- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 23, 2006

Alfonso Soriano took a step in the right direction yesterday — past second base and toward left field. He needs to keep heading that way for as long as he is with the Washington Nationals this season.

Soriano agreed to play left field for the Nationals in an exhibition game in Jupiter, Fla., against the St. Louis Cardinals.

But Soriano and the Nationals have much more to do than just pencil in his name at left field on the lineup card. The Nats took a gamble when they traded for Soriano, and his initial refusal to play in left turned into an embarrassment for the franchise this week.

Now both club and player must repair the damage.

That harm is not as bad as it would have been had Soriano refused again to abandon his apparent deep passion for second base and make the move to left.

And there is no telling what Soriano may do tomorrow or next week, for that matter. A man willing to risk $10million because he doesn’t want run down fly balls is, to put it kindly, unpredictable.

But Soriano and the Nats now have to face the anger from Washington baseball fans, who have every right to be upset. They were used and abused from the time the Senators left Washington after the 1971 season until the Montreal Expos relocated to the District for the 2005 season.

Then they had to endure the ugly political battle between Major League Baseball and the city council all winter over the lease and financing for the new Southeast ballpark.

And they still face the insult of their No.1 villain, Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, owning the television rights to the Washington team. That situation led to a fight between Angelos and Comcast that still will keep most of the Nats’ games off the air.

The only safe haven from that turmoil for Nats fans was on the field — until now.

Soriano’s refusal to play left field — and the gamble by the Nats that led to this showdown — took that away from them. For several days, a player who was making $10million — nearly 20 percent of the Nats’ payroll — refused to play unless he could play where he wanted.

It was a caricature of everything fans hate about professional athletes, and the artist of this caricature was general manager Jim Bowden.

Bowden’s reputation took a huge hit in this debacle, and it may be too late for him to recover his standing with Nats fans even if Soriano delivers big offensive numbers to a team that struggled to score last season.

By most accounts, Soriano is a good guy. He always has been well-liked by teammates and treated fans with respect.

Before yesterday’s game, Soriano signed autographs during batting practice — something players rarely do and perhaps an indication that he knows the work ahead of him.

This is what Soriano — and the Nationals — need to do.

Soriano had this to say in an interview with “Latino Leaders” magazine in late 2004: “I do my job, play hard on the field, discipline myself and respect the coach. I have a healthy life without any vices, and I stay out of trouble.

“My life is like the fantasies of little boys. It’s like a dream. I have everything I’ve always wanted. I’m playing major league baseball. If you’re a good person, a friend, as I was with teammates in New York and here in Texas, people treat you well. If you’re arrogant, people will treat you accordingly.

“Here in the United States, if you’re a good person and you share with people, no one will treat you differently than anyone else.”

The Nationals need to show that Soriano is that guy.

But how people treat Soriano now likely will be based on their perception of what happened this week.

It is important that he and the Nationals change that perception, else it could gain some ugly momentum at RFK Stadium every time Soriano strikes out — which he does often — or every time he makes an error in left field, which he will.

Soriano made errors at second base more frequently than anybody who has played the position on a regular basis in the past 50 years, so he surely will make them in left field as well.

Last week it was announced the Nationals named the Olson ad agency of Minneapolis to promote the team. Olson will earn its money if it can help repair the image of Alfonso Soriano and close the wounds that have been inflicted in this town.

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the https://www.washingtontimes.com/sports>Sports Page

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