The quiet man: Rafael Soriano
His present has been sensational for the Yankees, but his future is a mystery
Editor's note: This story is available in Spanish here.
A Dominican boy cries often. He needs his father. He has taken up baseball recently; and by age 8, he's quite good at it but his family is too poor to afford the long trips from Boca Chica to Santo Domingo to play in weekly tournaments. His mother, a housekeeper, earns a meager wage, and she can't pay to send him. When he can't find the 20 pesos for the trips, he stays home, often sobbing, aching to play the game he's learned to love.
He desperately needs his father, who has never been a part of his life. The boy was rejected once when he approached him for financial help, and it stung, forever leaving an imprint. Since then, he has rarely said the man's name again or called him "father." At times, he refers to him as "the man who helped create me." But never father. Fatherhood requires more than genetics.
Heartbroken for her son, the boy's mother sacrifices the little spare money she has to send him on his baseball trips. Other times, the boy does chores for the team's manager, who then pays for his long bus ride to the capital.
Playing baseball isn't easy for the boy -- buying a glove or a bat is next to impossible -- but it teaches him important lessons about life. He learns that to get the things you want, you have to make sacrifices. Life is not going to hand you a thing.
But the most important thing he learns is the value of family -- or, at least, the part of the family that cares to be a part of his life, the handful of uncles and cousins, along with his mother, who look out for him. Family is the only thing that matters, the only people he can count on in life. It is hardly worthwhile for the boy to waste his time with anyone else.
These lessons shape the rest of his life.
Later, when men and women with microphones and tape recorders wait to speak to him after a bad baseball game, this boy, now a man, retreats to speak on the phone with those people he trusts. Their opinion and their questions are the only ones that truly matter.
Latin Americans in general, and athletes in particular, are keen on nicknames for friends and acquaintances. Not only does it help to identify someone, but it creates a bond, an acceptance.
Several things about this particular young pitcher stuck out to Garcia. He was dark-skinned; and nicknames based on skin color, for better or for worse, are fairly common. That was a possibility. Soriano was also tall and thin, and a moniker based on his spindly frame might also fit.
But the thing that struck Garcia the most was how quiet Soriano could be. He was cordial with his teammates, but often retreated to the back of the clubhouse to call his family. Garcia had rarely met a player so committed to speaking to his family so often. Soriano's Latin American teammates liked him, but his English-only-speaking teammates, who were at a disadvantage because Soriano did not speak their language well, didn't really know him.
In a moment of inspiration, Garcia came up with what he believed to be the perfect nickname: El Silencioso, the Silent One. It fit perfectly.
Garcia, now Soriano's teammate on the Yankees, chuckles at the memory. Mostly, he laughs because in the decade or so since the origin of the nickname, Soriano hasn't changed one bit. While his career has evolved from starting pitching prospect, to ace reliever, to Mariano Rivera's more-than-able replacement as a closer, and while he isn't as thin as he used to be, Soriano is still mostly a mystery to the people around him.
"I just enjoy speaking with my family," Soriano says. "I always speak positive things. I always try to speak with people who will have a positive influence on me, not people who will come at me with problems about money or anything."
The current mystery surrounding Soriano is about his contract. Because his season has measured up to some of Rivera's better years -- he is third in baseball in saves, fifth in ERA among closers -- Soriano now faces a decision about whether to use the opt-out clause to become a free agent at the end of the season, thereby forgoing the $14 million he is scheduled to make next year in New York.
As a free agent, Soriano likely could net more in a multiyear deal, perhaps the veteran's last chance for long-term security -- he'll be 33 in December. Agent Scott Boras says a decision hasn't been made yet, although several sources close to the situation suggest that Soriano is leaning toward opting out.
"There's great demand for elite 40-save closers," Boras says, which might indicate an intent on the agent's part to try to negotiate a new multiyear deal, whether it's with the Yankees or another team.
Undoubtedly, Soriano has been invaluable to the Yankees this season. Without his ability to step into Rivera's role after a devastating knee injury in early May sidelined the man considered to be the greatest closer of all time, New York might not be in playoff contention. And there are no assurances that Rivera will be able to return to form next year. Soriano is a much-needed insurance policy.
"Thank goodness we have him here," says Rivera.
Can the Yankees truly afford to let him go after this season? The playoffs, assuming they qualify, likely will be the true test of how valuable Soriano is to them. Flop during the playoffs, and he might become known as another player who couldn't handle the pressures of New York. Become a playoff hero, and the Yankees will almost certainly want to retain him. In essence, the next few weeks might just be as important as the past four months have been, if not more.
Throughout it all, Soriano has chosen not to talk about his future, which is not unexpected.
After all, he's El Silencioso. The Silent One.
In the middle of a scouting trip in 1996, then-Mariners Dominican scout Ramon de los Santos received a phone call from an acquaintance who suggested he take a look at a young outfielder from Boca Chica. When de los Santos was given the name "Rafael Soriano," he was surprised. He'd never heard of him. Scouts such as de los Santos are usually well acquainted with every player worth signing.
