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He's Arrived For the Yankees' Alfonso Soriano it's been a breakout year (no matter how long it lasts) after taking a wildly unlikely road to the Show

Aug. 26, 2002
Aug. 26, 2002

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Aug. 26, 2002

He's Arrived For the Yankees' Alfonso Soriano it's been a breakout year (no matter how long it lasts) after taking a wildly unlikely road to the Show

In the visitors' clubhouse of The Ballpark in Arlington there is a
Jabba the Hutt-sized freezer packed with ice cream. Cartons and
cartons of ice cream--15 varieties of dairy goodness. Over the
last few years some of the game's biggest ice cream bingers have
gone deep into the Texas Rangers' massive stockpile. Tampa Bay
Devil Rays first baseman Steve Cox polished off three Choco
Tacos. "That," says Kasey Terrell, the assistant clubhouse
manager, "was impressive." Another time, Cincinnati Reds catcher
Jason LaRue inhaled three Klondike bars and a King Cone. Says
Terrell, "That was our record."

This is an article from the Aug. 26, 2002 issue

Then came Alfonso Soriano. And, heck, the New York Yankees'
second baseman wasn't even that hungry. But growing up in the
tattered Dominican town of San Pedro de Macoris, he had learned a
simple rule that applied to everything from food to new languages
to ground balls: Gobble up what's in front of you. So, sitting on
a couch before a large-screen TV, Soriano did. He started by
filling a bowl with five scoops of vanilla ice cream and quickly
downed them. Then he turned to Reese's Peanut Butter Cup ice
cream bars, consuming one in four bites and then another in
three. Following a lengthy (well, five-minute) hiatus, Soriano
jogged back to the freezer, pulled out an Orange sherbet push-up
and swallowed it whole.

At some point during the gorge-a-thon, Terrell was sufficiently
dazzled to stop, put down a pile of laundry and watch. And there
was more. After the 9-2 Yankees win, Terrell was asked to take
Soriano to a stadium suite where Roger Clemens was celebrating
his 40th birthday. When Terrell picked him up, yet another Orange
sherbet push-up was in Soriano's mouth. "Dude, how many of those
have you had today?" asked Terrell.

Soriano smiled like, well, a kid with a free pass to a freezer
full of ice cream. He held up eight fingers. "A lot of incredible
things happen in baseball," says Terrell, shaking his head in
awe. "But I've never seen a performance like that. That guy ate
everything."

The 24-year-old Soriano's appetite hardly ends there. For as
ravenously as he consumes ice cream (and hamburgers and sushi and
Blowpops and gallons of fruit juice), he has become an American
League MVP candidate by feasting on another ballpark staple:
meatballs. Meatballs up and away, meatballs low, meatballs down
the middle. In Arlington, righthander Rob Bell served Soriano one
of his favorites, a sinkerball that didn't sink, and watched it
land 369 feet away in the leftfield seats. "That's what happens
when you throw Soriano a bad pitch," says Terry Francona, the
Rangers' bench coach. "He'll jump on it and--whack!--kill it. He's
a monster of a hitter."

Like the ice cream in Arlington, Soriano's offensive excellence
comes in 15 varieties. Utilizing bat speed that Yankees first
baseman Jason Giambi calls "insanely fast" and strength that
outfielder Rondell White calls "brutish," Soriano has hit for
average (.303 at week's end, 13th in the American League) and for
power (30 home runs and a .558 slugging percentage, fourth and
seventh, respectively, in the AL). He has driven balls into the
gaps for 42 doubles (second in the league). He has scored 97 runs
(second) and driven in 77 (18th). As New York's leadoff hitter,
he has also stolen a league-high 34 bases. Last Saturday, Soriano
became the first second baseman to have a 30 dinger-30 steal
season, and there's a chance he'll break the mark for homers by a
second baseman (42) held by Rogers Hornsby (1922) and Davey
Johnson ('73).

