I remember it was beautiful weather as we waited outside a low, chain-linked fence looking into narrow lot. There were many expensive cars, a few unidentified security guys as well as other Cubs employees. I would later find out that some of the people waiting around in that lot were friends and family of the players.
Since Carlos Zambrano hadn't pitched that day, he was one of the first to arrive (and subsequently depart). I also remember Derrek Lee and Ryan Dempster (who actually left by pedaling his bicycle). And there was Lou Piniella who, as he walked toward his SUV turned to the small crowd and uncomfortably waved. I had nearly called out, "Hey Lou, nice double-switch in the sixth inning!" The only reason I didn't was because a small part of me thought it might actually have been the seventh... (And it really was a nice double-switch as the Cubs hung on for a one-run victory that game.)
But the person I remember most from that parking lot was "Fons." Alfonso Soriano.
I hadn't realized it before, but Soriano in person is just a cool dude. It's hard to explain, but as he chatted with teammates, friends and family while holding somebody's little girl for part of the time, his smooth style was readily apparent. Although, some of the fans waiting nearby weren't nearly as smooth as they rattled the fence, waving pens and hats and paper, yelling out repeatedly, "Alfonso! Alfonso pleeeease!"
But Fons kept chatting away, occasionally looking over to the fans, flashing a smile and coolly holding his hand up extending his index and pinky fingers like they do at the University of Texas for "Hook 'em 'Horns." The fans would reach a fevered pitch thinking that this was their chance to get Soriano's attention for an autograph, but understandably, he'd just go back to his conversation. Then after about ten minutes he was gone.
From a purely baseball perspective, I never understood why the Cubs committed $138 million toward Soriano; and it's not really the money that bothered me. What bothered me was the following question: Where does Alfonso Soriano fit on a World Series-caliber team?
Ever since Soriano has come to Chicago, a big debate among Cub fans is where to bat Soriano in the lineup. Some say leadoff (which is where he usually bats), but others say with his power he should be batting fifth.
To make a long story short, Soriano needs to bat leadoff by default. Even though he doesn't steal bases like he used to, the leadoff spot is the only spot in the lineup where he'll see a lot of fastballs, which is what he needs to be a good hitter. (The View from the Bleachers has the numbers here if you're curious.)
As if the confusion surrounding where to place Soriano in the batting lineup isn't enough, there is also confusion over where he belongs in the field. He was brought up by the Yankees as a second baseman, the Nationals moved him to left field, then the Cubs tried to convert him to center field and now he's back in left. While he is fast and has a strong (and accurate) arm for throwing out runners, overall he's not a great defensive outfielder.
Last season the Cubs had a better record with Soriano than without, but this year they're doing better without him. At the very least, not having Soriano hasn't been a devastating loss to this club.
I often enjoy listening to Steve Stone's take on baseball, and here's what he said recently on his blog regarding Soriano (please note, Stoney's known for his baseball knowledge, not his writing skills):
I believe the Cub fans are starting to realize that with a tragic loss, at least for a while of Alfonso Soriano, the Cubs have won 7 of their last 10 and have won 4 games in a row. I am sure that the Cubs miss that sterling play in left field, they miss all the bases that Alfonso didn’t steal, they miss how artfully he played the off the wall and his occasional solo homeruns. It appears that that 175 batting average, 2 homeruns, 5 runs batted in, the four walks he had taken in 57 at bats coupled with the 11 strikeouts doesn’t seem to be hurting the Cubs very much.Hans Solo? Ouch!
In fact I would venture to say with a leadoff hitter, whoever Lou decides to put there who is actually a leadoff hitter, the Cubs are a better team without Soriano. There, I’ve said it. Anybody familiar with the emperor’s new clothes? If not, understand this, 136 million dollars over 8 years buys you a very accurate arm, a guy that will steal very few bases from here on out because of recurring leg problems and a man who should change the name on his back to Hans Solo, describing the overwhelming amount of homeruns with no one on base that he will hit.
Soriano comes off the DL in a few days. I'll be curious to see how he meshes with the team upon his return.