- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Jim Bowden knows how to put the “dys” in dysfunctioanal, doesn’t he?

This franchise has not had an owner since 2002. It played “home” games in Puerto Rico for two seasons to get attention and money. It moved to Washington only to have a deal for a new ballpark nearly collapse under the force of city politics — a track record of dysfunction that would be hard to top.

But the Nationals’ general manager added to it by trading for a player who last night refused to take the field for an exhibition game at the position he was assigned by manager Frank Robinson.

And not just any player. Alfonso Soriano is the highest-paid player on the Nationals. He is supposed to make $10 million this year, nearly 20 percent of the team’s payroll. Yet he refused to run out to left field after taking ground balls before the game at the only position he insists he will play, second base.

Now Soriano is on the verge of being damaged goods on the field of public relations. He can redeem himself tomorrow if he plays left field against the St. Louis Cardinals in Jupiter, Fla.

If not, club officials will put him on the disqualified list. They might as well put him on EBay. He will never be able to play for the Washington Nationals by that point.

Soriano is on the brink of becoming the most vilified athlete in Washington. If he carries this battle on much longer, the organization runs the risk of having its highest-paid player — its supposed “star” — booed every time he takes the field at RFK Stadium.

It is hard to imagine the ugliness and bitterness of the fight between the District and Major League Baseball over a ballpark lease taking a back seat to another controversy.

If Soriano continues to refuse to play but at the last minute gives in just to collect his money, he will turn RFK Stadium into a field of nightmares.

Think about it. Every time he strikes out — and Soriano strikes out a lot, 125 times last season against just 33 walks — he will be mercilessly booed.

And then there are the errors, which are sure to come. They have come once every week at second base over his career. They would surely come in left field, and so would a deluge of boos.

The damage already may be done. But Soriano has a two-day window to salvage his reputation — and his career.

The closer this gets to Opening Day unresolved, the deeper the bitterness will grow — not just among fans but among his Nationals teammates, some of whom have been through so much chaos on this team that they will have little sympathy for a selfish teammate who just doesn’t want to catch fly balls.

Even if for some reason Jose Vidro can’t start the season at second base, there is no way the team can use Soriano there.

Again, the response from fans would be brutal. It also would give the impression Soriano got his way in the end and would make the entire front office look worse than it already does — no small feat.

There also is the fact Vidro is respected and admired within the clubhouse. Soriano’s presence at second under any circumstances at this point would create a bitter divide.

Wow! Was the first season of baseball’s return to Washington just a year ago?

The most startling aspect of this is that Soriano is the only one who was consistent and honest in this whole fiasco.

He let it be known shortly after Bowden traded Brad Wilkerson, Terrmel Sledge and a minor league pitcher to the Texas Rangers for Soriano that he had no intention of playing anywhere but the position he has played for the past five years, second base.

After a breakfast meeting when he arrived at spring training in Viera, Fla., Soriano gave no indication to Bowden or anyone else that he had changed his mind. Before he left to ride the bench as backup second baseman for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic, he let it be known again he wasn’t planning on seeing any action in left field.

He returned to the Nationals yesterday, and after a meeting with Bowden and Robinson, Soriano told them he would not play if they put him in left field.

He was telling the truth. When the Nationals took the field against the Dodgers last night at Space Coast Stadium, no one ran out to left field. Robinson came out of the dugout and spoke to the home plate umpire. Then Brandon Watson ran out to center field, while Ryan Church moved from center to left.

Soriano? He was in the clubhouse getting dressed and was driving away from the stadium in his car by about the second inning.

Bowden said if he doesn’t play left field tomorrow, the Nationals will contact commissioner Cadillac Bud Selig (who will love this little pile plopped on his desk, right next to the Barry Bonds pile) and seek to have Soriano put on this so-called disqualified list. (This is not to be confused with the dysfunctional list, which now has been retired by this organization.)

If Soriano lands on that list, he won’t get paid and won’t earn service time toward his free agent status next year.

Bowden might as well join Soriano on the DQ list. The general manager has a player he traded for who refuses to play and cannot be traded.

“We have told him that we have explored all trade options and have not received an offer good enough to make a trade and don’t feel there will be one good enough,” Bowden said.

“Good enough” is a relative term, though. If this mess drags on, any offer may be good enough, considering the alternative — a summer of loathing in Washington on the heels of the winter of loathing just left behind.

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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