NEW YORK – Wearing sunglasses and a bluish-gray suit, Alfonso Soriano wheeled his suitcase into Yankee Stadium’s home clubhouse at 10:40 a.m., walking past Derek Jeter’s locker.
The highest-paid player on the Cubs’ books sat down in a big, black leather chair that had his No. 12 on the back. Jacoby Ellsbury and Ichiro Suzuki have lockers in the same row. Reporters surrounded CC Sabathia on the other side of the room.
Soriano doesn’t have to be The Man in The Bronx.
One team expected to win both games in Wednesday’s day/night doubleheader, because they had Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda pitching, a $500 million offseason spending spree and the Steinbrenner mandate to go 162-0 every year.
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Even when you love what you do and have $136 million guaranteed, the losing gets old after awhile.
“That’s the worst part about Chicago,” Soriano said. “At my age, I just want to win. I don’t want to be like a part of the future. I just want to be a part of the present.
“For the Yankees, it’s all about the present. It’s all about going to the World Series that year. In Chicago, the way they go is for the future. At my age, I just want to be thinking about the present.”
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Soriano is 38 years old and took batting practice in between games, another sign of how hard he works at his craft, the drive that gradually turned a brick-wall-fearing outfielder into a pretty good defender at Wrigley Field.
Coming off a 40/40 walk year with the Nationals in 2006, Soriano grabbed the megadeal from former general manager Jim Hendry, current president of business operations Crane Kenney and future Blackhawks CEO John McDonough. Around that time, internal projections had payroll heading toward $160 million and beyond by 2010.
The Cubs won division titles in 2007 and 2008 before the financial reckoning that came with the Ricketts family’s highly leveraged partnership with Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. in 2009.
“The first couple years were fun,” Soriano said. “We had a very good team. But after that, I don’t know what happened. They didn’t make a contending team.
“I had a good time playing in Chicago. It’s sad that we didn’t win, but at least we tried.”
The Theo Epstein administration took office in October 2011 and that was supposed to change everything. The Cubs lost 197 games across the last two seasons and appear headed toward another summer sell-off and another last-place finish (while being on the hook for about $13 million of Soriano’s salary).
Did Sori expect more from Theo-mania?
“I don’t know, because the front office is different,” Soriano said. “I just play baseball. I don’t know the moves that will be better for the team or bad for the team. The only thing I know that makes the team better is getting good players.
“Hiring a manger or fire the hitting coach? I don’t know. The only thing (that works) is when you get good players to make the team better. That’s the only way I can see them help the team to win.”
Soriano is a flawed player who will retire with 400-plus homers and borderline Hall of Fame numbers. He showed he could still get hot and carry a team by putting up 17 homers in 58 games with The Bronx Bombers last season.
“He always has that one month where he just goes off,” Cubs reliever James Russell said. “Last year it happened to be right when we traded him. He came over here and just hit the hell out of the ball.
“It’s funny because he’ll hit a couple home runs in a week and maybe get a couple in a game. He’ll come in the dugout with a big smile on his face and start laughing and say: ‘Man, I should try to play in the NBA. This game’s getting too easy for me.’”
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The rebuilding Cubs could use that adrenaline boost, the energy and swagger Soriano’s larger-than-life personality brought into the room.
“He keeps it loose,” Russell said. “Randy Wells one time asked him if he had change for a hundred. He just turned to him with a straight face and said: ‘Hundreds are change.’ I think he dropped a ‘babe’ in there. That was always one of my favorites.”
Soriano looked after young players like Starlin Castro and Welington Castillo, doing what Jeter and Mariano Rivera once did for him in New York.
Soriano had the ideal temperament for handling the big-contract pressure, living inside the Wrigley Field fishbowl and shrugging off the whims of Cubs fans. The Zen of Sori.
“He was the same guy (every day),” Castillo said. “He always said: ‘This is an opportunity that God gave you. I don’t care about the last game. I got a new day here.’”
For Soriano, that now means no more answering questions about waiving his no-trade clause in spring training or trying to explain away Cubbie occurrences or talking about the future all the time. That gets old fast.