At his current pace Soriano will rack up 396 total bases this
season. Only three Yankees have ever exceeded 400: Babe Ruth, Lou
Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio. Remarkably, in an era of heavily muscled
baseball behemoths, all this comes from a 6'1", 180-pound rubber
band who seemingly arrived out of nowhere.

He looked around and wondered, Who are these people? Or at least
he wondered that in Spanish because his English was limited to
two words: ball and baseball. What was going on? This certainly
wasn't the American dream that Soriano had envisioned. He thought
he would be wearing a crisp white uniform in front of 40,000
fans, competing against Pedro and Sammy and Big Mac. No, this was
a nightmare. Somehow, in a world gone terribly wrong, he was the
newest member of the Southern California Angels of the National
Adult Baseball Association, playing once a week in a glorified
rec league before, oh, 20 people and a couple of dogs on a field
on the east side of Los Angeles.

The leftfielder looked old enough to be Soriano's grandfather.
The third baseman could double for John Goodman. Hadn't Soriano's
agent, Don Nomura, told him that coming to California would be a
huge step toward stardom? Well, here he was in the summer of
1998, the starting shortstop on a team of has-beens and
never-will-bes. This was something that Soriano--a perceptive,
quick-witted man--didn't understand.

Fourteen years earlier, when he decided that baseball would be
his life, little Alfonso had issued a simple proclamation to his
family: Quiero jugar beisbol para comprar una casa para mi madre.
But for a six-year-old boy in San Pedro de Macoris, wanting to
play baseball to buy his mom a house was hardly an unusual
desire. Alfonso's uncle, Hilario Soriano, was then a minor league
catcher in the Los Angeles Dodgers' organization, and he would
bring home bats and gloves and stories. Both of Alfonso's older
brothers, Julio, now 29, and Federico, 28, would also enjoy brief
stints in the minors. (Alfonso's mother, Andrea, primarily raised
him and his siblings.)

Soriano dedicated himself to the game, and at 16 he was invited
to a baseball academy run by the Hiroshima Toyo Carp just 20
minutes from his home. In his uncle's tales there were Yankees
and Mets and Cubs and Tigers. No Carp. But the Japanese League
club would provide room, board and a small salary. "I was very
happy," Soriano says, "because somebody would pay for me to play
baseball."

The academy could be torturous: Dominican boys herded in and out
like sheep, up at the crack of dawn for batting practice and
defensive drills that would last for 10 hours. Worst of all was
the food. There were no King Cones at the Carp academy. It was
Japanese chefs cooking Latino grub, and the finished product
tasted like soggy underwear. Still, Soriano never complained, and
two years later the Carp issued him his first plane ticket. He
would take a 20-hour flight to the Show.

But this Show wasn't the Show. Hiroshima assigned Soriano to its
minor league team in Ono, where the organization's bigwigs wanted
their skinny, 5'8" bundle of athleticism molded into a
sure-handed shortstop. How? By turning Soriano's life into hell.
For nearly all of 1996 and '97 Soriano spent his days and nights
thinking, eating and breathing baseball. There were four sessions
of BP daily, often accompanied by the unintelligible screams of
drill-sergeant coaches. On the bright side Soriano gained an
appreciation for sushi and--from watching TV and listening to
teammates--learned to speak semifluent Japanese. He was also
lonely and miserable.

"It was not a game, it was a job," he says. "There was nothing
fun about Japanese baseball." After his first season, in which he
hit .214 in 57 games, Soriano returned to the Dominican Republic
for a few weeks. When his mother looked at his scabby, calloused
hands, she insisted that he stay. He refused. A job was a job.

The following year Soriano got his first big break when
Hiroshima's second baseman, Kozo Shoda, was injured. The Carp
moved Soriano from short to second, let him play the position for
three minor league games, then called him up to start for the big
club. It was the most nerve-racking moment of his life. "I
couldn't stop my heart from beating hard," he says. "I was 19,
and my hands kept shaking. I didn't want anyone to hit me a
ground ball. I knew I would drop it." Taken aback by the new
position and the 30,000 chanting lunatics around him, Soriano
bombed. He went 0 for 4 and booted a grounder. After nine games
and a .118 average, Hiroshima mercifully returned Soriano to Ono.

