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‘No choice’: Soriano in left

- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 23, 2006

JUPITER, Fla. -- The word started circulating through the Washington Nationals' clubhouse at Roger Dean Stadium shortly after 10 a.m., straight from manager Frank Robinson's mouth.

Alfonso Soriano has said he will play left field. Not just for the day. For the season.

The official confirmation came three hours later, first when Soriano stepped to the plate leading off the Nationals' exhibition game against the St. Louis Cardinals, and later when he trotted out to left field for the bottom of the inning.

With that, a long and strange saga reached what appears to be its final resolution: Though he would prefer not to, Soriano will play left field as long as he's a member of the Nationals' roster.

"I'm going to play the best I can in left field," Soriano said. "Today and in the future. ... I don't have no more choice."

Soriano came to that inevitable conclusion after spending Tuesday (an off-day for the club) talking with family members, agent Diego Bentz, Washington general manager Jim Bowden and Robinson. Pilloried by media outlets across the country for refusing to take the field Monday night after being placed in the lineup, Soriano chose to rectify the situation by agreeing to the club's long-standing request that he make the permanent switch from second base to the outfield.

When Soriano showed up at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla., earlier in the morning and boarded the team bus to Jupiter, the Nationals had an inkling that he was going to relent. But they didn't know for certain until Soriano walked into Robinson's office and said it himself.

"He's doing it for the season," the manager said. "We didn't ask him to do it for the day. That's not the answer we wanted. It's for the season."

Or, for as long as Soriano is on Washington's roster. Given the 30-year-old Soriano's $10million salary and Bowden's insistence on getting top talent in return, a trade appears unlikely until at least midseason. Bowden has offered Soriano a long-term deal thought to be worth $50million over five years and would like to keep the player.

Monday night, Soriano refused to take the field after Robinson put in the lineup for the first time this spring, but both sides now say it may have been a result of miscommunication.

Soriano said he thought the Nationals were going to remove him from the lineup when he informed Robinson and Bowden on Monday afternoon that he was not willing to play left field. The manager and general manager did not have the same understanding and thus kept him in the lineup. While eight of his teammates were taking the field for the top of the first inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Soriano was changing into his street clothes in the clubhouse.

He left Space Coast Stadium in the second inning and didn't know what had transpired until first baseman Nick Johnson called him later on.

Robinson and Bowden "asked me if I want to play left field, and I said I think I'm not ready," Soriano said. "That's the last I said to those guys, and then Nick Johnson called me and said that I'm playing left field. I said I talked to those guys. I don't know why they put me in left field."

Bowden said, "We tried to communicate, Frank and I, as clearly as we could. We thought we had, and maybe there was just some miscommunication or misunderstanding, which happens. The important thing is he's out there, he's doing what the manager is directing. He's making a personal sacrifice for the organization."

The Nationals now face the daunting challenge of teaching Soriano how to play the outfield in less than two weeks before the April 3 regular-season opener. Aside from five spring-training games in left field with the Yankees in 2001, Soriano has never played the position.

He spent about 30 minutes yesterday before the game taking a crash course from spring-training instructor Jose Cardenal. Using the outfielder's glove he borrowed from teammate George Lombard, Soriano learned the nuances of the position, how to throw the ball overhand instead of sidearm, how to take the correct angle to the ball.

Soriano, who made a point to sign autographs for fans before the game, played all nine innings but had only three balls hit in his direction, two of them simple base hits. He did come running in a few steps to catch Albert Pujols' fourth-inning fly ball and then easily threw to second base to double up David Eckstein, but that was the most he was tested.

At the plate, Soriano went 1-for-3 with a walk, blooping a double down the left-field line in the fourth inning and scoring two runs.

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