Some people look at Chicago Cubs center fielder Alfonso Soriano and immediately think of Dave Winfield. Others hear the rifle-shot sound of the ball leaving his bat and swear it’s Hank Aaron at the plate. In the end, however, most agree that Alfonso simply defies comparison. In 2002, he became the first second baseman in major league history to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in the same season. As an outfielder in 2006, he became history’s fourth 40-40 man. Shoestring-thin and steel-beam-strong, Alfonso combines speed, power and suppleness unlike any other big leaguer. This is his story ...
Alfonso Guilleard Soriano was born on January 7, 1976 in San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic. (Alfonso's official birth year was revealed by the Dallas Morning News.) Baseball is religion on the island, and San Pedro is a holy placehome of a long line of sainted major leaguers, including Pedro Guerrero, Tony Fernandez and Sammy Sosa.
was an easy convert. He began playing after his sixth birthday and, like
many of his friends, dreamed of being a big-league shortstop. Initially,
his prospects seemed rather dim. Alfonso was known as The Mule
because he was slow afoot and moved awkwardly around ground balls. Even
his uncle Hilariowho is now a scouting supervisor for the Toronto
Blue Jayswas uncertain about his nephews future.
Back then Hilario was toiling in the Dodgers system, hoping to make it to the big club as a catcher. When he returned home each offseason, he always brought bats and gloves for Alfonso and his older brothers, Julio and Frederico. Hilario also told fascinating tales of life in the U.S.
Alfonso watched his brothers and friends sign with major-league clubs, and wondered when his time would come. (Like Hilario, neither Julio nor Frederico ever rose above the minors.) When Alfonso reached his 16th birthday, it was his turn to ink a deal, but no scouts came calling. The only team expressing interest in the teenager was the Hiroshima Toyo Carp of the Japanese Central League. A handful of Spanish-speaking players were active in Japanese baseball, including Francisco Cabrera, who had been a big star in Santo Domingo. The Carp operated a small academy in the Dominican Republic, and the plan was for Alfonso to develop his skills there and then join one of the clubs minor-league teams in Japan. On the advice of his uncle, he signed.
The first inkling Alfonso had that his life was about to change was the 19-hour journey from Santo Domingo to Hiroshima. When he arrived he immediately felt isolated and lonely. The language was strange, and so was the food. For the next two months he ate only what he recognizedice cream, fruit, candy and juice. Not exactly fuel for a developing athlete.
Alfonso felt most at home on the field. The language of baseball is universal, and through it he began to pick up enough Japanese to communicate with his teammates and coaches. Soon he distinguished himself as the organizations top young prospect. The thing he didnt like was the Japanese approach to practice. They drill their players endlessly, and concentrate on team play rather than individual skills.
Alfonso earned a promotion to Hiroshima in 1997. He joined a trio of Spanish-speaking players that included Luis Lopez, Felix Pedromo and Timo Perez. The Carp, however, did not intend to raise Alfonsos salary. When an arbitrator rejected agent Don Nomuras request for $180,000 a year, Alfonso feared that he would be enslaved in Japanese baseball and never get a chance to try his skills in the major leagues. He had a miserable year, batting .118 for the Carp.
A few years earlier, Hideo Nomo had wriggled out of his contract by announcing his retirement, then un-retiring after a year of inactivity to sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Nomura advised his client to do the same, and Alfonso informed the ball club that he was retiring for the 1998 campaign. Carp management was understandably furious. The team sued Nomura for $1.1 million and told Alfonso they would see to it that he never played anywhere again. In a letter sent to every major league club, Hiroshima management threatened legal action againt anyone who negotiated with the youngster. In May, Alfonso obtained a visa, and flew to Los Angeles, where Nomura set him up on a team in National Adult Baseball Association. Two months later Major League Baseball declared him a free agent. The Carp backed off their their threats a short time later.
ON THE RISE
Although his numbers didnt hint at his immense potential, Alfonso Soriano was hardly a well-kept secret among big-league scouts. The Cleveland Indians loved his combination of speed and power. Projecting him as a center fielder, the club offered Nomura a deal worth about $1.5 million.
