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Friday, July 26, 2013
Not easily defined

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Alfonso Soriano was called a lot of things in his Chicago Cubs career.

Savior, All-Star, enigma, the hottest hitter in baseball, overpaid, really overpaid, the guy who jumps before he catches a fly ball, veteran clubhouse leader, #SoriTime.

Alfonso Soriano
Alfonso Soriano launched 181 home runs with the Cubs, but, to many critics, his production didn't match his salary.
But the one word that should be used to describe the outfielder now that he's been traded to the New York Yankees is simple: professional.

Soriano is a pro's pro. A role model.

That might not be the Soriano you think you know, but to the guys who played with him and the people who worked around him, it's a simple description of the 37-year-old ballplayer with the 7-year-old's smile.

If you're laughing at this, you don't know Soriano. You know what Bob Brenly used to say about him when he thought Soriano was dogging it. You know what smart alecks who don't go into the clubhouse say about him. You know what your own biases about millionaire athletes tell you about him.

But for those who got to know Soriano, his professionalism is how we'll remember him.

No, he wasn't perfect. But who among us is? Soriano had his weaknesses and he had his strengths, and, although he never lived up to the many commas in his deal, that's not quite his fault.

Soriano signed an eight-year, $136 million contract that is every player's dream, but one that is nearly impossible to live up to. Of course, no one should feel sorry for the burden of expectations. Soriano didn't.

Because it's still $136 million, and Soriano seemed to understand -- better than most athletes -- that getting booed, even by your home crowd, and getting criticized aren't the worst things in the world.

Yes, he got mad when it got back to him that someone called him selfish on the radio or TV, because that's not him, but he never let criticism get him down. That's admirable for a Chicago athlete.

Because Chicago, especially the North Side, has been known to devour those who aren't mentally tough enough to handle it. Some whine about it for years. But Soriano was cool with it.

Just part of the game, he'd say.

Now, he's not some kind of hero for coming to work every day as a multimillionaire and never complaining about booing fans and media gibes. But mental toughness is a skill. And yes, the guy who got ridiculed for hopping to catch fly balls had it in spades.

Theo Epstein's "Cubs Way" manual should include a chapter on Soriano titled "How to Play Chicago."

Last year, Epstein called Soriano "a pleasant surprise. He turned out to be as great a clubhouse guy as there is in the game. He couldn't have been a better role model for our young players."

I found it interesting that manager Dale Sveum and Epstein were surprised at encountering the Soriano we already knew when they took over.

They expected some smoldering, selfish, past-his-prime prima donna. What they found was an approachable, happy leader who put in his work as if he were a minimum-salary guy.

"He's 100 percent completely different than I thought," Sveum told reporters in Arizona, according to CSN Chicago. "There hasn't been a day of disappointment in his attitude/work ethic."

The past week in baseball has been dominated by Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun. I'm not an anti-steroid crusader -- I loathe the sanctimony involved -- but I wouldn't feel hypocritical putting Soriano up against those two players.

Braun is, at best, a terrible liar and a selfish person to cry "victim." Rodriguez is just bizarre in his machinations.

Soriano loves life and is always honest, almost to a fault. It's quite a coincidence that he's going back to New York while the Yankees try to rid themselves of Rodriguez. Everything comes full circle.

How many major leaguers would admit to being afraid of the brick wall in Wrigley? Soriano, who had played just one season of outfield before coming to Chicago, wasn't very comfortable in left field.

"The only problem I have sometimes is running backward because I'm scared of hitting the wall," he told the Chicago Tribune in spring training in 2008. "But I'm working very hard in spring training to get better."

Soriano would later admit to his bad habit at the plate of watching long fly balls, a bugaboo of the old school, because, well, it was fun to hit home runs and watch them sail onto Waveland Avenue.

Soriano, he's just like you.

Reporters who dealt with Soriano liked him unanimously. He was a great quote, never hid and was adept at giving honest assessments of the team.

He was a good teammate, as well. When Starlin Castro came up to the big leagues, Soriano took the rookie into his condo and tried to import some of his veteran wisdom. Soriano was a role model for a slew of Latin American players who came to the club.

"He's a really nice guy," Castro told me in 2011. "He's the best. He's the nicest guy I've seen in my life, in baseball. He signed for a lot of money, but when you stay with him, he doesn't look like a guy that thinks, 'I'm pimp,' you know what I mean?"

But he also could play.

People like to talk about his failures, which coincided with the Cubs' dramatic fall from 2009 until now, but don't forget he was signed with the present in mind in 2007.

Soriano had finished a 40-40 season in his walk year, and the Tribune Co. wanted to spend big money on the Cubs and win a World Series, and thereby increase the value of the franchise the company was preparing to unload.

Alfonso Soriano
Alfonso Soriano once admitted being afraid of hitting Wrigley's brick wall, and that helped shape a perception of him.
So, thanks to profligate spending by the higher-ups -- don't pin that contract solely on Jim Hendry's short-sleeve dress shirt -- and a criminally backloaded contract, Soriano signed to be the face of the New Cubs.

In 2007, after tearing a quadriceps muscle in August, he hit 14 of his 33 homers in September, also batting .320 with a 1.108 OPS that month, to lead an 87-win team to the NL Central division title. The next year, he hit 29 homers and drove in 75, again from the leadoff spot, for the 2008 team that seemed destined to break the World Series drought.

He made $9 million and $13 million in base salary, respectively, those first two years; the Tribune knew someone else would pay the heavy freight in his later years, when he would make $18 million a season.

Who could blame the company if the Cubs actually won a World Series?

But he flailed along with the team in both divisional playoff series sweeps, going 3-for-28 in those six games. Small sample size, sure, but that's part of his legacy here, too.

Soriano became vilified in some circles in the ensuing years as the frustrations of Cubs fans mounted with disappointing teams.

The Tribune bankruptcy, the Tom Ricketts takeover, the Theo Epstein rebuild. Soriano was there through it all.

He saw the likes of Ryan Theriot and Geovany Soto flame out as homegrown talent. He witnessed the Milton Bradley implosion and, years later, the disappointing end to Carlos Marmol's Cubs career.

Soriano had his share of leg injuries along the way, and that quad injury in 2007, along with knee surgery in 2009, robbed him of that 40-steal speed. But he always had a couple of hot streaks in him, and he continued to hit for moderate power even as his batting average slipped. Soriano hit 181 homers with the Cubs, good enough for 11th all time for the franchise. Of course, this franchise is historically awful, but it's still impressive.

In the past couple of years, after everyone realized this team was going to bottom out before it got better again, it seemed that people finally appreciated Soriano for what he was rather than what people wanted him to be.

He wasn't the $136 Million Man. He was just a very good player who enjoyed playing baseball.

With the help of outfield coach Dave McKay, he has improved his fielding dramatically late in his career. He hit 32 homers and drove in 108 runs for a 101-loss team last season. This year, he has continued to hit, giving fans one last Soriano hot streak to enjoy as they look toward 2015 and beyond.

A couple of years ago, people couldn't wait for Soriano to be gone. Now, I think everyone should miss him.