Despite the flop, the Carp knew what it had. Soriano is a
wonderful athlete. He doesn't run, he glides. He doesn't throw,
he launches. Even as he struggled again in the minors--finishing
the season with a .252 average and eight homers--his potential was
obvious. "It was the way he moved, the way he swung the bat,"
says Leon Lee, the Chicago Cubs' Pacific Rim scouting
coordinator. "There was something special about him. He looked
like a baseball player."

Only he wasn't being paid like one. The average salary of a
foreign-born minor leaguer was $220,000. After Soriano's second
season, Nomura asked for a raise from $45,000 to $180,000; the
Carp offered $45,000. That meant Soriano would have to go to
arbitration before a board composed of commissioner Hiromori
Kawashima and the two Japanese League presidents. About two weeks
before the hearing, however, Nomura was told he could not
accompany Soriano into commissioner Kawashima's office. "So I sat
outside and waited," says Nomura. "I knew we wouldn't win. There
was never a chance."

Soriano lost, and Nomura was livid. Ever since 1995, when he
discovered a loophole that allowed Hideo Nomo to leave the Far
East and pursue a career in the U.S., Japanese League officials
had treated Nomura as if he were a traitor. The arbitration board
would not grant Nomura another victory. "In Japan, they'll do
everything to win," says Lee. "It can be ruthless."

So Nomura struck back. It had always been Soriano's dream to play
in the U.S., and here was his chance. Just as he did with Nomo,
Nomura took advantage of a since-eradicated clause in Japanese
League contracts that granted free agency to players who retire.
Instead of accepting the arbitration ruling and returning to the
Carp, Soriano, at 20, "retired."

Hiroshima did not take this well. Far from presenting Soriano
with a gold watch and a hearty Go get 'em, Sori-san!, the Carp
sent letters to all 30 major league organizations, threatening to
sue anyone who touched its property. But with Nomura's help,
Soriano obtained a visa and flew to Los Angeles in May 1998. It
was a thrilling 10-hour flight--his head buzzing with the
glamorous images of movie stars and bright lights he'd seen on
TV. His dreams always included one element that was missing when
he arrived: big-time baseball. Because of the Carp's letter,
major league teams shied away from Soriano. So while Nomura tried
to clear things up, Soriano lived in a hotel, worked out daily
and played on weekends in the National Adult Baseball
Association, a long way from the majors. "I was scared," Soriano
says. "It wasn't the life I expected."

Then, on July 13, his fortunes changed. Having spent two months
reviewing his case, Major League Baseball declared Soriano a free
agent. Truth be told, most front-office executives didn't know
Alfonso Soriano from Alfonso Ribeiro. He was just a name on a
sheet of paper--another kid to work out. "An unknown," says
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, "but a lot of scouting is
about checking out the unknown." Nomura booked private workouts
with seven clubs: the Brewers, Cubs, Diamondbacks, Indians, Mets,
Rockies and Yankees. Soriano entered as a mystery. He walked away
a prize.

"I was blown away," says Cleveland general manager Mark Shapiro.
"He had an explosive, wiry body, with these unbelievable skills.
And I remember his smile--this dynamic smile."

"I was blown away," says Arizona G.M. Joe Garagiola Jr. "After
two or three throws, it was obvious he could be a very good
shortstop. He was launching missiles to first."

"I was blown away," echoes Milwaukee assistant G.M. Dave Wilder,
who at the time was the Cubs' farm director. "He had this bat
speed that reminded you of a Hank Aaron, a Willie Mays. There
aren't many no-brainers, but this was one of them."

At Shapiro's urging the Indians offered Soriano a multiyear major
league deal worth $1.6 million, the first time Cleveland had ever
presented a player with a big league contract on the basis of one
workout. "The only debate was whether he would play shortstop or
centerfield," Shapiro says. "He had the skills for both."