The Yankees were also in on the bidding. When New York more than doubled Clevelands proposal to $3.1 million for five years, Alfonso took it. It wasnt just the moneyhe knew he could make 20 times that amount if he became a star. He liked the fact the Yankees still projected him as a shortstop. The Yankees signed Alfonso in time to send him to the Arizona Fall League, where he played for the Grand Canyon Raptors. Among his teammates was Shea Hillenbrand, the Boston third baseman who is now one of the ALs best young hitters. The two remain friends to this day. Other future major leaguers on the club included Preston Wilson and Marlon Anderson and John Rocker.
Although Alfonso hadnt
played a game for the Yankee organization, his name began to surface in
trade talks that winter. When the Yankees and Blue Jays discussed a deal
for Roger Clemens, Toronto first asked for Jorge Posada and Soriano. New
York refused, and ultimately sent David Wells, Graeme Lloyd, and Homer
Bush north of the border for the five-time Cy Young Award winner. Holding
on to Posada and Soriano might rank among the best deals never made.
Alfonso opened the 1999 campaign in the Gulf Coast League. Less than a month later the Yankees promoted him to the Double-A Norwich Navigators of the Eastern League. In his first six weeks with Norwich he posted three hitting streaks of at least 11 games. By May Alfonso was tops in the Eastern League in batting. In a game against the Portland Sea Dogs, however, he showed he had a ways to go before he was mature enough for the majors. Alfonso infuriated catcher Ryan Robertson by hot-dogging it after blasting a three-run home run that gave the Navigators an 8-5 victory. Robertson, who had to be restrained by home plate umpire Justin Klemm and Portland manager Frank Cacciatore, felt that Alfonso showed up pitcher Michael Tejera by holding his bat high and back-pedaling down the first base line. The young shortstop apologized afterwards, explaining that he got caught up in the emotion of the game.
Alfonso was still tearing up the Eastern League at mid-season, batting .326 with 14 homers, 57 RBIs, and 18 steals. His power numbers were even more impressive given the expansive dimensions of Dodd Stadium, which bowed out to 401 feet in dead center. His performance earned him a spot in the first All-Star Futures Game, which was played at Fenway Park the day before the big-league All-Star Game. In the World teams 7-0 win over the United States, Alfonso stole the show, belting two homers over the Green Monster. He was voted the games MVP, which was enough to convince the Yankees that he deserved to move up to Class-AAA.
A ribcage injury put those plans on hold. During Alfonsos two-week recovery, the Yankees took time to consider his future in the organization. While there were no questions about Sorianos bat, he had already committed 23 errors at shortstop. With Derek Jeter well-established at that position, New York wondered whether Alfonso was better suited for leftfield, second base, or third base.
Alfonso got his promotion
and joined the Columbus Clippers in August. For the time being he remained
at shortstopin fact, the Clippers moved another good prospect, DAngelo
Jimenez, to second base to make room for him. Within a week, however,
Jimenez was back at short, and Soriano was shifted to the hot corner.
Alfonso struggled with the transition. Adjusting to better pitching was tough enough. Moving to third made it even more difficult. In 20 games he batted a paltry .182 and struck out 18 times. But the Yankees liked his attitude, and felt he deserved a reward for being a good soldier. In September, when rosters expanded, Alfonso got the call to the big leagues.
After making his major-league debut pinch-running for Darryl Strawberry in Toronto, Alfonso collected his first hit against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Leading off the bottom of the 11th in a 3-3 game, he lined a home run into the leftfield seats off veteran Norm Charlton. More than 40,000 fans exploded simultaneously as the ball cleared the fence, and Alfonso was mobbed by his teammates after circling the bases. New York had learned earlier in the evening that it had clinched a spot in the playoffs when Oakland lost to Texas 12-4. The rookies dramatic hit was the icing on the cake.
Alfonso made a couple more appearances before the playoffs, going hitless in seven at-bats. Inactive for the postseason, he watched the Yankees take their third title in a row, as they swept the Braves in the World Series.
Heading into the 2000 season, Alfonso hoped to win the job as New Yorks utility infielder. To sharpen his skills, he played for Estrellas in the Dominican Winter League and practiced at a number of different positions. Alfonso had quick hands, good range, and a strong throwing arm, but his mind tended to wander, particularly on routine chances. The Yankees were well aware of this, and determined that playing every day was the best way for him to mature. When the season started, Alfonso got a ticket back to Columbus. Clay Bellinger and Wilson Delgadomore consistent but far less spectaculartook Alfonsos spot with the big club.
