With Soriano heading to Yankees, Cubs see the end of an era

With Soriano heading to Yankees, Cubs see the end of an era
July 25, 2013, 10:30 pm
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(USA Today Sports Images)

PHOENIX – Alfonso Soriano – the ultimate win-now symbol from another time at Wrigley Field – is on the verge of being traded to the New York Yankees.

Cubs manager Dale Sveum received a phone call from team president Theo Epstein hours before Thursday’s 3-1 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks, telling him to pull Soriano from the lineup. Years of trade rumors dulled the senses, but this one is real.

The primary issue – how to split the roughly $25 million left on Soriano’s $136 million megadeal – has apparently been resolved. Sveum’s understanding is the deal is “99 percent” complete. It’s believed to be awaiting approval from the commissioner’s office.

“You say you’re prepared for it,” Sveum said at Chase Field, “but I don’t think you’re really prepared to lose somebody of that nature. It’s all the stuff that he brings to the team, (hitting in) the fourth hole, the character, the clubhouse leadership and everything. You just don’t replace that.”

Soriano had signaled he’d waive his no-trade rights and approve a deal with the Yankees after meeting Tuesday night with Sveum and Epstein. Soriano wants to play in the World Series – like he did in 2001 and 2003 with old friends Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter – and finally win a ring.

The alternative might have been getting phased out of the lineup and becoming a part-time player as the Cubs continued their youth movement.

At 37, Soriano is old enough to have made his big-league debut as a September call-up with the Yankees in 1999, pinch-running for Darryl Strawberry. All that time in “The Show” gave him so much stature in the clubhouse, where he always rolled in with a big smile on his face, winking, pointing his fingers and calling people “papi” or “babe.”

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It didn’t matter if Soriano was riding one of his hot streaks or getting booed at Wrigley Field. It didn’t matter if the Cubs were in first place or last place. He would stand at his locker and take the heat, talking to anyone and answering every question.

“You don’t replace that,” Sveum said. “Hopefully, down the road you do, but you certainly have no Band-Aid right now to fix replacing that kind of guy in your clubhouse.”

During an unbelievable 2006 season with the Washington Nationals, Soriano became the fourth player to join the 40/40 club, along with Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez. But he wasn’t the same fast-twitch player on the North Side, where a series of quad, calf and knee injuries betrayed him after signing around Thanksgiving 2006.

That huge contract was a Tribune Co. indulgence, trying to win one for the Tower with the team about to be put up for sale. Former president John McDonough – who has since helped turn the Blackhawks into a model franchise – and current business operations chief Crane Kenney had their fingerprints on that deal. Former general manager Jim Hendry was blindsided when the Cubs extended to eight years for Soriano.

The Cubs won back-to-back division titles in 2007 and 2008 and Soriano made the All-Star team both years. But there would be massive changes throughout the organization, from the Ricketts ownership group to Epstein’s restructured front office.

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Soriano was the last player left from Lou Piniella’s 2007 team. Only Jeff Samardzija will remain from the 2008 group that won 97 games, turning Wrigleyville into a huge block party, the place to be that summer.

Soriano’s 389 career home runs match Hall of Famer Johnny Bench for No. 57 on the all-time list. Soriano blasted 181 in a Cubs uniform, often with a stylish bat flip while watching the ball soar and then disappear.

But in his own way, Soriano was a grinder, burning to be in the lineup every day, playing through pain and doing all the behind-the-scenes work to get his aging body ready.

“He’s 100 percent completely different than I thought,” Sveum said. “Just every single day. There hasn’t been a day of disappointment in his attitude, his work ethic, what he brings to younger players and his professionalism. Everything has just been off the charts.”

Soriano never produced at a superstar level here, but it also wasn’t accurate to label him as a total bust, the angle taken in certain corners of the media. He hit .264 with 526 RBIs and a .812 OPS in 889 games in a Cubs uniform. This should be his 12th straight season of at least 20 homers. The former infielder worked hard to become a competent defender in left, where his hops and fear of the wall used to turn fly balls into adventures.

Soriano mentored the young players from Latin America and would work out during the winter at the team’s facility in the Dominican Republic, showing the kids what it takes. Ultimately, that will be part of his legacy, especially if Starlin Castro and Junior Lake become part of the next go-for-it team at Clark and Addison.

“That’s what I learned from the Yankees,” Soriano said. “The only situation you can control is just play hard in the field. That’s what I try to teach. I like to show them how to play the game and that’s what I try to do for the young guys.

“It doesn’t matter how much money you make. If you’re healthy, you have to play hard, because you get paid to play hard and win.”