Soriano turns left

After refusing to take the field Monday, National starts in left field

March 23, 2006|By ROCH KUBATKO | ROCH KUBATKO,SUN REPORTER

JUPITER, Fla. -- Alfonso Soriano waited until after he left the Washington Nationals' team bus yesterday morning and ducked inside the visiting clubhouse at Roger Dean Stadium to inform his manager that he wanted in the lineup.

It wasn't enough.

Frank Robinson needed to know that Soriano was willing to play left field. He caught Soriano's disappearing act once. This time, Robinson was ready to walk out.

"He said he was willing to play left field," Robinson told reporters, "and that's what I wanted to hear."

With that, Soriano batted leadoff and started in left field in the Nationals' 9-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. In his first game since returning from the World Baseball Classic and igniting a major controversy, he flied to the edge of the warning track in center, doubled, lined to shortstop, walked and scored twice. He had the only hit off Cardinals starter Jason Marquis in 5 2/3 innings.

"I love the game," he said afterward, his back pressed against a wall outside the clubhouse as reporters crowded in, "and it would be a very hard time for me if I didn't play this game."

Soriano wouldn't take the field Monday night against the Los Angeles Dodgers once he found out that the lineup card in Viera didn't have him listed at second base. He took ground balls during an afternoon drill, for reasons that Robinson couldn't explain, and only eight Nationals bolted from the dugout before the first pitch. Soriano, who said he informed Robinson earlier in the day that he wasn't ready for the outfield, got in his car and left the ballpark in the second inning.

If Soriano also refused yesterday's assignment, which came after the team had Tuesday off, the Nationals would have attempted to put him on the disqualified list and no longer pay him. He's slated to make $10 million this season.

"It's a relief for everybody, it really is," Robinson said. "We get the distractions away from here and we can focus on baseball now and getting this ballclub tuned up and ready to go for Opening Day.

"I'm happy for Alfonso and I'm happy for this team and the organization."

Asked if the matter is closed, Robinson didn't hesitate before saying, "It is closed." But general manager Jim Bowden said: "An issue's never closed. It's baseball. But what he's doing is obviously appreciated by the entire organization.

"I think Alfonso thought it through and understood all the circumstances that are involved. And at the end of the day, Alfonso wanted to do what was best for the team. It's not his preference to play left field, but he decided to make a personal sacrifice to help this franchise put the best team on the field that we possibly can."

Robinson met with Soriano, 30, in his office before batting practice. He never asked Soriano about Monday's incident, and he didn't seek an apology. Robinson also offered Soriano the chance to skip yesterday's game, stay in Viera and work out in left field.

"He said, `I want to play,'" Robinson said. "That's the type of person he is. He could have very easily said, `OK, I don't want to go out there today.' I like that in him. He's going to work out OK."

After flying out in the first inning, Soriano was the last starter to leave the dugout and take his position. The first ball hit to him was David Eckstein's single in the third inning. Using teammate George Lombard's glove, he doubled Eckstein off second base in the fourth after catching Albert Pujols' fly ball.

"Today was a very good day for me," he said. "Tomorrow, I don't know."

Said Robinson: "Knowing him for a big period of time, I think he'll go out there and play with a lot of enthusiasm and put the effort into getting better on a daily basis and over the course of a season. That's all any manager can ask of any player. We're not looking for a Gold Glove or anything like that. Just go out and do the best you can."

Soriano, a four-time All-Star, isn't regarded as a backup to starting second baseman Jose Vidro. "He's an outfielder," Robinson said.

It hasn't always been this way. Soriano was a shortstop in the minors and broke into the majors with the New York Yankees as a second baseman. He hadn't played the outfield since 2001, and was a second baseman with the Texas Rangers before Bowden traded for him over the winter.

"If we knew it was going to play out this way, we wouldn't have done it," Bowden said.

Soriano said he hasn't asked for a trade, and that he didn't return to avoid losing salary.

"It's not about the money," he said. "It's about my love of the game and the fans."

Soriano's reluctance to make the switch is connected, in large part, to his pending free agency and the money that his power numbers attract at second base. But he has committed 105 errors over the past five years, the highest total in the majors.

"The way he conducted himself, he was never really defiant in our conversations with him," Robinson said. "He just always tried to explain his side of it. We could always understand where he was coming from. But we tried to tell him, `We have a second baseman. We want you to play. You have to understand our side of it.'"

On the bus ride to Jupiter yesterday, Soriano sat next to catcher Alberto Castillo and said he'd rather play center field - a wish Robinson is willing to grant. As long as it isn't second base.

"He talked to his family and they told him to enjoy the game and have fun in the outfield," Castillo said. "I wish the best for him."

"We need him out there," outfielder Ryan Church said. "The media is bashing him, but he's a great guy, on and off the field. It would be an honor to stand out there next to him. I'm pulling for him. I've got his back.

"Hopefully, this is history."

roch.kubatko@baltsun.com

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