In the Yankees
opening game, against Anaheim, third baseman Scott Brosius went down with
a bruised rib cage. Bellinger replaced him, but didnt produce. Alfonso
was called up and manager Joe Torre penciled his name into the starting
lineup against Seattle. The experiment was a disaster. Though he held
his own at the plate, Alfonso was horrid in the field, mishandling several
easy grounders. The instant Brosius was activated, Alfonso was back in
a Columbus uniform.
A couple of weeks later, Jeter landed on the DL with a strained abdominal muscle and Alfonso was recalled. Again he faltered. In his first four games he batted .188 and booted two grounders. Bellinger and Delgado took over at shortstop until Jeter regained his health.
After another stint with the Clippers, Alfonso was summoned to New York when second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, a former Gold Glover, mysteriously lost the ability to throw consistently to first base. The season wasnt half over and he had already thrown 10 balls away. A good leadoff hitter and base stealer, Knoblauch was too valuable to bench, so Torre moved him into the DH slot. Alfonso was inserted at second base.
Second base is a deceptively difficult position to learn, even for a confident, athletic player like Alfonso. The footwork and throws are unlike any other, and turning a double play with your back to the runner is not something you want to learn at the major-league level. Alfonso was irritated at the way he was being moved around, but remembered that his goal a few months earlier had been to become the clubs utility man. He also knew that, with Derek Jeter likely to be the Yankee shortstop for a while, hed have to adjust to another position. Alfonso kept his mouth shut and played.
Slowly, Alfonso began to get comfortable at second. At first he relied on his strong arm to compensate for poor technique, but the Yankees would have none of that. The coaching staff wanted to make him into a real second baseman, and drilled him until he started doing things right. Though the New York brass eventually determined that the team was better off with veterans Luis Sojo and Jose Vizcaino spltting time at second in 2000, Alfonso showed he just might be the best option there down the road.
Meanwhile, Alfonsos hitting improved steadily. A free swinger, he had enough plate sense to understand how opposing pitchers were trying to get him out, and made some intelligent adjustments. The Yankees were thrilled with this development, and marveled at the way the ball rocketed off his bat.
Alfonsos quick stroke and long arms enabled him to get a piece of the pitches he chased out of the strike zone. He also made solid contact with pitches on the fringe of the strike zone, taking away an important weapon for enemy hurlers. In 22 games with the Yankees and 111 with the Clippers he recorded 55 extra-base hits.
Some scout criticized him for lapses in focus, but his manager at Columbus, Trey Hillman, gave him a pass. Hillman chalked up it up to the yo-yo treatment his star player had had received from the Yankees. He had little doubt that Alfonso would soon be an impact player.
The Yankees called
Alfonso up for one more cup of coffee in September. Though not on the
post-season roster, he watched as the team won the pennant and defeated
the Mets in the Subway Series. He also rooted for his old teammate, Timo
Perez, who batted .300 in the playoffs for the Mets.
Torre left himself open to criticism by going with Sojo and Vizcaino at second in the playoffs. But the decision to use his veterans paid off. Vizcaino got the game-winning hit against the Mets in Game 1 of the World Series, and Sojo delivered a two-run single in Game 5 that nailed down the teams third straight title.
MAKING HIS MARK
Defensive concerns aside, Alfonso Soriano was recognized as one of the best prospects in baseball. GM Brian Cashman had turned down a straight-up offer of Jim Edmonds the previous season. Alfonso was the main man in a deal for Moises Alou, but Alou nixed the trade, saving the Yankees years of embarrassment. He was even mentioned in a blockbuster deal for Sammy Sosa. And each team that talked trade with the Yankees over the winter had Alfonso at the top of its wish list.
Alfonsos status entering the 2001 campaign was up in the air. He was a man without a position, waiting in the wings to see where an opening might occur. Early in spring training, Chuck Knoblauchs throwing woes persisted, while Shane Spencer seemed ill-prepared to assume the leftfield job he had split with Dave Justice the previous season. This situation worked in Alfonsos favor. Not only did it get the Yankees thinking that Knoblauch should switch to the outfieldwhich would open up the job for Alfonsobut it also made Cashman reluctant to trade him for the middle reliever the team so desperately needed.