Unfortunately for the Tribe, the Yankees, too, were awestruck.
During Soriano's workout at Yankee Stadium, Lin Garrett, the
team's vice president of scouting, whispered a sweet something
into Cashman's ear: "Don't let this f------ guy get away."

He didn't. On Sept. 29, 1998, New York signed Soriano to a
four-year, $3.1 million deal. It was, many whined, just the
latest example of the greedy Yankees' way. Here was a team with
Derek Jeter, one of the best young shortstops in baseball, paying
millions ... for a shortstop?

And as they whined, Soriano kept his promise. He used part of the
money to buy his mom a new house.

The Yankees were right. Aren't they always? Soriano rolled
through the minors, earning late-season call-ups in 1999 and 2000
before reporting to spring training last year with his first real
chance to make the club. That he was still Yankees property was
an upset. In the spring of 2000 the Anaheim Angels dangled
outfielder Jim Edmonds for him; the Cubs offered outfielder Sammy
Sosa as part of a bigger deal. Later that summer New York agreed
to send Soriano and pitcher Ted Lilly to the Houston Astros for
outfielder Moises Alou. Soriano was pulled from the lineup at
Triple A Columbus and told of the deal. At the last minute Alou
exercised a no-trade clause. "I admit," says Cashman, "that
sometimes luck has helped me out."

Yankees manager Joe Torre needed a bit of luck too. He already
had a second baseman, Chuck Knoblauch, but a week before the 2001
opener he had seen enough of Knoblauch's throwing yips to know it
was time for a change. Torre reassigned Knoblauch to left.
Soriano, who had started 41 games at second at Columbus, took his
place. "I honestly believe that if we asked him to, Soriano could
play in the outfield today and be outstanding," says Torre. "He's
adaptable. He was a very good shortstop. Now he's a very good
second baseman. He picks things up at a very fast pace."

Initially, swapping short for second was a huge blow to Soriano's
ego. When he was growing up in San Pedro de Macoris, shortstops
were kings and all other players pawns. "Not playing short put
him in a real funk," says Trey Hillman, Soriano's manager at
Columbus. "But I told him the truth: Every day he let pride get
in his way was a day he was keeping himself from making it."

Soriano had his defensive struggles at second, committing 19
errors in 2001. He rushed throws that didn't need rushing. He
charged when he should have waited. Mostly, he learned. By
season's end Soriano was a solid, sometimes spectacular second
baseman with soft hands and a hawk's range. This year, despite
committing 18 errors at week's end, Soriano has improved even
more. Instead of relying on instincts, he has learned the
intricacies of positioning. "He'll make plays that'll pop your
eyes out," says Lee Mazzilli, New York's first base coach.

It is on offense, though, that Soriano has emerged as one of
baseball's brightest stars. Hitting ninth most of last season, he
batted .268 with 18 homers, 73 RBIs and 43 stolen bases. When the
Yankees reported to spring training this year, Torre penciled
Jeter in at the top of the order and Soriano again at the bottom.
Sure, Jeter fit best into the second hole, and Soriano's speed
was ideal for the leadoff spot. But Soriano struck out 125 times
in 2001 and had only a .304 on-base percentage. A number 1 hitter
needs discipline and experience and bat control, but within three
weeks Torre had changed his mind.

There was just something about Soriano leading off that made
sense--an energy, an excitement, a buzz. Most great base thieves
need 13 to 15 strides to go from first to second. With his long
legs and fluid motion, Soriano makes it in 11. Most young hitters
take months to learn pitchers. Soriano's pitch-recognition
ability is off the charts. Most table setters are slap-hitting
single sprayers. Soriano thrives at knocking balls off outfield
walls. His swing is a Ted Williams-style uppercut that results in
looooooong drives. "Rickey Henderson is a guy Alfonso talks about
a lot, and that's good," says Torre. "But when Rickey was a
leadoff hitter, his goal was to get to first. This kid wants to
be on second."

