Alfonso Soriano: An Appreciation

USA TODAY Sports

The Cubs' now-former left fielder deserves praise, not panning, for the way he carried himself in his six-plus years as a fixture at Wrigley Field.

In November 2006, when Alfonso Soriano was signed by the Chicago Cubs, most Cubs fans were pretty excited. How excited? Read the comments to the post I made first reporting the signing. Have a look, in particular, at this sentence that I wrote:

Yes, by year 6 or 7 or 8 of this deal, it'll look like an albatross.

Well, yeah. Yeah. That turned out to be true. Unfortunately. But that day -- and you can read more comments posted here the next day -- the consensus was that the Cubs got a big bat that would look great in the lineup along with Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez. Soriano was the premier free agent available that offseason, and the Cubs wanted to make a splash. In hindsight, we now know that splash was made primarily to pump up the value of the franchise so that Tribune Company could make more dollars while selling. The 2007 and 2008 division titles wound up being a bonus, not the intended destination.

Soriano was installed in center field, at which time it became clear that he should never have been put there in the first place. He suffered a minor leg injury just 12 games into his Cubs career, missed the next four games, and then moved to left field when he returned to the lineup, never playing center field again.

And then he started to hit, and hit, and hit, and steal bases, and play a fine left field -- he was probably the best defensive left fielder in baseball in 2007, with 19 outfield assists. On August 5 he was hitting .297/.336/.511 with 18 home runs, five triples and 18 stolen bases, possibly heading for a 30/30 season (which would have been his fifth such year), when he pulled up between second and third with a serious hamstring injury. The whole country was watching, as it was a Sunday night game at Wrigley Field against the Mets.

He missed 19 games, and when he returned, his speed was gone. He had just one steal and no triples the rest of 2007.

But oh, did he continue to hit for power. In the season's remaining 31 games Soriano hit .304/.340/.719 with 15 home runs. His 14 home runs in September set a team record, and I'm not engaging in hyperbole when I say that the Cubs would not have won the N.L. Central title that year without his performance.

That injury really did destroy the speed aspect of Soriano's game. From the start of 2008 through his (apparently) final game as a Cub Tuesday (754 total games), Soriano had eight triples and 51 stolen bases, though he leaves the team leading this year's squad in steals with 10. (That's more a reflection on the rest of the 2013 team than on any sudden Soriano burst of speed.)

With his running game gone, Soriano still had a good offensive season in 2008, hitting .280/.344/.532 with 29 home runs -- despite missing 53 games with more injuries.

Unfortunately, and this is likely where some started to sour on him, he disappeared in the two Cubs postseasons in which he played, going 3-for-28 (all singles) combined in 2007 and 2008. He wasn't the only one who didn't hit -- the Cubs went 19-for-98 in the 2007 NLDS and 25-for-104 in 2008 -- but somehow, Soriano wound up taking most of the blame. It certainly wasn't completely his fault, but some likely looked at the huge contract and assigned him blame based on dollars instead of actual performance.

And then, in 2009, and you'll forgive me if I can't recall the exact date, though it might have been May 4 against the Giants (because he missed the next game), Soriano ran into the bullpen phone box in left field chasing after a fly ball, injuring his knee on the hard metal box.

At the time he was hitting .274/.347/.538 with seven home runs in 25 games, well in line with his previous performance as a Cub. Over his next 37 games he also hit seven home runs, but that was in the midst of a .193/.256/.366 slump. The Cubs somehow muddled into brief contention in early August as Soriano hit .262/.316/.410 in 55 games from June 21 through September 3 -- the contention probably had more to do with Derrek Lee's great year -- but Soriano finally couldn't play through the pain any more and was shut down for the year and had his knee scoped.

It was clear to most that he was playing through the injury when he shouldn't have, and in hindsight, it probably would have been better to have him have the knee surgery in May, miss a month, and then come back healed and ready to go. An all-too-common complaint about Jim Hendry-era teams is that veteran players were allowed to play through injury, as best they could, instead of getting them fixed and then returning at full strength.

Water under the bridge at this point. Soriano finally played three more-or-less injury-free seasons from 2010-2012, having the best year of his Cubs career for the worst team he played on, last year's 101-loss squad, where he hit .262/.322/.499 with 32 home runs and a career-best 108 RBI and finishing 20th in MVP voting. Driving in 108 runs for an offensively-challenged Cubs team that finished 14th in the NL in runs with 613 is, in my view, quite an achievement.

But Soriano's contributions to the Cubs go far beyond numbers. He played for winning Yankee teams and has two rings, though he wasn't on the postseason roster for either of the Yankee teams that won World Series (the only two World Series he played in, 2001 and 2003, the Yankees lost). Read the praise for him from Darwin Barney:

"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."

And from Carlos Villanueva:

"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."

And from Dale Sveum:

"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, for his part, knows well the ups and downs of baseball:

"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."

He got booed, yes. It wasn't deserved. It wasn't fair to a man whose top performance we never got to see due to all the injuries. What I saw was a man who always gave 100 percent effort on the field -- yes, he stood and watched his home runs at times, but really, in modern baseball, what player doesn't from time to time? If people thought he wasn't hustling after baseballs in left field or running hard to first base -- that's really wrong, because the truth is that he couldn't, not after all the leg and knee injuries. He set a good example for younger players, and they will miss having a veteran mentor who's played on a team that made multiple postseasons, a team to which he now returns, hoping for one ring before he leaves the game.

Here are some of the details of the trade:

That seems a fair deal, under the circumstances, but in the end, it really doesn't matter, in a way; this is more a statement by Theo Epstein that he wanted to turn the page from the last big-money signing of the Hendry era and put his own stamp on the Cubs. I can understand that way of thinking; if the prospects Theo is now putting in the organization pan out the way we hope they will, we'll have new stars to root for soon. Here's the boxscore from the last game the Cubs played without Soriano as part of the team, October 1, 2006, an 8-5 win over the Rockies. The Cubs will need to develop those good players, so as to not have to put a team like that on the field in the future.

In the meantime, I salute Alfonso Soriano. He's always been a good teammate, always been friendly to Cubs fans, always walked around Wrigley Field with a smile on his face. Many of my friends in the left-field bleachers will miss him greatly. His tenure in Chicago has been at times wonderful, at times not, but he always carried himself with class and dignity. Baseball needs more players with that attitude. Yankee fans will surely welcome his return; they already know him, and he's certainly matured into a quiet leader over the decade since he last called Yankee Stadium -- the old version of that park, anyway -- home. If you live in Chicago and are interested in giving him some appreciation, the Yankees will be playing a three-game series at the Cell against the White Sox beginning August 5, just a little over a week from now.

I wish you well, Alfonso Soriano. You'll be missed.

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