The solution to this Rubicks Cube was made simpler by Alfonso, who looked sensational. Wherever he played, he fielded and hit like an All-Star. Alfonso filled in for Jeter at shortstop, moved to left when Jeter returned, and then finally took over at second base when the club decided that Knoblauch would be the new leftfielder.
Early in the season,
Alfonso showed his propensity for both breathtaking and boneheaded play.
In an 8-5 victory in Kansas City, the 23-year-old, hitting ninth in the
order, collected four hits (including his first homer of the year) and
three RBIs. But he also blundered three times on the bases, costing the
Yankees chances to score more.
In a game against Boston, Alfonso stole the spotlight in a showdown between Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez. In the fourth inning he looked like the goat when he was late covering second on a force play, and Boston turned the miscue into a pair of runs. After New York evened the score in the seventh, however, Alfonso un-tied it with a solo homer in the ninth for a gritty 3-2 victory.
After Alfonsos first 100 at bats in the 2001 campaign, the New York fans and media seemed to be solidly behind the new Yankee second sacker. They did wonder when he would draw his first walk. At the rate he was going, Alfonso actually had a chance to finish with an on-base percentage lower than his batting averagea statistical anomaly no one had ever achieved before. When Barry Zito of the As finally issued a base on balls to Alfonso on April 30, the Yankee Stadium crowd rose to its feet and cheered.
Torre was tempted to demand more from Alfonso, but the kids aggressiveness had energized the team. He was New Yorks most electric baserunner since Ricky Henderson. Batting ninth in the order, Alfonso was in a low-pressure slot, yet when he reached base, he functioned as a second table-setter for big guns Derek Jeter, Tino Martinez, Bernie Williams and Paul ONeill.
Still, there were times when Torre had to draw the line. In May, Alfonso ran himself into a double play when he mistakenly thought there were two outs instead of one. Torre confronted his second baseman in the dugout. He admitted his error and apologized, impressing his teammates and the media.
By mid-June Alfonso was batting .286 with 21 steals. Were it not for Ichiro Suzukis transcendent season, he would have been the leading candidate for AL Rookie of the Year. Teams came calling almost weekly asking about his availability. One hot rumor had New York and Cincinnati pulling the trigger on a trade of Soriano for Pokey Reese, a more polished veteran with speed and Gold Glove defensive skills. The Yankees decided to hang on to their diamond in the rough.
As happens with most first-year players, Alfonso tired as the campaign headed into August. The good news for the Yankees was that they didnt need him at full strength. When Pedro Martinez went down with a shoulder injury in July, Boston faded from contention in the AL East and New York coasted to its fourth straight division title.
Alfonso finished the year with a respectable .268 average and 43 stolen bases. He led AL rookies in home runs (18), doubles (34), and RBIs (73) and finished third in Rookie of the Year balloting behind Ichiro and C.C. Sabathia of the Indians. He led the Yankees in triples, steals and games played. His 11 homers from the ninth spot in the order were tops in the big leagues.
The Yankees opened the postseason at home against the Oakland As and were promptly thrown back on their heels by Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson, who dominated the pinstripers in taking the first two games. With their backs against the wall, the Yankees went to California evened the series behind Mike Mussina and Orlando Hernandez.
Back home in the Bronx, the As put two early runs on the board in the fifth and deciding game of the series. In the second inning, Alfonso plated the tying runs with a clutch single. After that the As came unglued, and New York capitalized on their miscues to win 5-3.
Against Seattle in the ALCS, Alfonso got an earful from Torre for not running hard on a liner he mistakenly assumed would clear Safeco Fields leftfield fence, then compounded his problems by failing to cover second base on a grounder to Jeter. Still, the Yankees were up in the series two games to one, and seemed in control. That changed in Game 4, when Seattle starter Paul Abbott handcuffed the Yankees and Bret Boone smashed a homer to give the Mariners a 1-0 lead late in the game. Bernie Williams tied the score in the eighth inning with a bomb to right. Alfonso made up for his earlier miscues in the ninth, when he launched a rocket to centerfield off of closer Kaz Sasaki to win the game.
Despite their record-shattering 116 wins, the Mariners were a beaten team. They went quietly the next evening and New York was in the World Series for the fifth time in six years. Alfonso finished the series 6-for-15 with five runs and two steals.
