- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 22, 2006

VIERA, Fla. — The Washington Nationals once again will list Alfonso Soriano as their starting left fielder for today’s exhibition game against the St. Louis Cardinals. Whether the disgruntled All-Star agrees to take the field is up to him.

Sources close to Soriano said yesterday he had yet to make up his mind about joining his teammates in Jupiter, Fla., but that he had not ruled out the possibility of playing. Soriano planned to talk with his agent, Diego Bentz, and family members last night before making a decision.

Nationals officials had not been told about Soriano’s intentions, but if he does not take the field, the club plans to ask Major League Baseball to place him on the disqualified list tomorrow.

“Does he belong on the disqualified list? Our answer is yes,” club president Tony Tavares said. “He is failing to perform his services. Never in the history of baseball has a player been able to pick his position.”

What should have been a peaceful day off for the Nationals — their only one of the spring — turned into a full-fledged circus as television and radio talk shows from around the country, sports and news alike, covered the Soriano situation.

All those eyes will be focused squarely on Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter this afternoon, when Washington manager Frank Robinson turns in a lineup card with Soriano listed as the left fielder. Robinson performed the same act Monday night at Space Coast Stadium, only to watch as Soriano refused to take the field in the top of the first inning, forcing the manager to emerge from the dugout and signal for a replacement outfielder.

Soriano, who had informed Robinson and general manager Jim Bowden of his intentions not to play, departed the stadium in the second inning and had not been heard from again as of last night.

Club officials don’t know whether he’ll be on the 8:15 team bus ride to Jupiter this morning, whether he’ll arrive at the ballpark on his own or whether he simply won’t show up at all.

Neither Bowden nor Bentz returned phone messages yesterday.

The Nationals do know what they will do if Soriano, whose $10 million salary is tops on the team, again refuses to take his position in the field. Bowden will petition MLB tomorrow morning to have the 30-year-old slugger placed on the disqualified list, a rarely used maneuver that surely will be met with resistance by the players’ association.

League rules permit any club to place a player on the disqualified list for “failing to render his services to the club,” and the Nationals believe Soriano’s refusal to move from second base to the outfield meets that criteria.

Once a player is on the disqualified list, he is no longer on the club’s 25- or 40-man roster and he must forfeit his salary. The Nationals also believe the player cannot accrue any major-league service time, thus making Soriano ineligible for free agency at the end of the 2006 season.

“That is the way that we have read the collective bargaining agreement,” Tavares said. “I am sure that will somehow be contested. But that’s the what the collective bargaining agreement says.”

The union, according to baseball sources, will in fact contest that assertion, as well as the Nationals’ right to place Soriano on the disqualified list in the first place. In doing so, they may attempt to cite Attachment 10 of the sport’s current CBA, which in part states that “a player who properly has been placed … on a Disqualified List for failure to render his services to his Club, shall be eligible to become a free agent as provided in Article XX, if otherwise qualified as set forth therein.”

It’s unclear whether Soriano would meet the criteria necessary to become a free agent, but sources said the union will file a grievance claiming he does.

Club sources expect the union to file a grievance on Soriano’s behalf as soon he is placed on the disqualified list, potentially sending the matter to arbitration. Baseball officials couldn’t speculate on who would prevail in such a case, because there is no precedent for a team suspending a player because of his refusal to play a particular position.

Meanwhile, Bowden continues to field trade offers for Soriano while insisting he would only make a deal if he received something substantial in return. Club sources reaffirmed that belief yesterday, saying Bowden would rather keep Soriano on the disqualified list for the full season than trade him for players of unequal value. The Nationals would even be willing to take a chance that Soriano becomes a free agent because, per league rules, they would be entitled to one or two high draft choices as compensation.

Of course, there is still a chance that Soriano will show up in Jupiter and take the field, a move that the Nationals weren’t expecting last night but hadn’t ruled out.

And in spite of the spectacle that Soriano’s absence created Monday night, Washington officials, players and others insist they would welcome their teammate back with open arms if he chose to return.

“That would be an appropriate response,” Tavares said. “What he’s done so far is inappropriate. The appropriate thing to do would be to perform the services that the team is asking him to do, which is to play left field.”

Added Robinson: “It would be water under the bridge, as far as I’m concerned.”

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