- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 19, 2006

VIERA, Fla. — This being the first day of spring training and all, Washington Nationals manager Frank Robinson and general manager Jim Bowden were lobbed a couple of softballs to open their introductory joint press conference at Space Coast Stadium.

They were asked whether things feel any different in Year No.2, what they like about the team they have assembled and what impact a healthy lineup would have on the club’s fortunes.

All the while, though, the 800-pound gorilla loomed menacingly in the background. It was only a matter of time before Alfonso Soriano’s name popped up. And once it did, well, let’s just say there’s no doubt what the biggest issue of this camp is going to be, no matter how hard the club tries to downplay it.

“It’s only a big issue because you all are making it a big issue,” Robinson yesterday, when pitchers and catchers reported for duty. “I don’t know if it’s a big issue or not. I’ll let you all know after I talk to him when he gets here. … I want to listen to him and see what he has to say.”

Robinson has yet to speak to his newest slugger, who was acquired in December in a blockbuster trade and then immediately made headlines by refusing to move from second base to the outfield at the Nationals’ request. That long-awaited meeting should take place later this week, when Soriano is expected to arrive in town.

Though several prominent position players are already in camp, they are not required to report until Thursday. The club has no reason to believe Soriano won’t show up on schedule.

Until then, Robinson and Bowden will try to put a positive spin on a potentially thorny issue by heaping praise upon Soriano instead of flat-out declaring he must move to the outfield.

“It’s not that simple,” Bowden said. “This is a player that’s been an All-Star several years. This is a special player. He’s got a lot of pride, and he’s a sensitive guy. I think people should have more compassion for that.

“And I respect Frank’s stance on this. Let him talk to Alfonso face to face instead of over the phone. Let him do it behind closed doors where it belongs. Because this guy’s been through an awful lot this offseason.”

To wit, Bowden pointed out Soriano’s initial shock of being traded from Texas to Washington, then learning his new team wants him to move to a position he never has played in a major league game, then going through the arduous arbitration process. (He ultimately lost his case to the team, though he still will make $10million this season.)

Bowden sat across the table from Soriano at those arbitration hearings last week, and the two held amicable talks, even joking with each other about the position switch.

In fact, Bowden said, the biggest misconception about Soriano is that he’s some kind of selfish superstar and clubhouse cancer when by all accounts the opposite is true. Soriano’s former teammates with the Yankees and Rangers have spoken glowingly about him.

“Good teammate, fun guy, great player,” said Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson, who played with him in New York from 2001 to 2003.

Said Bowden: “I can tell you this: We did a lot of homework on him. We talked to a lot of teammates. His teammates love him. He’s a class act. He’s a good, good person.”

Perhaps back in the day, an old-school manager like Robinson would have marched up to Soriano’s face and declared: “I’m the manager. When I say you go to left field, that’s what happens.”

Even the 70-year-old Robinson, though, knows times have changed and such manager-player confrontations don’t work anymore.

“We’re beyond that, and I understand that,” he said. “You want to be sympathetic to the player. I want to listen to what he has to say. I want to hear his side of it and his reasoning. And then we’ll make a decision.”

Now, lest anyone start thinking the Nationals have softened their position and are going to let Soriano have his way, the club’s plan has not changed. They look at Soriano as their starting left fielder, though it’s possible they would let him play center field if he prefers.

This much is certain: Jose Vidro is the second baseman as long as he’s healthy. The three-time All-Star, who has been plagued by right knee injuries for more than two years, is reportedly in top shape and may even play for his native Puerto Rico in the upcoming World Baseball Classic.

“Jose Vidro can’t play another position,” Bowden said. “We can’t put him in left field. It would be a different story if we had more flexibility with that. … Our team is better if [Soriano] plays in the outfield, and that’s what we’ve explained to him. We have to do what’s right for the team.”

It all sounds so simple. But then, everything does on the day pitchers and catchers report.

Until Soriano arrives in Viera, the Nationals won’t truly know whether their biggest issue of spring training can be resolved with ease or whether the 800-pound gorilla is going to turn this camp into a three-ring circus.

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