CHICAGO – The hours Cubs first base coach Dave McKay spent watching and rewatching tapes are countless.
At the beginning of spring training, McKay faced what appeared to be an impossible task: Turn Alfonso Soriano into an above-average outfielder. McKay broke down film of Soriano’s defense in left field, searching for flaws to correct, a search that didn’t last long. Soriano has been scrutinized for his defensive issues, often a comedy of errors.
McKay eliminated Soriano’s patented hop when catching fly balls – “We’re not going to do that anymore because you’re the only one that does it,” McKay told Soriano – and together they worked on his positioning and the correct way to field balls.
“We simplified things, and then it was a matter of him working at it and be willing to work at it,” McKay said. “Every single day we have worked at it. He has not had too many days off that he doesn’t come out and throw and work on his ground balls and his fly balls.”
Since moving to the outfield in 2006, his first with the Washington Nationals, Soriano committed at least five errors per year entering this season. The left fielder never posted a fielding percentage better than .978 (in 2007 with the Cubs), and his .965 fielding percentage last year was the worst of his career at any position.
The turnaround this season has been remarkable and, at times, unbelievable. Hampered by injuries for most of his six seasons in Cubbie blue, Soriano’s knees have deteriorated, worn down by the 1,747 career games that have taken their toll on his 36-year-old body.
“It’s tough to be a good defensive player when you have a knee issue,” McKay said. “But the trainers have done wonderful things with him. He’s in there every day working with those trainers keeping that knee solid.
“I knew he had trouble going hard and stopping, so in spring training we talked about, ‘OK, lay out, don’t stop.’ Outfielder back him up and go hard and go after it and catch it.”
Despite the knee issues, Soriano, who said he is about 80 percent healthy, never has looked better. He leads all NL outfielders with a .996 fielding percentage, committing just one error in 247 chances. A new staff and front office revitalized Soriano, who maintains he’s the same player he was last year with one big difference.
“Now I do it with more pride because the manager and the president and the GM, they take care of me,” Soriano said. “They’re honest with me. … Before, it doesn’t matter how hard I work, I don’t have anybody to cover my back, so I think that’s more important this year.”
Soriano’s impact on the Cubs transcends his gaudy numbers. While he has hit 30 homers for a sixth straight season and tied his single-season career high in RBIs (104 set in 2005 with Texas) during Friday’s 5-4 extra-inning win against the St. Louis Cardinals, his greatest contribution doesn’t show up in the box score.
“I tell people often that I’m glad I’ve seen Soriano from this side of the fence,” McKay said. “I didn’t realize what a hard worker he was and what a super teammate he was.”
Soriano takes plenty of flak for the $36 million still owed him in the final two years of an eight-year deal. Soriano, on a team maybe headed for 100 losses, could have mailed in the season knowing how much money he’s guaranteed to make regardless of his performance. He could have ignored McKay’s instruction and advice.
Instead, he has put together his best all-around season as a Cub while providing invaluable veteran leadership for a youth-laden roster. And none have been more influenced than All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro.
“He’s one of the best guys in here; I’ve never talked to a guy like that,” Castro said. “He’s one of the guys who teaches you how to play the game at this level. He’s one of the guys you want to be like. He has fun every time and he’s working hard. And you see. You see the changes, how he plays differently.”
Their similar backgrounds – both hail from the Dominican Republic and reached the majors by their early 20s – helped form a kinship that will impact the Cubs’ organization long after Soriano’s career ends. He understands the importance of setting a good example, whether through his defense or in the clubhouse, a lesson he learned when he first reached the majors in 1999 with the New York Yankees.
His role models? The three players who have most embodied the Yankee Way in the last two decades – Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter.
“All those guys would go to dinner together and play together,” Soriano said. “Those guys were professional, how much they worked, how much they cared. I see that in those guys and that’s contagious. I want to do that for Castro, not only him but to everybody in this clubhouse.”
Money is always hard to overlook in a sport where large sums are handed out like candy. Fans will never completely forget how much Soriano is making on a bad Cubs team regardless of his on-field production. However, it’s a very real possibility Soriano could be dealt in the offseason because he clearly can still play at an elite level, and teams are always looking for a power hitter.
With his Cubs’ future uncertain, it’s time to appreciate Soriano’s season-long effort.
“I want people to see that, not the negative things,” Soriano said. “They see that you’re hard working, you’re a nice guy and that’s what I try to do. Thank God that I have those people and can put up my numbers and people recognize who I am.”