I was sitting in a hotel room in New Jersey for a junior hockey tournament when one of my teammates came barging into the room yelling, “WE GOT A-ROD!” in a tone comparable to Axl Rose asking “DO YOU KNOW WHERE THE EFF YOU ARE?!”
Alex Rodriguez: a Yankee. The idea seemed surreal and knowing that he had recently been traded and then untraded to the Red Sox, I didn’t really believe it. But once it was confirmed I started thinking about where he would play and where he would hit and if the Yankees would ever lose another game, but I wasn’t thinking of the most important question: who did the Yankees give up?
Don Mattingly was my favorite player when I first started attending Yankees games at the age of four in 1991 and it was his player T-shirt I wore over and over and over until the NY on the front started to break apart and fade and the dark blue of the shirt started to look more like New York Rangers blue than New York Yankees blue from the washing machine. I was only nine when Mattingly played his last game in 1995, but I wasn’t without a favorite player for long because the following April on Opening Day 1996, Derek Jeter started at shortstop … and has ever since.
Jeter has been a staple of my baseball life for nearly my entire life as well as for many other 20-something-year-olds in the tri-state area. It’s Jeter’s number 2 I wanted to wear and his swing I tried to emulate and his at-bats I had to watch and his line in the box score I checked when I missed those at-bats. No one has ever come close to Mattingly and Jeter for me, but in 2001, someone became a close second to those two.
Last Wednesday, I sat in Section 203 at Yankee Stadium and watched the Yankees slowly and miserably lose to David Price and the Rays and for some reason I paid extra close attention to Alfonso Soriano in right field. At the time I didn’t know it would be the last time I would ever see him play for the Yankees. It’s been nearly 11 years since I first thought I would never see him play for the Yankees again sitting in that hotel room in New Jersey.
Even getting the best player in baseball and destroying everything the Red Sox had spent their entire offseason working for, I was devastated to see Soriano get traded to the Rangers. After Jeter, he had become” the guy” even if he was coming off of a 20-strikeout performance between the ALCS and World Series. But when you’re acquiring the reigning AL MVP at 28 years old and locked up for at least four more years, you’re more apt to get over a trade of that magnitude and more willing to forget how much fun it was watching Soriano play.
I have wondered too much over the last 10-plus years what things would have been like if the Red Sox had successfully traded for Alex Rodriguez and if Alfonso Soriano had stayed with the Yankees all of this time instead of going to Texas, Washington and Chicago. Would 2004 have ended differently? Would Soriano have stayed at second base? Would Robinson Cano ever have been a Yankee? Would A-Rod still be getting paid by a Major League Baseball team? Would A-Rod have become a professional wrestler or a contestant on The Apprentice or a star of Celebrity Rehab? Would we ever have found out about A-Rod’s love for high stakes poker and for strippers and prostitutes? (I think if the Yankees had a crystal ball in February 2004, they probably wouldn’t have made the trade.)
I started to think about all of this on Sunday when I found out that Soriano had been designated for assignment. At .221/.244/.367 he was nowhere near the .256/.325/.525 player he was during the second half of last season, but in a limited and platoon role, his numbers were understandable for a guy who averaged 144 games per season over his 13-year career as an everyday player. With the Yankees struggling to score runs and coming off another embarrassing one-run effort on Saturday, a game in which Soriano went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts and had his third straight two-strikeout game, he became the first scapegoat for the 2014 Yankees. Someone had to pay the price for the Yankees scoring two runs or less seemingly every day and since Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran contractually couldn’t pay the price and because the .212/.289/.376-hitting Kelly Johnson, who has one home run since May 3, is apparently a distant relative of Brian Cashman, Soriano was the one who had to go.
Soriano was supposed to be the Yankees’ designated hitter this season. He was supposed to play in the outfield only to give others a day off. But because of the old, brittle signing of Carlos Beltran and having the softest player in all of baseball in Mark Teixeira, Soriano lost out on being the full-time DH and was relegated to infrequent at-bats as part of an outfield rotation with Ichiro. The Yankees put Soriano, a career everyday player, in a position to fail and when he did, they let him go.
He became the first Yankee to fall on a team whose $180 million first baseman has missed games for being tired from standing on the bases, whose $85 million catcher isn’t hitting and just keeps telling the media how horrible he is, whose $45 million right fielder can’t play right field, whose $153 million center fielder is proving his 2012 power was an anomaly and who is playing at a level less than the left fielder who only got and whose $700,000-per-start “ace” hasn’t pitched since May 10 and might never pitch again. Soriano wasn’t the problem with the 2014 Yankees, but with the Yankees only owing him about $2.5 million for the rest of the season, he was the easiest choice for Brian Cashman to show he finally means business after watching the nearly half-billion dollars he spent this offseason play .500 baseball for 86 games.
Even Jeter, who never seems fazed by any roster move, was surprised by Soriano being designated for assignment. And Jeter was right to be with the time and chances given to others who offer much less in an everyday role.
“Soriano is like family to me,” Jeter said. “I have played with him a long time, when he first came up and when he came back. Sori has had a tremendous career here in New York and it was difficult for him this year. Not playing every day, it’s hard to be productive. I feel for him and I am going to miss him but I will be in touch with him. He is like a brother to me. He should be proud of what he was able to do.”
I’ll remember Alfonso Soriano for his magical 2002 season when he led the league in hits, runs and stolen bases, when it felt like he would lead off every game with a home run. I’ll remember him for hitting .400 against the 116-win Mariners in the 2001 ALCS and the way he tried to single-handedly carry a mediocre Yankees team to the playoffs in 2013, hitting 17 home runs and 50 RBIs in 58 games. I’ll remember his high socks, his long swing and the way he stared at most likely all of his 412 home runs until they reached their destination. And I’ll always remember feeling like Mikey McDermott sitting on a full house with three stacks of high society on the line following Soriano’s solo home run against Curt Schilling in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series to give the Yankees a 1-0 lead before it all came crashing down a few minutes later when the Diamondbacks showed aces full like Teddy KGB.
Soriano won’t have a plaque in Monument Park and there won’t be a day for him at Yankee Stadium. Eventually his legacy will likely become the answer to the question “Who was Alex Rodriguez traded to the Yankees for?” that the YES broadcasters ask during a Yankees-Rangers game in 2029. But for me and for the generation of Yankees fans my age, he’ll always be the scrawny kid that came up wearing number 58, switched to 53 then to 33 and settled on 12, swung the biggest bat in the league, started all the handshakes and long tossed with Jeter down the first-base line before every game.