Hands high, stance wide, slight leg kick. Rondell White noticed the batting style and immediately thought of someone else. White watched as Alfonso Soriano drove a ball over the rightfield fence with one swing, over the fence in left with the next one. He marveled as Soriano smacked every pitch that was out of the strike zone into play. This new teammate reminded White of a former teammate: "From the first day of spring training I thought, there goes a smaller version of Vladimir Guerrero."
Over the season's first two months, Soriano was arguably the AL MVP. The Yankee second baseman was on pace to become the fourth 40-40 player in major league history. But the talk and the comparisons seemed to go, if not to Soriano's head, then to his approach. His whiplike swing elongated as he became homer-conscious. Joe Torre reacted by sitting Soriano one game, then by temporarily stripping him of his leadoff duties. But Soriano's confidence never waned. "He's fearless," Torre says.
It was quite a rookie season, and how it ended appeared to bring even greater comfort and confidence to Soriano. His bubbly personality has emerged this season. When he crushes a ball, he jokingly refers to himself as El Monstruo (The Monster). Wanting badly to be first in the lineup, Soriano began a game earlier this season with a homer and smiled as he went by Torre, saying just one word: "Leadoff." In Fenway in late May, Torre told Soriano before a game to go "do something." Soriano homered to right off lefty Darren Oliver, then homered to left off righty knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. He is just 24, but so talented that Yankee hitting coach Rick Down says, "I will not tell you what his ceiling is because in two weeks he might make it the floor." Jason Giambi says Soriano could be baseball's first 50-50 man.
Sure, he still whiffs too much, and he is rough at second base. But he has been good enough -- in fewer than 300 major league games -- for Luis Sojo to compare him to Alex Rodriguez, for Robin Ventura to compare him to a young Julio Franco and for Torre to suggest Soriano drives the ball like his onetime teammate Hank Aaron.
Mike Thurman, who played with Guerrero in Montreal before joining the Yanks, says, "The comparisons are right on. These guys have the ability to hit a pitch hard that no one else can even put into play."
"It's like when Vlady was young," White says. "I look at Soriano and think this is only his second year. He can hit 40 to 50 homers, steal 40 to 50 bases, hit .350. Who knows where he is going?"
This article appears in the July 8 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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