But Soriano's track to prominence in the Dominican was not typical. He had learned to play by age 8, but wasn't connected to the right trainers who could promote him to major league teams. He developed as a player because he was committed and because he had several uncles who had played baseball and who taught him well, providing the support Soriano never received from his father.
INSIDE PITCH/RECTA ADENTRO
ESPN.com and ESPNdeportes.com are collaborating on a season-long series of features that highlight the Latino and Hispanic presence in Major League Baseball. The stories appear simultaneously in English on ESPN.com and in Spanish on ESPNdeportes.com.• Bryant: Johnny Cueto's invisible stardom
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As a teen and when he wasn't in school, Soriano would be at the baseball field at 7 a.m. to train all day, and then would head over to work at a local ice cream shop, where he'd stay until 10 p.m. When he arrived home, his mother, Magali, was usually still working, so there was little to eat. When she was able to cook for him, Magali would prepare something cheap and simple like eggs and rice. It was hardly enough food for someone who had worked as hard as Soriano, but that's all Magali, a single mother, could afford.
By age 16, he had visited the St. Louis Cardinals' academy, but they didn't seem interested in signing him. The financial need at his house became so great that he quit school and quit training full-time so that he could get a job.
Soriano worked at a carpentry shop with his brother-in-law during the week, and then played baseball during the weekends. One Sunday, a friend of his asked why he was no longer practicing full-time. Soriano explained the situation. The friend told him he had a contact with the Japanese league's Hiroshima Carp, who at that time had an academy in San Pedro.
For three months, Soriano trained with the Carp, who wanted to sign him. But the team discovered he was only 16 at the time, and the signing age was 17. Soriano said he was unwilling to falsify his documents; so once again, he went back to work.
"I never lost faith even during that time when I stopped practicing full-time," he says. "Even though I only played on Sundays, I could tell that my bat was still there. Even now, people are surprised to see that I turned into a pitcher because I was a good hitter. I used to hit switch-hitter. I just had faith. There's a saying that says faith can move mountains. That's what I've always had in my mind. When one has faith, one can accomplish many things."
He continued to train on the weekends until making contact with de los Santos, who signed him on the spot for $5,000 after that first tryout.
"I only saw him try out for 12 minutes," de los Santos, now retired, recalls. "But we could tell that he had a very potent arm. I thought that if he didn't make it as a position player, he could make it as a pitcher."
The first few weeks at the Seattle academy were difficult. De los Santos tried his best to communicate with Soriano, but it wasn't easy. He was quiet, but thankfully, he was also well-behaved. De los Santos never had to worry that Soriano would get into trouble like some of the other boys. He wanted only to play baseball, and what scout couldn't appreciate that, regardless of whether Soriano ever said a word?
De los Santos eventually found out Soriano came from a poor, but proud and humble family, and he quickly gained an affection and an appreciation for the boy who had grown up without a father.
"I came to think of him as a son," de los Santos says.
Like a caring father, de los Santos looked out for the boy. When his career as a position player stalled after only a season and a half -- Soriano to this day believes that he wasn't given a fair chance because he wasn't a big-name signing, and that he could have made the majors as an outfielder -- de los Santos, along with minor league pitching coach Rafael Chavez, advocated turning him into a pitcher.
In his first outing in the Arizona rookie league, Soriano threw 95 mph. It was then that he became a full-time pitcher.
In the subsequent years, Soriano's de facto father has seen the boy, now a man, become not only one of his most successful signings, but also -- and more importantly -- one of the most caring people he knows.
"I know he doesn't like publicity, but he helps people," de los Santos says. "He's one of the most giving, if not the most giving, player I have ever met."
In Boca Chica, Soriano is known as the man who paid for a back surgery that kept a poor boy from becoming an invalid for his whole life. In Boca Chica, Soriano is known as the man who had a house built for a poor woman with nine children who was living in squalor. In Boca Chica, Soriano is known as the man who buys Christmas gifts for many poor children.
"I always try to help people in the area," he says. "It's one of the things that makes me feel good. When that happens, I feel a calmness and a peace."
But he rarely mentions these acts. For him, it's best to do them anonymously. After all, he's El Silencioso. The Silent One.
Soriano's evolution as a pitcher has been optimized to fit his personality. The way he pitches leads to the least amount of social interaction possible.
"As far as communication, there isn't any," Yankees catcher Russell Martin says. "He goes out there. He's focused. It's a pretty simple approach to how he pitches: fastball in and out, slider on both sides of the plate. And there's nothing else you need to do except go out there and try to get three outs."
Even his victory celebration -- after recording the last out of a save or a win, Soriano violently grabs his jersey and untucks it from his pants -- is a singular act that involves no one but himself.
Of course, it wasn't always like that. As he learned the craft of pitching, Soriano listened to instruction from his coaches, mostly Chaves in the minors, and gradually those lessons turned him into a great closer.
