- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 30, 2006

It’s not like changing your socks, changing your stance or even changing teams. When major league baseball players change positions, their identity changes, too. They no longer are what they think they are. “It’s what baseball thinks you are,” Washington Nationals coach Davey Lopes said.

Right now, baseball thinks Alfonso Soriano is a left fielder. That’s because he is. He used to be a second baseman, an All-Star at that, and maybe one day he will be again. But not now, not since he was traded by Texas in the offseason. The Nationals moved him to the outfield, a move Soriano said he would not accept and temporarily refused to assume the position in his first exhibition game.

But he changed his mind and has since played willingly, if not gladly, and with a certain distinction. With 18 homers through last night’s game in Philadelphia and speed on the basepaths, Soriano is the Nationals player who is the most fun to watch at the plate. He also is pretty entertaining in the field.

Left field often becomes Adventureland for Soriano, who has worked hard with Lopes but basically is learning via on-the-job training. He still has trouble with curving line drives and playing the wall, and the corner is fraught with peril. But his athletic ability has allowed him to compensate. Last week he misjudged a line drive yet still caught it and started a double play. He leads the league with nine outfield assists.

“For a guy who hasn’t played much and didn’t get much preparation going into the season, I think he’s done a good job,” said Lopes, a former All-Star second baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers who late in his career became an outfielder and utility player with Oakland.

Soriano’s progress was impeded because he played second base for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic and missed a big chunk of spring training. Still, fans seem to find it easy to take such a move for granted and scorn Soriano for refusing to embrace the change. It’s still baseball, right? These are highly skilled, highly paid athletes, the best players in the world. Second base, left field — what’s the difference?

“It’s hard because you get comfortable at one position and then you have to start again,” Soriano said. “It was like somebody made me play hockey. I never played hockey. But I’m working hard every day to get comfortable.”

People like to be comfortable, and athletes are people, too.

“You can lose sight of the fact that they’re human beings,” Lopes said.

Taking an athlete out of his comfort zone, mentally and physically, is risky and often invites failure.

Said Houston Astros second baseman Craig Biggio, who started as a catcher and also has played the outfield: “It’s easy to say, ‘We’re gonna switch positions,’ but it’s so hard, it’s unbelievable. It’s not as easy as it looks.”

Nonetheless, Biggio, a likely future Hall of Famer, made it look easy. So did Robin Yount. The American League MVP as a shortstop with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1982, Yount was forced by a shoulder injury to move to the outfield midway through his career. He hated that. Shortstop is the glamour spot, the most important position on the field. But In 1989, Yount became the third player to earn MVP honors at two positions.

Before becoming a center fielder, he said the team tried to “hide” him in left field. “I was not a big fan of that,” Yount, a 1999 Hall of Fame inductee and now the Brewers’ bench coach, said in a telephone interview. “I didn’t enjoy that at all. I had never been an outfielder for a day in my life, and I felt very uncomfortable out there. It was a whole new world. It was like playing a different game.

“When I got out there, it was like being all by myself. I was way too far from the action. I couldn’t wait for the day that my arm came back and I could go back to shortstop.”

That day, of course, never came. Yount returned to the infield as a first baseman for a handful of games but never played shortstop again.

“It took me several years to enjoy playing the outfield,” he said.

Even though it meant moving over just a few feet, Alex Rodriguez, a seven-time All-Star at shortstop with Texas and the AL MVP in 2003, called it a “huge challenge” when he became the New York Yankees’ third baseman in 2004. Rodriguez had to switch because there was no way Derek Jeter was going to move. How Rodriguez truly felt about deferring might never be known, but he said all the right things and last year became the fourth player to win MVP honors at a second position.

Still, he was forced to move and that’s how it usually goes. But in the most famous position switch ever, Babe Ruth, perhaps the best left-handed pitcher of his time, begged the Boston Red Sox to let him play the outfield in 1918 so he could hit more home runs. Others have accepted, if not welcomed a new position to prolong their careers. The list is populated largely by those who relocated to first base or the outfield. The latest is former All-Star shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, who is enjoying a second life with the Los Angeles Dodgers at first.

“It was a necessity for me,” said Dale Murphy, who started as a catcher for the Atlanta Braves, moved to first base and finally settled in center field, where he had a long, productive career. “I knew I wasn’t gonna have a chance anywhere else. I wasn’t doing very good as a catcher or a first baseman.

“The bottom line is that [manager] Bobby Cox liked me enough to give me a chance in the outfield [in 1980],” Murphy said from his home in Alpine, Utah. “He saw I might be able to hit some and he wanted to keep me in the lineup somehow, and that’s why I kept trying different positions. I’m really grateful to Bobby for sticking with me and giving me a chance. It worked out.”

It doesn’t always work out. Change sometimes is bad, especially when you’re already good at what you do. Nationals manager Frank Robinson, a Hall of Fame outfielder, started eight games at third base with Cincinnati at the end of the 1958 season, his third year with the Reds. He was just 22, and the experiment apparently went so poorly that he erased all memory of it.

“Are you sure you have the right Robinson?,” he said last week. “At the major league level?”

Yes, indeed. It was F. Robby, all right, and it’s in the books. He played a total of 11 games at third in ‘58, and made three errors. Robinson, who started his professional career as an infielder, also played first base for most of the 1959 and 1960 seasons before returning to the outfield. He does remember that.

“Yeah, I questioned it,” he said. “That’s why I moved myself out of the infield in the minor leagues in the first place. I couldn’t see myself as an infielder.”

Biggio saw himself as nothing but a catcher, an All-Star catcher during his first four big league seasons. But he was fast and not that big, and the Astros feared he would wear down behind the plate. So they decided to move him to second base, preceded by a brief stop in the outfield. As far as anyone knows, no one else has made such a switch.

“It was the hardest thing I ever did in my life,” Biggio said before a game against the Nationals last week. “I went to the All-Star Game, everything’s starting to settle in, and all of a sudden you go to lunch with the manager and they want you to make a career move. It catches you off guard a little bit.”

Biggio, who is in his 19th season with Houston, is approaching 3,000 hits and holds the record for getting hit by pitches, likened the experience to giving a bat to someone who never played and telling him to face Randy Johnson.

“That’s how hard it was at the time,” he said. “I never, ever played that position. There was so much you had to think about. It was mainly the thinking aspect. You play the middle of the diamond, there’s a lot going on.”

So maybe Soriano deserves a break. Even Biggio, regarded as one of the game’s classier acts, resisted at first. But once he made up his mind, he said he wholeheartedly took to the project, putting in extra hours with coach Matt Galante during spring training before and after exhibition games.

“You say, ‘We’re gonna make this work,’ but you’ve still got to do it,” Biggio said.

Said Galante, now an assistant to Astros general manager Tim Purpura: “He didn’t become just an ordinary second baseman. It was very difficult for us to persuade him to do it, because he had just been an All-Star catcher. It took a long time for us to persuade him. Finally, he said, ‘I don’t want to be just OK, I want to be good.’ He said he wanted to get a Gold Glove.”

Biggio won four Gold Gloves as a second baseman, was a five-time All-Star and was good enough to have been picked additional times. He even changed positions yet again, to center and left field for two seasons when the Astros had Jeff Kent in 2003 and 2004. The Hall of Fame appears to be a certainty and that, he said, likely would not have happened if he remained a catcher.

“I’ve done everything they’ve asked me to do,” he said. “I take a lot of pride in that.”

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