The World Series,
which pitted the Yankees against the Arizona Diamondbacks, came down to
clutch pitching and clutch hitting. Arizona had a superior offense and
two great pitchers in Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson. The Yankees had
a deeper staff, and experience on their side. Alfonso managed just one
hit the first two games, as the New Yorkers fell to Arizonas big
The Diamondbacks seemed rattled when the series moved to the Bronx, and let Game 3 slip through their fingers, 2-1. Things got worse in Game 4, when two-out homers by Jeter and Martinez turned a 3-1 Arizona lead into a dramatic 4-3 victory for New York in a 10-inning classic. There was even more drama in Game 5, when once again the Diamondbacks could not hold a ninth-inning lead. This time it was Brosius who did the damage, tying the game with a two-run homer off Byung-Hyun Kim in the bottom of the ninth. In the 12th, Alfonso stroked a single with Knoblauch on second and the Yankees sent the series back to Arizona up three games to two.
The Diamondbacks torched Yankee pitching in Game 6 to set up a Game 7 showdown. With the game knotted 1-1 in the top of the eighth inning, Alfonso golfed a split-fingered fastball from Schilling into the leftfield seats to put the Yankees in command. But Mariano Rivera failed to hold the Diamondbacks in the bottom of the ninth and they scored a dramatic comeback to win one of the most exciting games in World Series history.
A few days later, Alfonso returned to San Pedro de Macoris and received a heros welcome. He could not have performed better in a bigger situation. The other guys were simply a run better when it counted.
When Alfonso returned to Florida for spring training in 2002, there were a lot of new faces. Brosius retired and was replaced by Robin Ventura. Paul ONeill also called it quits, leaving rightfield to a platoon of Shane Spencer and newcomer John Vander Wal. Knoblauch and Martinez were gone, too, replaced by Rondell White and Jason Giambi, the biggest free-agent signing of the winter. Owner George Steinbrenner, concerned by his teams lack of offense in the post-season, had put an incredibly potent team on the field.
With Knoblauch gone, however, one important question remained unanswered: Who would lead off? Torre thought about moving Jeter into the top spot, but Alfonso had another great spring, stinging the ball in practice and games, and exhibiting a little more discipline and maturity at the plate. When the season opened, Alfonso had nailed down the job.
Although he started
slowly in the opening series against Baltimore, Alfonso took to his new
role in a major way. In the next two series, against Tampa Bay and Toronto,
he was fantastic. He recorded his first five-hit game against the Blue
Jays, with a pair of doubles, a homer, and five runs scored.
Alfonso also had his lowlights that first month. Against Boston, Torre rested him after he complained of a sore hamstring. Alfonso was upset by the decision and let his teammates know it. When Torre inserted him in the game as a pinch-runner, he destroyed a Yankee rally by being thrown out on an attempted steal of second to end the game. He also made some clumsy errors, but to his credit sought out coach Willie Randolph, who worked with him on the nuances of playing second.
By mid-season, there were no complaints about Alfonso. He made the All-Star team and homered in the game. He was at or near the top of almost every meaningful offensive category. He was on pace to have a 40-40 season. More impressive, Alfonso was within striking range of 100 extra-base hits for the seasonsomething only one other middle infielder, Rogers Hornsby, had ever accomplished.
He was not only playing All-Star caliber baseball, he was putting up MVP numbersbetter, in fact, than those produced by Giambi, whose second award was a foregone conclusion according to the pre-season touts. Beyond the numbers, though, was the very special season Alfonso was enjoying. If the Yankees needed to start a rally or rattle an opposing pitcher, he rose to the challenge. With runners on and the game on the line, he was the leagues most dangerous hitter. When pushed to decide between Giambi and Soriano a few weeks after the All-Star Game, Torre himself chose Alfonso.
As the season progressed, the spotlight shone hotter and brighter on Alfonso. First there was his drive to become the first second baseman to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in the same season. The hype started in late June when he swiped his 30th base of the year against the Orioles. At the time he had 18 homers. By the beginning of August it was clear that only an injury would deny him membership in the 30-30 club. Three weeks later he slammed his 30th round-tripper off James Baldwin in Seattle.
