Clubhouse leader bids farewell to teammates, mentees before leaving for New York
PHOENIX -- Alfonso Soriano has been criticized for his huge contract, for his misplays in the outfield and for striking out with runners on, but on Thursday, when he stood in the visitors' clubhouse at Chase Field after the game, there was nothing but respect from his Cubs teammates.
Soriano's career has now come full circle. He took a red-eye flight on Thursday night to New York to be ready to put the pinstripes back on with the Yankees, the team he began his Major League career with in 1999. The Cubs and Yankees have completed a deal sending the 37-year-old outfielder to New York.
"He couldn't get much out, it was short and sweet," Darwin Barney said of the goodbye. "There's not much that needs to be said. Everybody knows the kind of influence he has on the young guys here and the kind of influence he's always had. He's always been a leader, even though he never tells anybody what to do. He never says much in that kind of regard, where a leader would, but he definitely was the leader of this ballclub. It's going to be tough."
Because of the money involved, the trade needed Major League Baseball's approval. The Cubs, in full-scale rebuild mode, will pick up a large portion of Soriano's contract; he has one year and $18 million remaining.
"I'm happy, and I think they're happy, too," Soriano said of the Cubs. "I'm happy to go back to New York where I started my career."
He's probably happiest that the rumors are over. Soriano had been the subject of speculation this year since Spring Training. There was speculation he was headed to the Yankees when Curtis Granderson was injured in February.
"Thank God it happened, so now I have to just concentrate and finish strong, and try to help my new team now to win," Soriano said. "That's what I like to do, and everybody knows I like to play this game and I love it."
Cubs manager Dale Sveum pulled Soriano from Thursday's original lineup after he got a call from president of baseball operations Theo Epstein. The seven-time All-Star finished on a high note with 10 home runs in his last 21 games. He has out-homered the Yankees this month, 8-7.
In seven seasons with the Cubs, Soriano batted .264 with 181 home runs and 526 RBIs, and he finishes 11th on the team's home run list. He is 11 hits shy of becoming the 273rd player in Major League history to reach 2,000 hits.
What Soriano will remember most about playing for the Cubs are the fans.
"They always want to win, they love to win," he said. "More important, being with the Cubs, they appreciate when the team wins and the team plays good."
They haven't always appreciated him, placing high expectations on the outfielder after he signed an eight-year, $136 million contract before the 2007 season.
"I've always said the money is not the issue," Soriano said. "Money makes you happy, you can buy anything with money, but the more important thing is you have to be a human. I love the game. I got that kind of money because the game gave it to me. I love the game, I respect the game, I love what I do. I always said to myself, don't worry about the money, just play hard. If the money doesn't come, I'll be happy anyway."
That's some of the advice he got while with the Yankees from 1999-2003. He was tutored by Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera. But the Yankees are getting a different player than the skinny infielder they signed from Japan.
"I've changed a lot," Soriano said. "I have a lot of memories with the Yankees, and how those players treated me and how they treated people, and that's what I took with me. Now, I go back, and it makes me more excited because I've learned a lot about baseball, and I learned a lot personally.
"Those veteran guys like Mariano, [Derek] Jeter, Paul O'Neill, Tino Martinez, Bernie, those guys helped me a lot," he said. "I used to be a rookie, and those guys treated me very well, like a professional, and that's what I learned, and that's what I tried to give wherever I go."
He had an impact on the young Cubs, especially those from his homeland, the Dominican Republic. Soriano took Starlin Castro into his home when the shortstop was called up in 2010 because that's what the Yankees did for him. There were more than a few players in tears in the Cubs clubhouse when Soriano said goodbye.
"Sori's been kind of what being a Chicago Cub is all about, ever since I got here," Barney said. "The first thing I remember about him is coming into Spring Training, walking in at 7 in the morning, saying 'Que lo que, que lo que' to everybody and being in a good mood.
"Some people don't see that from the other side," Barney said. "They don't see the kind of teammate he is. He's one of the top two or three best teammates I've had at any level, just his attitude and the way he picks you up. He always gives you advice and is positive."
Soriano's smile would brighten a room. He'd flash it in the dugout after home runs.
"He comes in the dugout and you never know what he's going to say [after a homer]," Barney said. "Lately, he's been telling [Dioner Navarro] to call [Lionel] Messi and say, 'This game is too easy. I need to play soccer.'"
The fans haven't always been as kind to Soriano, and he's handled their criticism like a pro.
"I understand in baseball, always it's not a good moment," Soriano said. "Sometimes you have a bad moment and the fans will boo you. I'm not perfect, I can't have 162 perfect games. I always say, if I have a bad week, I hope I have a good month. ... Sometimes I can struggle for two or three or four games, but I know in one week, I can be good and the fans, they want to love me."
What impressed Sveum and his coaching staff in the two years they've been with Soriano is how hard he worked to try to get better.
"The only person I'd compare him to is Robin Yount," Sveum said of the Hall of Famer. "The work ethic, prepares to win, prepares every day, prepares to make himself a better player. I think Robin is the only guy I've been around who did that same thing every single day. He was the ultimate professional on the field, off the field. He was the same guy every day and obviously, had a dang good career, too."
Soriano spent time in the offseason at the Cubs' academy in the Dominican, working out with the young players, many of whom were just teenagers. Carlos Villanueva didn't know Soriano personally until this season, and he was impressed at his devotion to the game.
"He keeps the young guys in check," Villanueva said. "You see so many superstars across the field and you never really know -- these are guys who are accomplished and they don't have to care, and a lot of them don't. A lot of them, it's more of a mirage. Knowing him, you see he's a guy who cares, and he's going to be missed."
The Yankees could use some positive vibe in the clubhouse with the injuries and ongoing Alex Rodriguez saga.
"You never hear any negative about [Soriano]," Villanueva said. "The Cubs would've wanted to have a ring with him and hopefully that's in the future."
It was difficult for Soriano to address his teammates.
"It's very tough because they are good friends, they are good people," he said. "It's sad. That's the difficult part when you get traded. You can be in touch, but it's not the same as when you see them face to face, all the moments we had together. Now I have to think about my new team."
The Cubs have dealt Matt Garza, Scott Feldman, Carlos Marmol and Scott Hairston this month. A young outfielder, maybe Junior Lake, who has 15 hits in his first seven games, will take over in left. Soriano will try to help the Yankees get back on top in the American League East.
"It's really sad, man," Barney said. "It's always sad when you lose a teammate, but a guy like 'Sori,' it's definitely different."