Nats pleased with Soriano's 'personal sacrifice'

JUPITER, Fla. -- Alfonso Soriano's image took a beating with his brief descent into pariah-ville, but the autograph seekers never seem to care.

Soriano made himself available for signatures during batting practice before the Washington Nationals' game Wednesday, and fathers and sons lined up six deep behind the third base dugout at Roger Dean Stadium. They waved balls and baseball cards in his face, and crowded him with action photos and mug shots from his days with Texas and the Yankees.

Soriano smiled readily and signed for five minutes while classic rock played over the public address system. First came -- we kid you not -- Steve Miller's "Take the Money and Run,'' followed by the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations.'' It was like the soundtrack of Soriano's existence since Monday.

Think life isn't fickle for the modern-day star embroiled in controversy? After refusing to take the field in a Grapefruit League game against the Dodgers, Soriano became the embodiment of the self-absorbed athlete -- bashed on talk shows and trashed by newspaper columnists who viewed him as obsessed with personal goals at the expense of the team. Labor lawyers debated the merits of his position vs. the Nationals' stance, and it was only a matter of time before Gene Orza of the Players Association expressed an opinion.

Then Soriano weighed his options, had a man-to-man talk with Washington manager Frank Robinson and decided to play left field and bat leadoff Wednesday against St. Louis. Now all is right with the world. The Nationals have added a .500 career slugger to the middle of their lineup, and Jose Vidro can feel free to take grounders at second base without fear of Soriano sticking an elbow in his ribs.

According to Robinson, things were never as bad as they were portrayed, because Soriano is not the contentious type by nature.

"He was never really defiant in our conversations,'' Robinson said. "He just always tried to explain his side of it. We could understand where he was coming from. But we tried to tell him, 'We have a second baseman. We want you to play left field. You have to understand our side of it.' ''

No one knows precisely why Soriano switched course and agreed to leave second base for left field. But the Nationals are going out of their way not to rub his nose in it. General manager Jim Bowden made several references to Soriano's "personal sacrifice,'' and the "compassion'' that the team has for Soriano's plight.

After Wednesday's game, Soriano told reporters that the threat of being placed on the disqualified list and losing $10 million in salary wasn't a factor in his decision.

"It's not the money,'' Soriano said. "It's about me and the love that I have for the game, and the fans.''

Still, whether you view this as a case of caving in or coming to grips with reality, Soriano had to realize the situation was a no-win for him. If the dispute had escalated into a prolonged test of wills, he could have taken a huge financial hit and forfeited service time required to qualify for free agency, while taking a blow torch to his professional reputation.

Soriano's first day in the Washington outfield proved, well, not much. He caught an Albert Pujols looper and easily doubled David Eckstein off second base, and looked smooth playing catch with the guys in the bullpen between innings. He wore an outfielder's glove borrowed from teammate George Lombard, and has a request in to his agent, Diego Bentz, to get him one of his own. That shouldn't take long.

Now it's time to get to work. Jose Cardenal, a special assistant with the Nationals, will tutor Soriano on the fine art of outfield play for the rest of spring training and possibly into the regular season. And Washington right fielder Jose Guillen plans to shag balls with Soriano in the outfield and help mentor him in his transition.

Guillen, a fellow Dominican, can relate to Soriano. He's had numerous run-ins with management over the years, been threatened with suspensions and been tagged with the troublemaker label. Speaking from experience, he thinks Soriano has gotten a bum rap.

"He's a great kid,'' Guillen said. "He reminds me of [Vladimir Guerrero]. I don't blame him for any of this stuff. We have to understand the circumstances. He was pretty much forced to go to left field. Everybody knows that.''

If Guillen's opinion were unique in the Nationals clubhouse, you'd know. But Washington's players have been almost universal in their praise of Soriano the person. The expressions of support range from Nick Johnson and Mike Stanton, who played with Soriano in New York, to Ryan Church, who'll play alongside him in center field.

"It would be an honor to stand out there next to him,'' Church said. "I'm pulling for him. I've got his back. Hopefully, this is history.''

In the Roger Dean press box lunch room Wednesday, the consensus among scouts was that Soriano should be fine making the switch to the outfield. He has the instincts, the speed and the athleticism, and it's not as if he leaves much of a defensive legacy behind at second base.

"He'll be OK -- if he applies himself,'' said a scout. "It might be a good thing for him. He doesn't have to deal with all those rundowns and collisions anymore. A lot of guys prolong their careers this way.''

Ultimately, a bigger concern to the Nationals might be Soriano's lagging offensive production. Last year he hit 25 homers, drove in 73 runs and posted a 1.011 combined on base-slugging percentage at cozy Ameriquest Field in Texas. On the road he hit 11 homers, drove in 31 runs and had a .639 OPS.

He was Albert Pujols in Arlington, and Aaron Boone everywhere else.

How will Soriano keep his frustration in check the first six times he crushes balls that die on the track at RFK Stadium in Washington? That's a question for June or July. How will Robinson react if Soriano butchers two fly balls to lose a game? Soriano hasn't played outfield since he was a hot Yankees prospect in spring training in 2001. But the Nationals claim they can abide the growing pains.

"We're not looking for a Gold Glove or anything like that,'' Robinson said. "Just go out there and do the best you can. I think he'll play with a lot of enthusiasm and put the effort into getting better on a daily basis and over the course of a season. That's all a manager can ask of any player.''

Bowden, who's gotten ripped as much as Soriano for this fiasco, has plenty at stake as well. When he traded Brad Wilkerson, Terrmel Sledge and a pitching prospect to Texas for Soriano in December, it was hard to envision Soriano being content in left field or hitting in cavernous RFK. Bowden clearly missed some signs that other people saw coming.

"There's a risk when you make deals,'' Bowden said. "When I made the Ken Griffey Jr. trade in Cincinnati everybody said, 'This is one of the best trades in baseball. Congratulations.' Then he was hurt for four years and it was a horrible trade. That's part of the game. Obviously, if we knew this trade was going to play out this way, we wouldn't have done it.''

Expect a few more flare-ups along the way. Three New York-based writers were in Jupiter on Wednesday, so you can expect a healthy dose of Mets trade speculation in the papers. The Cardinals, concerned that Junior Spivey is hitting .149 this spring, would love to upgrade at second base. But it's hard to envision anyone adding $10 million to the payroll 10 days before the season opener, or giving up anything of value for Soriano.

"My preference is to keep him, because we're a much better team with him,'' Bowden said. "But I'll never close the door on an opportunity to make everybody happy. My preference is for everyone to be happy in this game. Organizations and players do better when we're all happy.''

The Nationals might not be entirely happy today, but they can at least revel in their anonymity. While the baseball world focuses on Barry Bonds' knee, Jeff Bagwell's shoulder and Johnny Damon's hair, Soriano is just a four-time All-Star turned project, working on caroms and wind conditions in his transition to a new world.

The process might not be fun to watch. But it sure beats the alternative.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.