Soriano's scarcity of walks (he had 18 through Sunday) and
abundance of strikeouts (122) are no longer major concerns. Yes,
Torre would like Soriano to exercise more discipline--to stop
swinging at the first pitch every other at bat--but not too much
discipline. "Part of what makes Sori dangerous is his explosive
attitude," says Rick Down, New York's hitting coach. "If he walks
20 times but scores 120 runs, we probably shouldn't be
complaining too much."

He may look like Gumby next to Giambi, but nobody in the
clubhouse has stronger wrists or more flexible hips. Soriano uses
a 34 1/2-ounce bat, one of the heaviest pieces of timber in the
league. "His body is all about explosiveness," says Jeff Mangold,
the Yankees' strength and conditioning coach. "He has an
unbelievable amount of fast-twitch muscle fiber, and his muscles
are very long but powerful." When asked for an athletic
comparison, Mangold doesn't mention Jeter but Neal Anderson, the
former Chicago Bears back with whom Mangold worked as a trainer
at the University of Florida. "Neal was so fluid and so powerful,
I'd never seen another athlete like him," says Mangold. "Until
Alfonso Soriano."

The movie is Rush Hour 2, a forgettable comedy starring Chris
Tucker and Jackie Chan. Soriano is standing by his locker in
Arlington, half getting dressed, half watching the film.
Suddenly, he screams to nobody in particular: "HELLLOOOOOO
BENJAMINS!" Nick Johnson, New York's rookie designated hitter,
gives his pal a funny look, then starts to talk. "Sori, what are
you...?"

Just then, Tucker yells at the top of his lungs from the TV:
"HELLLOOOOOO BENJAMINS!"

Johnson shakes his head and laughs. He should have known. For all
of Soriano's other accomplishments--his home run off Curt
Schilling in Game 7 of last year's World Series, his first
All-Star Game start in July, his MVP candidacy, his ice cream
spree in Arlington--what impresses those around him perhaps even
more is the improvement in his English since last season.

During his first spring training with the Yankees, in 1999,
Soriano used George Rose, the interpreter for Japanese pitcher
Hideki Irabu, to answer questions. In 2000 and 2001 he relied on
a bilingual teammate. This February, Soriano arrived in Tampa
disguised as Merriam Webster. Who are his teachers? "Chris Tucker
and Sylvester Stallone," says Soriano, who has watched Rush Hour,
Rush Hour 2 and Rambo: First Blood at least 10 times each. "I see
movies, study the words and try to learn one every day."

Thanks to his newfound fluency, Soriano has emerged as one of the
team's more popular spokesmen. Reporters regularly gather around
his locker, and earlier this season he conducted his first TV
interview in which the questions were relayed over a headset. "I
think," says Rick Cerrone, New York's media-relations director,
"that Alfonso was very proud of that moment."

Two hours before the Yankees-Angels game at Anaheim earlier this
month, Soriano plopped down in the dugout, in the exact spot
where Torre would momentarily hold his daily briefing. Suzyn
Waldman, one of the team's TV commentators, turned to Soriano and
jokingly asked, "Joe, what do you think of this Soriano guy?"

The Yankees' second baseman smiled, not missing a beat. "I
think," he said, "that Alfonso Soriano is on his way."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY CHUCK SOLOMON [COVER] ALFONSO SORIANO The Latest Greatest Yankee [BUT WILL HIS BREAKOUT SEASON BE CUT SHORT?]COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO MR. BIG Soriano, who excels in all areas of the game, weighs only 180 pounds but swings a huge 34 1/2-ounce bat.COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON HATS OFF Soriano batted ninth in 2001, but he was moved to the leadoff spot and has energized the top of the order.COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO HUNGRY MAN With 30 homers, the ice-cream-loving Soriano has also feasted on meatballs.
Most great base thieves need 13 to 15 strides to go from first to
second, but with his long legs Soriano makes it in only 11.
Soriano could rack up 400 total bases this season. Only three
Yankees have ever exceeded 400: Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio.