Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2010
By Patrick Mooney
WASHINGTON Alfonso Soriano is 34 years old in a game that is emphasizing youth, with a contract that runs through 2014, a 136 million investment leftover from a different economic climate and ownership structure.
For Soriano, the calculus is simple: If the Cubs play well, hell be cheered. If not, he gets booed. Fifty-fifty, he likes to say nothing personal, just the way it is at Wrigley Field.
Soriano also clings to this basic idea: If he is healthy, he will produce. He is 11-plus months removed from the arthroscopic knee surgery that ended his 2009 season after 117 games.
Occasionally the left knee feels weak, but the Cubs outfielder has experienced no significant pain this year. And on Wednesday night in Washington he played his 118th game no one on the current roster outside of Marlon Byrd has appeared in more.
Soriano noticed how Byrd races across center field with maximum effort and thought: I can do that, too. Hes also been energized by 20-year-old shortstop Starlin Castro, a fellow native of the Dominican Republic he has mentored.
The night before Soriano took his time enjoying the flight of his three-run homer into the left-field seats at Nationals Park. It marked the ninth consecutive season he has hit at least 20 home runs. Among active players, only Alex Rodriguez (15 seasons), Albert Pujols (10), Adam Dunn (nine) and David Ortiz (nine) have been that consistent with their power numbers.
If Soriano continues to take care of his body, he thinks he can finish out his contract by putting together four more seasons of 20-plus homers.
No, I dont feel older, he said. I think Im in better shape this year than the last couple years.
The waiting area of the managers office inside the visiting clubhouse at Nationals Park has a framed Soriano jersey and photo. It commemorates his 40-40 season in Washington, the one he used to sign an eight-year deal with the Cubs in November 2006.
Soriano clearly isnt the same player anymore. He led National League outfielders in assists with 19 in 2007, but has six so far this season, a total that still keeps him among the leaders in that category.
Before taking over as manager for Lou Piniella, Mike Quades responsibilities included working with the outfielders and Soriano in particular.
Look, given where his legs are now, Quade said, compared to where they (were) when he became a Cub, theres a huge difference. And so the ground he can or cant cover has changed quite a bit.
The arm is fine, but his ability to close on balls and do things that allowed him to throw people out that first year (has) changed. But hes taken it upon himself and he deserves a huge tip of the hat here because I think hes done a much better job this year.
In April, it looked like Piniella might be forced to turn Soriano into a six- or seven-inning player, one who would almost always require a defensive replacement late in close games.
Instead, hes hit with the third group during batting practice, so he can take balls off the bat from the first group. Then he tracks balls off the fungo bat of coach Ivan DeJesus during the second round.
You just got to work and theres no magical thing, Quade said. Hes made a commitment to it.
Soriano is absurdly wealthy, but he still maintains a child-like enthusiasm for the game. He would like to be in the lineup every day from April through October, but concedes that is no longer a reality.
I want to, he said, but to be honest, nobody can play 162 games in Chicago. There are too many day games. The body doesnt have time to recover.
The Cubs have absorbed several shocks to the system this month. Soriano took out his earrings, folded his arms across his chest and stood in a clubhouse that bears little resemblance to the one he first walked into.
Its not easy, man, he said. Its not easy to play the game. And when those things happen around the team, it makes it more difficult (after) Lou announced his retirement and all those trades. (I) hope the last five, six weeks left of the season we can play more relaxed, because its nothing new now. Well stay together (and) finish strong.
Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.