"The last three or four years, he's a totally different pitcher," says Yankees outfielder Andruw Jones, who was Soriano's teammate with the Braves in 2007. "He learned how to pitch. When I was with him in Atlanta, he was more like a thrower. He was trying to throw the ball hard through the mitt."
In his first year in the majors in 2002, Soriano threw his fastball 75 percent of the time, while throwing his slider only 17 percent of the time. In Atlanta, where he became a star reliever, Soriano in 2009 threw his fastball 73 percent of the time, and his slider 23 percent of the time. This season has been the most balanced of his career: fastball 60 percent, slider 40 percent.
It's quite the evolution, one that could have come only in conjunction with coaches and teammates. He might not like to talk much, but he'll do so when needed. He's learned to interact with English-speaking teammates and coaches, although they also have to make a big effort because of the sizable culture and language gap.
While with Tampa early in the 2010 season, Soriano and manager Joe Maddon had dinner at a Brazilian steakhouse. Over several bottles of wine and a seemingly endless amount of meat, the manager and his closer bonded. They spoke of baseball, of course, but Soriano was more interested in talking about family.
To keep the relationship strong, Maddon, after each of Soriano's 45 saves that season, poured a glass of red wine so the two could celebrate. They had disagreements, but Soriano trusted his manager, who had made the effort to get to know him.
"The biggest thing with Rafael that I learned was to listen to him," Maddon says. "After three days, you think you give him a day off. But he'd say, 'Actually, I feel even better today.' He told me that I should utilize him. But then sometimes after two days, he would say, 'I don't feel that good today.' With him, he really knew himself very well."
Soriano's decision to leave the welcoming environment in Tampa and join the tumultuous New York media market seems odd. It appeared to be a relationship doomed to fail. But it all came down to money. The Yankees offered the most of it: a three-year, $35 million contract that the Rays simply could not and would not match.
Predictably, he's had a hot-and-cold relationship with the New York media. Last year, Soriano was criticized early in the season when he failed to stand by his locker to speak to reporters after a bad outing. In a city where accountability is key, many saw that as an act of cowardice. Not surprisingly, he was crushed by columnists.
"I wasn't surprised at the reaction because I know that I had done the wrong thing," Soriano says. "But at that moment, I didn't care that I was wrong because I was just upset at myself."
After speaking with team officials and teammates, he vowed to do better for the rest of the season; and for the most part, he did, although there have been times this year when he hasn't subjected himself to postgame interviews after a bad loss. Even after wins, Soriano is rarely a presence in the Yankees' clubhouse.
Good or bad, he has mostly shunned attention.
"The fans and media certainly have different expectations here," Soriano says. "When you do something badly, they are waiting for you. Not knowing perfect English, sometimes it's fairly difficult for me to answer all the questions."
Mostly, though, Soriano just prefers to retreat to the back of the clubhouse or to his house, where he can call his relatives. Often, he'll call his uncle, who will provide him with constructive criticism about what might have gone wrong that night. Inevitably, his family offers encouragement, and that's enough to keep Soriano plowing ahead even through his worst on-the-field moments. Sometimes, simply speaking to his mother is enough inspiration.
Soriano takes the mound to a song written by a friend, which includes the lyric: "His mother inspired him to make his dreams come true."
Yet for all the ups and downs of his relationship with the media, he's had a remarkable season. The biggest difference is that he abandoned a cutter he used 20 percent of the time last year. Soriano is living and dying with his fastball and slider.
"Sometimes, too much is spoken about the pressure here in New York," Rivera says. "One does their work, and the rest of it is out of your control. But he's adjusted very well."
The relationship with Rivera has helped Soriano get comfortable in the rough New York environment. The future Hall of Fame closer is one of the few people in the city with whom Soriano communicates regularly. The two speak often about baseball and about family, Soriano's favorite two topics.
Although Soriano admits that he struggled last year in an eighth-inning role (he closed for the Braves in 2009 and the Rays in 2010), he certainly did not want to become the Yankees' closer because of an injury to one of his good friends.
"Obviously, it was a difficult moment to see Mariano go down like that," Soriano says. "I couldn't sleep well that night. But God only knows why things happen. I miss him. In the fifth inning, we used to walk together to the bullpen. Now I walk out alone and it feels lonely. But I think he'll be back and be better than ever. I told him that I didn't want him to retire this way. I wanted him to retire like all the great ones do. It didn't matter to me whether I closed; he needs to come back next year."
Who knows what factors ultimately will make Soriano leave or stay with the Yankees? In a sense, this may be the most difficult decision he has ever had to make. Will his relationship with Rivera be enough to keep him in New York? Will the allure of a multiyear contract and more money entice him to abandon the Yankees? Has he learned to find comfort in a place as tumultuous as New York? Does the loyalty he previously entrusted only to his family now extend to his most recent baseball family?
Who can say? Certainly not Soriano. After all, he's El Silencioso. The Silent One.
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