike anything we’d ever seen before. The Yankees met the Boston Red Sox in a storied American League Championship which poured fuel on the fire of a sporting war which defined our generation. Amid Don Zimmer being tackled to the ground by Pedro Martinez, Grady Little leaving Pedro in until his arm almost fell off, and Aaron Boone thumping his long, earth-shattering homer in Game 7, Alfonso struggled mightily. His slump continued into the World Series, where a young fireballer named Josh Beckett led the Florida Marlins to glory.

The aforementioned battle between Boston and New York went nuclear in the offseason between seasons 2003/04. Red Sox executive Larry Lucchino traded barbs with Steinbrenner, coining the Evil Empire moniker and stirring anew the simmering hatred felt between two rival organisations.

When Alex Rodriguez, then the games greatest player, was placed on the trading block by a Texas Rangers organisation unable to take the weight of his oppressive contract, both the Yankees and Red Sox were afforded a new opportunity to fight one another. Boston badly wanted A-Rod, and Theo Epstein offered the sublime Manny Ramirez in a return whilst working a prospective deal to trade franchise icon Nomar Garciaparra to Chicago for Magglio Ordonez, thus making room for the firebrand shortstop.

Effectively, the deal was as good as done. Rodriguez dined with Red Sox officials and spoke openly about his desire to play in, and bring a long-awaited championship to, Boston. However, when the Sox attempted to restructure A-Rod’s gargantuan contract by $4million per year, the Players Union nixed any deal, leaving Texas in a desperate bind.

Fortunately for Tom Hicks, and to the eternal chagrin of a disraught Red Sox Nation, the spectre of Aaron Boone loomed large yet again. The Yankee third baseman, so responsible for Beantown agony during the Fall, blew out his ankle whilst playing a pick-up basketball game over the winter, forcing Steinbrenner to sanction a last-ditch pursuit of A-Rod, whom New York hoped to convert into a third-sacker.

The Boss never missed out on a player he liked and wanted. Thus, in early 2004, Rodriguez was unveiled as a Yankee, bedecked in pinstripes and proclaiming his love for New York. In return, Texas received minor leaguer Joaquin Arias and $67 million.

And Alfonso Soriano.

Playing on a solid Rangers team in 2004, Sori produced what was becoming his average campaign: .280 average, 28 home runs, 91 RBI, and a whole load of enthusiasm. A second-time All-Star, Alfonso launched a three-run bomb off Roger Clemens and was subsequently named MVP of the Midsummer Classic, another feather in his cap.

The following year, Soriano improved across the board, yet Texas suffered from lack of investment. Despite their dynamic star hitting eight more long balls, driving in thirteen more runs and swiping twelve more bags than a year before, Texas struggled to finish some sixteen games behind the surging LA Angels. It was a frustrating time for all involved.

Texas, led by General Manager John Hart, struggled for a cogent plan. In December 2005, Jon Daniels’ Front Office revolution was still just a pipe dream for an organisation quickly losing all orientation as to where it was headed. Thus, when the Rangers agreed a deal to send Soriano to Washington in return for Brad Wilkerson, Terrmel Sledge and minor league pitcher Armando Gallaraga, people were shocked…but not that shocked.

Almost immediately after joining the Nationals, Soriano’s salary was decided at arbitration; his $10million deal the highest sum ever awarded through that process. Somewhat reluctantly, Alfonso settled into left field at RFK Stadium, where Washington, recently risen like a phoenix from the ashes of Montreal, had played for just one season. Soriano hit leadoff for Frank Robinson’s club which, whilst rattling around the National League basement with a lousy 71-91 record, was strangely one of the most memorable, dramatic and entertaining I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching.

In 2006, Alfonso Soriano had the mother of all contract years. With free agency looming in the winter, Sori seemed at ease, unaffected by the poor play of his teammates or the relative apathy of Washington’s populace towards baseball. Soriano was like a man possessed, clubbing opposing pitchers to the tune of 46 home runs and, astonishingly, 95 RBI as the leadoff batter of a .438 ballclub.

As mentioned earlier, it was an absolute privilege to watch Soriano in 2006, as he rattled through that cavernous, renegade stadium to destroy record after record. Not only did Alfonso join the illustrious 40-40 club, he also reached the 200-homer-200-steals plateau faster than any man in history. Not only did Alfonso whack 40+ dingers and swipe 40+ sacks, he also cranked 40 doubles, a feat unmatched in the historical narrative of baseball. In addition to the 40-40-40 achievement, Soriano contributed 22 outfield assists, establishing a thoroughly-unbeatable 40-40-40-20 record which may stand forever.

