Not all that long ago, I had great disdain for Alfonso Soriano. He was an overpaid, underproducing waste of space with bad knees and a reputation for failing in the clutch. Who could blame me (or anyone) for feeling he was one of the biggest reasons for the continued futility of the Chicago Cubs? He was a seemingly selfish, free-swinging cancer of sorts in the middle of the Cubs lineup. He flailed repeatedly at pitches in the dirt, swung for the fences at every plate appearance and seemingly played the game with a level of apathy that suggested the game of baseball interfered with a desire to stay home and count his millions of dollars.
I must say, however, after what has been one of the most difficult seasons of Cubs baseball in recent memory, Soriano has been one of the few bright spots.
Of course it’s easy to label Soriano’s season as a success given the fact he’s the first Cub to drive in over 100 runs in a season since 2009, but there’s been something a little more special for Soriano this year. It’s difficult to say what has made this season one of such great retribution for the Cubs left fielder. Perhaps it’s been Soriano’s commitment to being a better defensive outfielder. Or maybe it’s the resurgence of power Soriano’s experienced after falling into what was seemingly a career-ending tailspin three seasons ago. Whatever the reason, there’s something discernibly different about Soriano this season.
After a customary slow April start, Alfonso Soriano has been more than anyone expected for the Cubs this season. In most every offensive category, Soriano has experienced his best season in over three years. In addition to hitting more home runs than he had either of the past three seasons, Soriano’s totals in walks, hits, extra-base hits, batting average, OPS, total bases and even number of times being beaned by an opposing pitcher all exceed, or are on pace to exceed, any totals of the past three seasons. Perhaps the most impressive testament to Soriano’s resurgence has been his improved fielding this year, committing just one error—four less than his career low.
Beyond the statistical aspects of the game, though, there’s a marked difference in the way Soriano has gone about his daily business this season. Whether it was the hiring of manager Dale Sveum, the departures of veteran teammates from seasons past or perhaps something as simple as a new diet, the change in Soriano’s attitude this season has been hard to ignore.
As difficult as it is for me to say this following a half-decade of loathing the Cubs high-priced veteran, I’m proud of him.
Sure, there will never be a way Soriano can make up for lackluster playoff performances in 2007 and 2008, and there will never be a way to justify the exorbitant contract former general manager Jim Hendry signed him to, but I feel as if this season was, in many ways, an apology of sorts from Soriano.
Whether he realizes it or not, this year Soriano has displayed many of the characteristics Cubs fans had hoped he would since joining the organization five years ago. He’s been a leader in an inexperienced clubhouse undergoing a great change in identity. He’s openly commented on how the Cubs youth movement has created one of the most enjoyable seasons he’s experienced in quite some time. On numerous occasions this season, he’s been seen relentlessly sprinting around the bases and diving to make difficult catches, almost as if he knows the young guys are looking up to him. Additionally, more so than in any year of Soriano’s Cubs career, he’s been able to deliver in the clutch this season—heck, his first homer of the season was a ninth-inning, game-tying bomb off the Cardinals’ Jason Motte.
But it’s not the increase in home runs or the newfound willingness to sacrifice his body on the field that has caused me to forgive Soriano for being one of the most disappointing Cubs of all-time. The main reason for my change of heart stems from the obvious change of heart Soriano, himself, has experienced. There’s a reason for Soriano’s sudden and unexpected improvement that lies deeper than spending a few extra hours in a batting cage or working with first base coach Dave McKay on becoming a better defensive player. For the first time since donning Cubs pinstripes one thing has finally become evident: Soriano cares.
It’s easy to dismiss an athlete or most any other public figure for being apathetic. Once their time is served and they’re no longer in the spotlight, we can write them off as failed experiments—”Good riddance,” we’d commonly think or say. This is an exercise Cubs fans have nearly perfected thanks to the likes of Todd Hundley, Milton Bradley, Danny Jackson and countless other flopped free-agent singings. But after this season, I’m going to find difficulty in viewing Soriano in the same light as other failed Cubs experiments. While the others all faded into obscurity, Soriano has taken an image he was certainly aware of and done one of the most difficult things any human being can do: change.
Now that the hope of elevating the Cubs to their first World Series victory in over a century has passed, the changes Soriano has made this season hold a different value. Sure, it would’ve been nice to see the $136 million invested in Soriano pay greater dividends than what it has, but this season may, in the long run, contribute to the Cubs’ future. Surrounded by such young and impressionable players, Soriano could have easily just tanked this season; chalked it up as just another losing season in Chicago. There’s no real need for the 36-year-old veteran to do more than the absolute minimum for the rest of his career. He’s guaranteed a hefty sum of money for what will presumably be the rest of his career. But Soriano chose otherwise. Whether he was caught up in the atmosphere of a youthful, hopeful clubhouse, or whether he simply made the decision to be a better ballplayer, the example Soriano has set for the younger players has been a nice surprise.
And who knows—maybe this one quality we can extract from a résumé of otherwise dispiriting recollections will have enough impact on someone—anyone—in the organization who can ultimately factor into that elusive championship.