MESA, Ariz. – When he took over as Cubs manager last season, Dale Sveum knew the public’s perception – and one shared by many in baseball – of Alfonso Soriano wasn’t good.
In fact, it was awful.
He’s overpaid. He’s selfish. He’s unmotivated. He’s a defensive nightmare.
Sveum heard it all but refused to listen. He wanted to see for himself and wound up stunned that Soriano turned out to be dependable and driven – a model player and team leader.
I’d seen him on the other side of the fence. I was completely blown away by the kind of person he is and the work ethic he puts in, Sveum said Monday after the Cubs worked out under another chamber-of-commerce day of sunshine at Fitch Park, their spring training complex. I rank him as one of the top five people I’ve ever been around in the game.
While the beloved Cubbies slogged through a deplorable 101-loss season in 2012, failing to show much, if any, progress under a revamped front office led by president Theo Epstein, Soriano soared.
The 36-year-old batted .262 with 32 homers and a career-high 108 RBI. But beyond his offensive production, Soriano made significant improvements on defense, a turnaround he credits to hours working with Cubs coach Dave McKay, perhaps the first big league instructor to refine Soriano’s skill set.
Soriano played in 151 games, but at one point it appeared his days with the Cubs were over.
In July, he refused to accept a trade to the San Francisco Giants, a decision that ended up costing him a World Series ring. Looking back, Soriano doesn’t regret vetoing the deal, a choice he said was made because the Bay Area’s chilly weather would bother his knees and because he wants to win it all with the Cubs.
I didn’t want to go to a place where I didn’t feel comfortable, he said. I’m very happy they won the World Series. ... But I believe in this team.
It’s possible Soriano could find himself in trade discussions again, particularly if the Cubs start poorly. He said there are six or seven teams he would accept being traded to, but his preference would be to stay in Chicago, which signed him to an eight-year, $136 million contract before the 2007 season.
He knows turning down a trade could be tougher the next time.
He wants to win.
You know, at my age, I don’t want to be a part of a losing team and I hope we start good and everybody stays healthy and we send a message because I believe in this team and the people that we got, he said. My point is that I signed here to win a World Series, and I don’t want to go somewhere else and win, but if we have a bad start I have to think about moving somewhere else because I only have two years left in my career.
For now, Soriano is locked into left field with the Cubs, and they couldn’t be happier to have him.
After being with Soriano for one season, Sveum considers him a friend now as much as someone I manage.
He keeps himself in great shape, Sveum said. He works out constantly during the year, and I think if he stays healthy, he’ll do just fine.
Sveum understands there’s a lot more that can alter a team’s plans as much as wins and losses. There could be more trade talk surrounding Soriano in the months ahead, and if that’s the case, based on what happened last season, that might not be so bad.
We need his 30 home runs and 108 RBI in our lineup, Sveum said. Whatever happens on the business side, that’s part of baseball. It didn’t affect him too much last year.