How often does it happen that a present Major League Baseball All-Star player gets treated with so little respect that he is told after his trade to another team that he will have to give up his starting position or else? After all, baseball has come a long way since free agency, forming its players’ association, gaining arbitration for its players, and providing them access to high-powered agents nearly guaranteeing them a shot at multi-million dollar contracts.
But this latest faux pas on the part of Major League Baseball ownership concerns 2nd baseman Alfonso Soriano, formerly of the Texas Rangers and the New York Yankees, who has spent the entirety of his major league career playing 2nd base. He has been known, however, for his offense over the past five years which included his first three years, 2001- 2003, with the New York Yankees and his last two years, 2004 and 2005, with the Texas Rangers.
Yet, before all of the so-called expert pundits and baseballs’ fans have at it with their generalizations about the latest supposed “spoiled professional athlete who should grow up,” it would be wise to examine exactly which athlete they are attacking and the circumstances involved. Unfortunately, it is athletes such as the NFL’s Terrell Owens who have now given all professional athletes a bad name.
The dilemma which has become the talk of the day and should play itself out by week’s end, or around March 24, 2006, involves the controversial trade of Soriano from the Texas Rangers to the Washington Nationals on December 7, 2005, which became official on December 13, 2005. The Washington Nationals’ General Manager, Jim Bowden, was looking to get some pop in the Nats’ lineup and offered to trade outfielder, Brad Wilkerson, outfielder Termel Sludge and minor league pitching prospect, Armando Galarraga to the Rangers.
Prior to the trade, in all fairness to Bowden, he claims that before the Nationals signed off on the deal, he requested the Rangers’ permission to speak to Soriano first, to specifically ask him if he would agree to change his 2nd base position to left field. The Rangers said no, supposedly pending players’ physicals, and precisely because they knew of Soriano’s history of not wanting to change positions in the past and did not want to kill the deal. According to Bowden, “We took it [to mean that] if we talked to the player [the Rangers felt] that the player would say no [to changing positions] and the deal would be killed.” Soriano was never consulted about being traded either for that matter.
When Soriano originally signed his first Major League Baseball contract, with the New York Yankees in 2001, he was a shortstop, which he considered his natural position. Obviously, with shortstop, Derek Jeter, at that position, the Yankees were forced to find another position for him as he showed so much promise with his bat. When he filled in briefly at shortstop for a few weeks during Spring Training in the 2001 season when Jeter was nursing an injury, he proved to the Yankees that they had to have him in the lineup everyday. And when Jeter returned that spring, Soriano was moved to left field, albeit for a total of only five games. Soriano was expected to start the season there, but when 2nd baseman, Chuck Knoblauch, developed a mental block with the inability to throw to 1st base, the Yankees switched the two players’ positions. Since that time, Soriano has never played any other position but 2nd base and has never played a regular season major league game in the outfield.
But upon arriving in Texas in 2004, when Soriano was traded by the Yankees for Alex Rodriguez, Rangers’ manager, Buck Showalter, had another rising star in Michael Young, also a 2nd baseman, who needed to be added to lineup. Unlike Bowden’s approach, however, Showalter felt out the situation with Soriano changing positions. “We just talked about trying to make some plans and asked him how he felt about it. It wasn’t something we were trying to cram down his throat.” And Michael Young helped resolve the situation by volunteering to move to shortstop, as Soriano was adamant about not moving from 2nd base.
Given Soriano’s known history of relishing his position at 2nd base in spite of steeped criticism of his defense, it makes Jim Bowden’s deal for him seem ill fated from the onset, as it was well known throughout MLB of Soriano’s reticence to change positions. And in the case of Soriano, Yogi Berra’s philosophy could not hold more true as “Baseball is 90% mental, the other 50% is physical.” Given Soriano’s being so upset with the situation is enough to distract his offense, let alone learning a whole knew position as the season progresses.
But one would think that given his stellar offensive skills and his good attitude would have earned him some brownie points to not have been put in this position in the first place. A four-time All-Star from 2002-2005 and the MVP of the 2004 All-Star Game, Soriano has earned his notoriety and the $10 million he will earn this year, due to his record-high arbitration case. Although considered a defensive liability, Soriano’s offensive stats are more than impressive. They include his breakout season in 2002 when he had 209 hits, 128 runs scored, 39 home runs, 102 RBI, 41 stolen bases, 51 doubles, a .332 batting average and 198 hits. In 2003, Soriano followed up with very comparable stats with a .338 batting average, 35 stolen bases, 38 home runs, 114 runs scored, 198 hits and 91 RBI.
In 2004 when he was with his new team, the Rangers, his offense dipped slightly but he finished with a respectable .324 batting average with 91 RBI and 170 hits. And in 2005, his batting average dropped off markedly to .268 but he still scored 102 runs, had 171 hits, 43 doubles, 36 home runs, 30 stolen bases and 104 RBI. Only time will tell how the grand expanse of RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. and adjusting to the National League will impact his offensive skills.
Following the no-show of Soriano for the Nationals’ Spring Training game against the Los Angeles Dodgers on March 20th, when he was written in the lineup by manager, Frank Robinson, to play leftfield, he will have another opportunity to redeem himself by showing up for the March 22nd game which the Nationals have against the St. Louis Cardinals in another pre-season matchup. It has been promised that the lineup card will remain the same according to Robinson.
Should Soriano maintain his refusal to play leftfield and thus refuse to play, according to Bowden, the Nationals will petition MLB’s Commissioner’s Office to place Soriano on the rarely used “disqualified list.” This additionally presents Commissioner Selig with a new twist to the problem, in that MLB officially still owns the Nationals, as Selig has failed as of yet to get a deal done for new ownership. Becoming “disqualified” translates into Soriano losing his salary for 2006, losing any credit for 2006 service time and his chance to become a free agent at the end of the season would also be lost as he would remain the property of the Nationals.
Since Soriano chose to participate in the March 2006 World Baseball Classic (WBC) for the Dominican Republic team, should he decide to play left field, he now has less than two weeks in which to learn a non-infield position he has never officially played. Bowden claims that during Soriano’s time away during the WBC he tried to work a deal to trade Soriano if the right offer came along. “We obviously will field offers, but we’re not going to give the player away, Bowden said on March 20th. “If we can make a deal that makes sense, we would have. At this point we have not been given a trade proposal that makes any sense for the Nationals, he said.
Besides putting his manager, Frank Robinson, in an uncomfortable position, and giving Soriano an ultimatum of playing leftfield after the trade was completed, leaves the actions of Bowden questionable. Combined with the fact that the Nationals already had an All-Star 2nd baseman in Jose Vidro, and Bowden’s admission that he had heard of Soriano’s prior insistence on playing 2nd base prior to the deal with the Rangers, could put his own job in jeopardy when new ownership is finally decided. After all, the deal for Soriano was misguided at best and Bowden’s theory that he alone could convince Soriano to change positions was foolhardy. It begs the question, excuses aside, which Soriano himself asked of Bowden, “Why didn’t you try to talk to me before you made the trade?”