With the pressure off, Alfonso relaxed and began crashing homers at an even faster pace. Ironically, this focused even more media attention on him. With a couple of weeks to go, he had a very real shot at 40-40, which would have placed him in the rare company of Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds and Jose Canseco. As the season wound to a close, Alfonso got stuck on 39 homers. Opposing pitchers, sensing the free swinger would be trying to poke every pitch out of the park, began throwing him garbage. To his credit, Alfonso let most of these balls go. He began taking walks, and perhaps growing up a little in the process. He discovered that there are ways of helping the team win that dont always show up in the box score. Alfonso finished the year with a .300 average, 51 doubles, 102 RBIs, 41 steals...and 39 home runs. It was one of the greatest years ever by a leadoff hitter.
Heading into the playoffs,
a great deal was expected of Alfonso as the Yankees prepared for the Anaheim
Angels. But his patience at the plate over the seasons last week
made it hard to jump-start his aggressiveness. Alfonso hit a dramatic
home run in a losing cause against young Francisco Rodriguez in Game Two,
but collected just one hit the rest of the series. He also looked a little
uncomfortable in the field. The Yankees fell in four games, missing the
World Series for the first time since 1997.
Alfonso knew what was coming, and adjusted accordingly. He moved up in the batter’s box, so that breaking stuff was now at knee level, and actually gained speed and rhythm on his already quick wrists and hands. Alfonso began the year on pace to obliterate his ’02 stats, driving off-speed pitches to right while still owning the inside part of the plate.
What should have been a happy spring turned tragic in May, when Alfonso’s father died suddenly and unexpectedly from a brain hemmorhage. His grandfather had passed away during spring training.
Still, things on the field continued to go well until July, when Pedro Martinez nailed Alfonso with a tailing fastball. For several days he could not grip a bat, and the rest of the month was an exercise in excruciating pain.
Alfonso’s number started to tail off during the summer, but the Yankees kept on winning. Just when the hand began feeling better in early August, he got plunked again, this time on the thumb. Again, he played through the discomfort, and actually finished the year with good numbers, including 36 doubles, 38 homers, 35 steals, 114 runs and a .290 average.
What those numbers did not reveal was how tired Alfonso was. He may be young and strong, but his wiry frame just could not hold up to the nagging injuries. In September, Alfonso began feeling his swing slow down. Instead of shortening up on his stroke, he chose to start the bat sooner. In theory this should have worked, but as any hitting instructor will tell you, in practice it doesn’t.
Alfonso was forced to commit himself a split-second sooner, and it didn’t take long for word to spread that anything with a late break would make him look foolish. In the playoffs against the Minnesota Twins and Boston Red Sox, Alfonso was horrible, swinging at darting sliders off the plate again and again in key situations. When pitchers saw him leaning over the plate, they threw him high hard stuff and he simply could catch up. His post-season strikeout total was approaching 30 when Torre finally moved him down in the order, and even sat him down for Game Five of the World Series against the Florida Marlins.
Alfonso returned to get two of the Yankee hits off Josh Beckett in Game Six, but popped out on a juicy fastball with a chance to tie the game in the eighth inning. That was the last gasp for the Yankees, who were upset by the Marlins.
Partly because of Alfonso’s poor play in the playoffs, the Yankees considered dealing him in the off-season. The club eventually received an offer it couldn't refuse, sending Alfonso and a few minor leaguers to Texas for Alex Rodriguez. He went from the AL champs to a team that had finished last in the West four years in a row.
But Alfonso also joined a group of powerful young hitters with the Rangers, including Hank Blalock, Michael Young and Mark Teixiera. Over the winter, the team picked up veterans Brian Jordan and Brad Fullmer, too. If skipper Buck Showalter got some quality innings from his starting rotation, Texas had a chance to stay close in the division. With fireballer Francisco Cordero in the pen, the team certainly had an excellent arm to close out games.
The Rangers started the season much better than anticipated. Alfonso played a big role. In May, he led Texas back from a 10-run deficit against the Detroit Tigers with a 6-for-6 day. Part of the reason for Alfonso's resurgence was hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, who years earlier had shepherded the careers of the likes of A-Rod, Sammy Sosa and Ken Caminiti.
Texas spent its fair share of time in first place during the first half, and Alfonso earned a trip to the All Star Game. When Torre batted him and former keystone teammate Jeter at the bottom of lineup, he joked with his former manager that his stock had really dropped since his departure from New York. But Alfonso got the last laugh, blasting two homers and walking away with MVP honors in the AL victory.
