Soriano's friendship invaluable to Starlin, young Cubs
Veteran continues to be source of guidance, support to former teammates in Chicago
ST. LOUIS -- Mention Alfonso Soriano's name to Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro, and he immediately smiles.
When Castro was called up to the Major Leagues in May 2010 at the age of 20, Soriano, then in his fourth year with the Cubs and his 12th in the big leagues, welcomed the infielder into his Chicago home. The invitation didn't come at the team's request or because both were from the Dominican Republic, but rather it came about because that's what some of the Yankees players did for Soriano when he first joined the team in 1999.
Soriano and Castro didn't just live together, they were inseparable. They trained together, hit together, ate together.
"He was kind of like my father," Castro said of his former teammate, who he will see on Tuesday when the Cubs play the Yanks in the first of a two-game Interleague set at Yankee Stadium.
"Not everybody can have people who, when you come to the big leagues the first time, take me to his home and let me live with him," Castro said. "I didn't pay a bill, I didn't pay for what I eat, I didn't pay nothing."
It wasn't just Castro, either. Soriano would take all the Cubs' Latino players out to dinner every road trip and always picked up the tab. He never let anyone else pay.
"He talked about good things, like things you can learn about the game," Castro said of the dinner conversations. "He's a smart guy. He talks about things that you have to listen to and learn. He's awesome. We miss him here."
Say Soriano's name to Cubs catcher Welington Castillo, and he smiles instantly.
"You want to have a guy like him close to you who can help you in everything -- in life, in games," Castillo said. "He was real special for all the Latin players."
This past offseason, Castillo, 26, and his family traveled to Soriano's house in the Dominican and vice versa.
"He called me the day before Opening Day and wished me a good season, be healthy, and told me to play hard and never give up," Castillo said. "We keep in touch."
Soriano reached out to Cubs outfielder Junior Lake, 24, before the season, as well.
"He told me to keep going, play hard every day, no matter what," Lake said, smiling. "I appreciated it, too."
Those smiles are genuine, and they reflect what Soriano meant to the young Latino players on the Cubs. He was their mentor, their inspiration, their role model and their friend.
"It's an honor for everybody to be a teammate with him, and the coaches, too," said Cubs coach Franklin Font. "He's a great person. I'll be happy to see him and thank him for the opportunity to work with him and opening a door for me in baseball to be around him."
Font was included in the dinners on the road, and he remembers Soriano's stories about his early days with the Yankees, how Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter took care of him and taught him how to be a professional, on and off the field.
"[Soriano's] a proud man, and [he] took pride in every game, every at-bat," Font said. "He tried to push the team to the best level it could be. The only time I ever heard him complain was when we lost. He didn't like losing."
Ask Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo about Soriano, and he recalls the days when the outfielder would bring his oldest son, Alfonso Jr., into the clubhouse. Rizzo and Soriano had lockers next to each other at Wrigley Field.
"His son would play with us and see his dad working out before the game and after the game, and he'd be kind of mimicking him," Rizzo said. "That type of thing gets to your heart.
"He'd smile if he was hitting four home runs in a game and making it look easy or making four outs a game. He was always having a good time."
In seven seasons with the Cubs, Soriano, 38, batted .264 with 181 home runs, 526 RBIs and 70 stolen bases. It never seemed enough for fans, who placed huge expectations on the outfielder because of the eight-year, $136 million contract the Cubs gave him after his 40-40 season with the Nationals in 2006. If Soriano was frustrated by the occasional boos when he didn't deliver at the plate or struggled in left, he never showed it.
"I think he did a really good job of not letting any of that [criticism] affect him," Rizzo said. "It's about being a professional. A lot of these contracts, you get paid for what you did, and I think Soriano has had a Hall of Fame career, in my opinion."
What his teammates remember is Soriano's professionalism, his love of the game and how hard he worked to keep his body in shape. Soriano said goodbye to the Cubs on July 25. He had been dealt to the Yankees for cash considerations and Minor League pitcher Corey Black, part of the team's rebuilding effort. The Cubs were at Chase Field to play the D-backs, and Soriano spoke briefly to the players, then caught a red-eye flight to New York.
"It was emotional for everyone, for our manager [Dale Sveum], for a lot of the Latin guys, for a lot of the American guys to say goodbye," Rizzo said of that night in Phoenix. "He's a superstar in this game. To play with him, to see him playing with the Yankees when I was growing up, it was surreal playing with him. To get to know him on a friendly basis was even better. I feel honored I got to play with him."
Three days later, the Cubs were more than 2,900 miles and two time zones away in San Francisco, watching the Yankees play the Rays. In his third game back with the Yanks on July 28, Soriano went 4-for-5, hit a home run and drove in three runs. And he flashed that megawatt smile on TV that his Cubs teammates loved to see.
Castro, 24, is trying to apply the lessons he learned from Soriano, and he is keeping an eye on the young players, such as top prospect Javier Baez.
"I want to do for [Baez] what [Soriano] did for me," Castro said. "If you have a question about something you don't know -- and not only on the field, but personal or whatever, not only in baseball -- and you talked to him, he listened to you like you were his son. He's awesome."
How close are they? Soriano is the godfather of Castro's 1-year-old son, Starlin Jr.
"I talked to him, and he said this might be his last year," Castro said of Soriano. "He told me if he feels good and his knee feels good, he'll play two more."
If Soriano does keep playing, it'll make a lot of people smile.