It was a genuine thrill to watch Alfonso Soriano in his prime. We should never forget that.

Like any twelve year old baseball fan, I was collecting cards and figures and posters at this time, hoping to somehow acquire Soriano memorabilia along the way. I would play MLB The Show: 07, on which I built an absolutely unstoppable dynasty with the Houston Astros. In a lineup boasting Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, JD Drew and other select favourite players, Soriano hit leadoff and was simply sensational. I managed to hit something like 60 home runs with him in a season, in addition to about 50 steals and a batting average north of .350. It was all harmless fun, but those little motifs, moments and memories are what make your childhood great; what keep alive the child inside each of us; what cement the legacy of your heroes.

In the early winter of 2007, many within the Front Office of the long-suffering Chicago Cubs saw Soriano as the antidote to ninety-nine years of drought and frustration. After finishing last in a competitive NL Central in 2006, Cubs GM Jim Hendry embarked on a lavish overhaul in what was tantamount to one last shot at career-defining glory. Lou Piniella was signed as the pilot of a roster rejuvenated by the acquisition of free agents such as Mark DeRosa, Jason Marquis and Ted Lilly. But Soriano was the main target, the franchise-altering catalyst, the supposed saviour.

Accordingly, Alfonso assumed a world of pressure immediately after signing an eight-year, $136 million deal with Chicago. No Cub had ever received a larger contract. No Cub had ever been placed under a greater spotlight. No Cub had ever been so definitively responsible for the travails of the entire team. The contract put a target on Soriano’s back right from the get-go, and it was naturally difficult for him to perform at optimum level amid such a vociferous cauldron of hope, expectation and attendant pressure.

However, the notion that Alfonso Soriano was simply an expensive bust in Chicago is not entirely true. Over time, elements of impassioned fan hyperbole become fossilized as fact, but the reality is often very different.

In 2007, Alfonso Soriano was very good. He hit .299 with 33 home runs and 70 RBI. He drove 42 doubles and stole 19 bases. In short, he did everything the Cubs acquired him to do. Chicago had a dynamic offense which included the suave Derrek Lee, the ever-dangerous Aramis Ramirez, and, in Jacque Jones and Cesar Izturis, mercurial guys capable of sparking danger at any moment. Yet Alfonso Soriano, the team leader in homers, triples, runs scored and slugging percentage, didn’t seem to be embraced as much as other guys. It was almost like Chicago fans expected some kind of hulking superman as a return for the huge financial outlay of its Front Office; an omniscient hero who would drive the team to a yearned-after ring almost at whim. In reality, Soriano, just like anybody else, could only produce so much. It really wasn’t his fault that Cubs ownership was so cavalier in evaluating his worth but, for many baseball fans, Soriano could do nothing to justify such a salary, least of all be himself. That is a great shame.

Despite all the hoopla, Soriano was a guiding force atop the lineup of a Cubs team which won the NL Central and advanced to the rarefied air of October. When the Arizona Diamondbacks unceremoniously swept Chicago in the NLDS, Alfonso was again on the receiving end of playoff heartache.

In the proceeding years, his reputation and status with Cubs fans began to decline, as niggling injuries, increasingly poor defense and a perceived laissez faire approach began to frustrate Wrigleville denizens. Amid the leg strains, costly errors, and general over-exuberance, Soriano morphed into a love-hate figure on the North Side. However, the fact remains that, in spirit, in demanding more of others, and in action, Soriano was a positive force on those early Cubs teams, which he, perhaps more than any player, elevated from the doldrums to consecutive postseason berths for the first time in a century. The fact that Chicago failed when ultimately playing for glory in the fall? Well, that can’t all be on one guy.

Last year, Soriano returned to New York, his career coming full circle as Theo Epstein & Jed Hoyer continued to clear house ready for another Wrigley rebuild. Back in Yankee pinstripes, Alfonso bashed a further 17 dingers and drove in 50 more runs, finishing with 34 taters and 101 RBI. Not bad for a supposedly washed-up, 37-year old veteran eking out an existence during an era dominated by pitching.

It’s this endurance, this innovation, this steadfast desire to succeed irrespective of outside opinions, which distinguishes Alfonso Soriano and highlights him as one of the greatest ballplayers I’ve ever witnessed. Quite simply, they don’t make ’em like Sori anymore.

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