The race in the West remained extremely competitive between the Rangers, Angels and A’s into the second half. But Texas was the first to drop out when injuries hit the team. A 2-9 skid in September sealed the club's fate.
Alfonso was among those unavailable in the campaign's final weeks. A pulled hamstring forced him to the bench, and he watched as the Rangers slipped into thrid place. Still, at 89-73 and just three games behind Anaheim, Texas reflected on a good season.
Alfonso finished the year with a .280 average, 28 home runs and 91 RBIs. He also committed 23 errors at second, a number that isn't necessarily acceptable to the Rangers. The team shopped Alfonso over the winter, but didn't find the right deal.
Alfonso entered the 2005 campaign with a balky hamstring, forcing Showalter to move him from the leadoff spot to the five-hole. Uncomfortable in this slot, he complained that he was not a power hitter. Then he did a pretty good imitation of one, smashing 36 homers and knocking in 104 runs. Alfonso also swiped 30 bags, giving him his third career 30-30 season.
The Rangers contended early but faded by mid-season. With Alfonso eligible for arbitration, Texas began shopping him again, in July. A deal that would have sent him to the Mets fell through, and the trade deadline came and went without him leaving town. In August, the Rangers placed him on waivers. When he was claimed by the Twins, Texas pulled him back.
With prospect Ian
Kisler ready to assume second-base duties, the Rangers put Alfonso on
the winter trade market. The reigning wisdom was that he would balk at
playing the outfield. This, in turn, diminished the number and intensity
of potential trade partners.
When the Rangers announced a December deal with Washington Nationals, the baseball world was agape. The Nats already had Jose Vidro at second, which meant Alfonso was ticketed for left field by no-nonsense manager Frank Robinson. When he refused to play the position in his first spring training game, GM Bob Bowden intimated that Alfonso might be in violation of his contract. Translation: An unpaid leave on the suspended list. With little over a week left before Opening Day, he finally relented.
Alfonso was a big
bat in huge park with the Nationals, which had many predicting his home
run totals would plummet. That theory was blown apart in an April game,
when he launched three homers against the Braves.
As the team drifted out of contention, the vultures started circling. The Yankees, Tigers, White Sox and Mariners all made low-ball offers for Alfonso, but the Nationals held on to him. The trade deadline passed, and he kept on stinging the ball, hitting his career-best 40th homer on August 19th. He stole his 40th base a month later. The Nationals offered Alfonso a five-year $70 million contract before the season ended, but he turned them down, deciding instead to test the free agent waters. He announced that he was after a contract similar to the $119 million seven-year deal Carlos Beltran inked with the Mets.
Alfonso finished the 2006 campaign with 46 homers, 95 RBIs, a .271 average, 41 doubles and 41 stolen bases. He led the Nationals with 119 runs, playing all of his 158 games in the outfield.
The Angels, Phillies and Astros were among the teams flashing cash that winter, but it was the Cubs who came across with a monster deal. They signed Alfonso for eight years and $136 million.
Alfonso is one of the keys to Chicago’s 2007 season. Another is Lou Piniella, the club’s new manager. Sweet Lou plans to use his new star in center field and bat him at the top of a power-infused lineup co-starring Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez.
The thought of what Alfonso might accomplish hitting for eight years in Wrigley Field has Cubs fans electrified. The thought of facing him in the Friendly Confines strikes bona fide fear into the hearts of NL Central hurlers..
During his years as an infielder, Alfonso seemed ever-ticketed for the outfield. He resisted as a matter of pride, but has now acclimated himself to the position. With the Nationals in 2006 he was tested constantly and responded with several excellent catches and a staggering 22 outfield assists.
Regardless of where he plays, Alfonso possesses the rare qualities that baseball people call the “intangibles.” He has a sense of how to raise his performance when the pressure is on, and can sniff the sweat on an opposing pitcher in a tense situation.
Although he is an instinctive player, he is a thinking player, too. Alfonso is not afraid to adjust to a situation and give himself the best possible chance to succeed. Plus he honestly seems to be having fun every moment he’s on the field.
The fun for everyone else will be to see just how high Alfonso’s ceiling is. His once-raw skills have come together and transformed him into a dominant, top-tier superstar.
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