- - Monday, February 17, 2020

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Juan Soto could have walked into the clubhouse at the Washington Nationals’ spring training complex in West Palm Beach with a Mike Tyson-like entourage. He could have strutted into the room like a social media GIF.

After all, he had earned it. He had the dramatic come-from-behind three-run hit in the eighth inning of the wild card win against the Milwaukee Brewers at Nationals Park, and he only added to his legacy with three home runs against the villainous Houston Astros to lead his team to its first World Series title.

From the District to Santo Domingo in his Dominican Republic homeland, Soto should never have to pay for a drink. Now, after finally turning 21 on Oct. 25, he can take advantage of that celebrity.

But all that Soto brought with him to the first day of spring training was his smile, his enthusiasm and the energy that lights up the room when he walks in.

Will success spoil Juan Soto? Maybe someday. Not yet.

“I’m ready to go,” he told reporters Monday morning. “(The winter) was good, it was fun. I was with my family and doing other stuff … I like the love they gave me down there.”

Soto returned to Santo Domingo a young hero. In a place where baseball inspires a religion-like devotion, his postseason exploits were celebrated all over the island, from kids on the street to the major league players who are revered in the country.

“I saw a lot of legends down there in the Dominican who came up to me,” he said. “It was amazing. They tried to help me out and it felt really good.”

He wouldn’t reveal who those legends were. “We keep it to them and me and no more than that,” he said. “But I got some real nice advice.”

Is this kid for real? The passion, the work ethic, for a 21-year-old who became a major league star last year and raised his status to superstar with his playoff exploits? Can he really be this grounded?

I asked someone who is very influential in the Dominican baseball community for an honest assessment of how Soto is perceived — and how he was received — back home this winter.

Juan has always been highly regarded back home, but he reached the pinnacle during playoffs and World Series,” he said. “People in the DR love the way he carries himself on and off the field. His family values are strong and our people admire that. Everybody loves and respects Juan back home.”

The Nationals hit the lottery with Soto.

Signed as a free agent at the age of 16, he got a quick ride to the majors when the Nationals, out of healthy outfielders, called him up from Class AA Hagerstown in May 2018 — the youngest player in baseball at the time — playing a position he had rarely played in left field.

Soto played as if he was never going back to Hagerstown, closing the season with 22 home runs and 77 RBI and a .292 batting average in 116 games, finishing second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting. He came back in 2019 to lead this team offensively, with the departure of former Most Valuable Player Bryce Harper to free agency, batting .282 in 150 games, with 34 home runs and 110 RBI, and turning into a strong presence in left field, named a finalist in the Gold Glove voting for left fielders.

He says his approach remains the same — play as if he’s fighting to make the team.

“I am going to fight for my place, keep working hard and playing baseball the right way. You don’t want to get comfortable.”

But Soto seems more comfortable all the time — whether mastering his English in front of a crowd of reporters or facing the best pitcher in baseball, Gerrit Cole, in the World Series. And he is very comfortable being a world champion.

“We are the champions,” he said. “I will always remember those moments. They will be there forever. I was on the best team of my life. I will never forget that …. we want to do it again. We want to be in October again.

“It feels good,” Soto said. “Everyone is happy to be here today.

“The energy feels really good.”

Why wouldn’t it? Juan Soto was in the house.

⦁ Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan podcast Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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