PHOENIX – Alfonso Soriano had to catch a red-eye flight to New York. He didn’t ask to address the entire team. He was never the kind of leader who would give big speeches. But the Cubs wanted to say goodbye.
It was an emotional moment inside Chase Field’s visiting clubhouse after Thursday night’s 3-1 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks. Soriano, a bilingual speaker with a big smile and all that swagger, stood in the middle of the room and managed to get out a few words.
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Manager Dale Sveum – who called Soriano one of the top five people he’s ever been around in the game and once saw a similar drive in Hall of Famer Robin Yount – made sure everyone had a chance to pay respects.
The perception of the $136 million man from afar didn’t match up with the reality for teammates who watched him sweat and will himself into the lineup.
“I always said money is not the issue,” Soriano said. “You can buy anything with money. The most important thing is you have to be a human being.
“I got that kind of money just because the game gave it to me. I love the game and I respect the game. I love what I do.”
Soriano will be doing it again in New York, where the Yankees hope to ride one of those hot streaks with a 37-year-old hitting .254 with 17 homers and 51 RBIs. Amazingly, he still has a young kid’s enthusiasm, the same energy he once felt playing with Bernie Williams and Tino Martinez in The Bronx.
“He was in a good mood every day,” second baseman Darwin Barney said, “and some people don’t see that from the other side. They don’t see the kind of teammate he is. He’s in the top two or three teammates I ever had on any level. It’s just his attitude, the way he picks you up.
“We’re going to miss the way he is after he hits home runs. It’s like the best thing about him. He comes in the dugout and you never know what he’s going to say."
Barney tied backup catcher Dioner Navarro, who’s usually wearing an FC Barcelona jersey, into Soriano’s celebrations: “Lately he’s been saying: ‘Tell Navi to call Messi and tell him this game is too easy. I need to play soccer.’”
Soriano never became jaded in Chicago. Getting booed by the bleacher bums and getting ripped on talk radio didn’t bother him. It didn’t matter what was written about him in print, he was entirely comfortable inside the Wrigley Field fishbowl.
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“I always respect the fans,” Soriano said. “I always play hard for the fans, because they love the team and love to see the team doing well. I always try to do my best when I play for the Cubs. (I tried) to be a champion here, but it didn’t happen, so I hope that it happens in the future. But now I have to think about my new team.”
Public opinion gradually began to change, the way it would for coaches and players when they joined the Cubs and got to watch Soriano up close.
Here’s what pitcher Carlos Villanueva didn’t know about Soriano as an opponent: “The fact that he cares so much. He cares about winning and losing. He keeps the young guys in check.
“You see so many superstars across the field. You never really know…I guess they don’t have to care. A lot of them don’t. It’s more of a mirage. But knowing him and seeing how he is, he’s a guy that genuinely cares and he’s going to be missed.”
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Soriano felt team president Theo Epstein treated him with respect. What could have been an awkward situation ended with both sides getting what they wanted.
“They’re going with the right decision,” Soriano said. “They have a lot of young talent and I hope that talent progresses and helps the team to be a champion. The front office is very smart and they know what they’re doing.”
Whether or not Soriano knew exactly what he was getting into when he signed that megadeal with the Cubs in November 2006, he didn’t let it change his personality. He didn’t turn into a cold corporation or become an island in the clubhouse.
Soriano will be wearing pinstripes again, and there will be many people in the room rooting for him to win that World Series ring, the only piece of bling he’s missing.
“I always said to myself: Don’t worry about the money. Just play hard. If money comes, it comes. If it doesn’t, I’ll be happy anyway.”