- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 21, 2006

VIERA, Fla. — Eight members of the Washington Nationals’ starting lineup took the field last night at Space Coast Stadium. Alfonso Soriano did not, and that act of defiance turned this club’s single biggest issue into a full-blown, highly convoluted mess.

In his first day back with the Nationals after participating in the World Baseball Classic, Soriano was penciled into manager Frank Robinson’s lineup as the leadoff hitter and left fielder for an exhibition game against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Soriano, though, refused to take the field, setting into motion a chain of events that could lead to the 30-year-old essentially being suspended by the Nationals and forfeiting his $10million salary.

“We believe it is the club’s right, based on the basic agreement, based on his contract, that a player needs to play the position that the manager wants to put him in to win, regardless of who that player is,” general manager Jim Bowden said minutes after the start of last night’s game. “He refused to do that today.”

The Nationals hope to have the matter resolved within the next 48 hours. Bowden and Robinson said Soriano again will be in the lineup in left field for the team’s next scheduled game, tomorrow afternoon against the Cardinals in Jupiter, Fla. If Soriano refuses to play, Bowden said the club will ask Major League Baseball to place him on the “disqualified list,” under which he would lose his salary, not accrue any major league service time, lose his opportunity to become a free agent at season’s end and remain the property of the Nationals.

“We do not want it to come to that,” Bowden said. “We have compassion for him. But … we have a team to run. And our feeling is we don’t want to wait until Opening Day to do this. If he’s going to play left field, he needs to be out there now for the next couple of weeks to play. If he’s not going to play for us, we need to know so we can go forward.”

Soriano, who appeared in uniform on the field only during afternoon pregame workouts, dressed and left the ballpark before the second inning. He turned down interview requests as he walked to his car, saying, “I don’t want to comment, not today.”

Asked whether he would speak today — the Nationals’ only scheduled day off of the spring — Soriano replied, “It’s a day off.”

Asked about tomorrow, he said, “We’ll see, we’ll see. I don’t know.”

Diego Bentz, Soriano’s agent, did not return messages left for him last night.

Despite their attempts to convince Soriano to have a change of heart, club officials knew before game time he would not take the field. Robinson met with his disgruntled player for 15 minutes in the early afternoon, during which time Soriano politely but firmly stood his ground.

Soriano then went out and took infield practice at second base, along with Jose Vidro, even though Robinson had him listed in the lineup in left field. He took more grounders at second during batting practice and spent several minutes talking with Dodgers coach Mariano Duncan, who has known Soriano since childhood and advised him to do as the club asked.

Following batting practice, Soriano met with Robinson and Bowden and reiterated his position.

“Nothing is against his will,” Robinson said before the game. “He doesn’t have to go out there. I can’t force him to go out there. The manager of a ballclub makes out the lineup, informs him he’s in the lineup tonight and he’s playing left field. … For the ballclub’s sake, for his sake, I hope he does. I hope he goes out to left field.”

When the Nationals took the field in the top of the first, though, Soriano was nowhere to be found, so Robinson emerged from the dugout and approached plate umpire Mike Estabrook. Robinson informed Estabrook he was making a change and signaled for Brandon Watson to come off the bench and take over center field, with Ryan Church moving from center to fill the vacancy in left.

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