Its over. Eight painstaking years of one of the most confusing relationships in Chicago sports history have finally come to pass. Alfonso Soriano has decided to hang up the cleats for the last time at the age of 38.
Cubs’ fans may simply shrug at this headline when they see it. After all, he’s been out of sight and out of mind (but not off the payroll, mind you) since he was shipped back to the New York Yankees last July.
Others may even give a hardy “good riddance,” airing their final frustrations with a player who was largely seen as a failure.
And when taken at face value, I suppose you could say Soriano “failed” in regards to delivering a championship to Chicago. Let’s face it, that’s what he was paid $136 million to do.
But was it ever appropriate to assume that type of impact from him?
Let’s hop in my Delorian and take a quick trip back to the end of the 2006 season. In case you forgot just how bad the state of affairs was back then, you might want to brace yourself…
The Cubs limped to the finish line with a 66-96 record, their worst mark in six years. The magic pixie dust that Dusty Baker had sprinkled on the team when he arrived in 2003 had apparently worn off, and he parted ways with the club in the offseason.
Derrek Lee followed up his near-triple crown 2005 season by spending two thirds of 2006 on the bench due to injury. That production could never be replaced thanks to a fruitless farm system and even fruitless-ier free agent signings.
Greg Maddux ended his second stint with the club, and the dynamic arms of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood were disintegrating before our eyes.
There were gapping holes to be filled, both in management and on the roster. General Manager Jim Hendry, however, was apparently operating under the assumption that his team was only one player away from returning to the Promised Land.
After all, the Cubs are in the third largest media market in the country with plenty of money to blow. So Hendry went about fixing the situation in the only way he knew how: throwing a large sum of money at a big-name free agent in hopes of appeasing the fan base.
I can’t help but imagine his thought process went something like this:
“Farm system be damned! Other big market teams like the Red Sox and Yankees do this kind of thing and it works, right? Why not us?!”
Well, not only is that assumption largely incorrect (both Boston and New York built their cores internally, from the ground up), and not only did that approach fail in the past, the stark reality was that the Cubs were never one player away from contending to begin with.
Even with Derrek Lee returning, they were more like two players away from being one player away from contending.
At any rate, any big name on the market was immediately linked to the Cubs. Soriano, Barry Zito, Carlos Lee, Jason Schmidt, the list goes on.
After pursuing them all, the Cubs ended up pegging Soriano with the responsibility of galloping in on his white horse and saving the franchise from the grasp of despair.
And who better of a candidate? After all, this was a player riding a string of four straight all star appearances, three Silver Slugger Awards and multiple years of MVP consideration. He was even coming off of the fourth 40+ HR/40+ steal season in major league history.
Never mind that he was a liability defensively, especially after the Washington Nationals moved him to the outfield against his wishes. This was the big-bat band-aid that the Cubs needed to have.
So the Cubs paid the 30-year-old as if they expected 40/40 out of him every season. Maybe they were unaware of the fact that that feat has never been duplicated? Or that speed is the first attribute to decline with age? Or that his 40/40 season likely represented his absolute peak and not his baseline for production?
At any rate, their 136 million dollar pact exceeded competing bids by $21 millions dollars; the same type of thing would happen with Kosuke Fukudome just a year later. I’m noticing a trend here.
But I digress.
When you add in the signings of manager Lou Pinella, starter Ted Lilly and second baseman Mark DeRosa later in the same offseason, it seemed like good times were back again at the Friendly Confines.
And they were. At least for the next two regular seasons. The Cubs snagged back to back division titles, something that had eluded them for nearly a century at the time. The only problem was their failure to produce in the postseason, highlighted by the Soriano’s lack of success.
Fans were already beginning to express their displeasure with Soriano during his first season due to his streaky nature at the plate. Sure, he’d single-handedly carry the team when he was hot, but some of his at bats where laughable when he was in one of his funks. 70 RBI were not enough to meet the sky high expectations that came with the astronomical price tag; an injury and further growing pains in left field didn’t aid his cause, either.
Surprise, surprise: when the lights got the brightest and scrutiny was amplified to max in the ’07 playoffs, Soriano crumbled with the rest of the team. He went 2-14 with a walk and four strikeouts as the Cubs were swept away by the Diamondbacks.
Things could only get better in ’08, right? Wrong. He went 1-14 without a walk and still managed to strike out four times. The Cubs were once again swept in the first round, this time by the Dodgers.
The disappearing act he pulled by batting .107 and providing nearly zero impact in his first two postseasons with the team essentially sealed his fate.
The downward spiral that followed was well documented. The injuries continued to mount, his vaunted power and speed numbers continued to decline, and frustration from Soriano and fans alike continued to mount on a daily basis. The few big names the Cubs did have ended up walking away, leaving Soriano to be the only big fish in a pond full of major league retreads and minor league washouts.
He was routinely booed off the field following strikeouts and botched plays in the outfield. It was strange observation to make when I saw people wearing a #12 jersey boo him mercilessly. It was equally strange to find out that most of these people regarded Soriano as “their favorite Cub.”
Even though he was the clear vocal leader in the clubhouse and saw turnaround in production near the end of his Cubs career, he was never able to pull himself out from underneath the shadow of his gargantuan contract. He admitted more times than once that the vitriol from the fans damaged him mentally and emotionally.
And now, 16 months removed from his last game in a Cubs uniform and about two months since the Cubs last paid him, I can’t help but wonder how differently he would’ve been received here in Chicago if he was never pegged as the lone savior.
What if instead of $136 million, he was given a more reasonable contract? Would the expectations have been as high? Would the Cubs have been able to afford another supporting player or two in the years to follow with the money they would have saved? Would it have led to bigger and better things for the team? Would he have been able to produce at a higher rate if he didn’t have such an enormous amount of pressure on him at all times? In his retirement announcement, he said he had lost the passion to play; would his baseball life have been more enjoyable if he wasn’t being booed at every turn?
It brings me great pain to know that all of these questions will go unanswered. If you take his 162-game averages, Soriano produced a .264/33/96 line with a .495 slugging percentage. At a cost of anything less than $136 million, these numbers would clearly be a cause for celebrations and contract extensions. Instead, it was seen as a shortcoming, and fueled the campaign to run Soriano out of town as fast as possible.
Fans got their wish last year when he was finally dealt. By then, the relationship between he and the team was irreparable. It was apparent that he’d serve no legitimate role on the team with the rebuilding effort in full swing. And now, he doesn’t feel he can serve a legitimate role on any team anymore.
I encourage you to not lose site of the symbolism that comes with this move. Soriano’s departure from the game signals the final reminder of a philosophy that is rightfully dead and gone from the North Side. No amount of new concrete inside the stadium or flashy new names on the roster can disconnect the promising future from the past quite like this.
I also encourage you to look past the price tag and realize Alfonso Soriano for what he was as a Chicago Cub. He was never the piece that was going to put the team over the top. He was never going to match his mythical 40/40 season. But he was a player who, when healthy, was going to give everything he had to the team that had put so much trust in him all those years back.
Personally, Soriano will go down as one of my all time favorite Cubs. His ceiling was much higher had he not been a victim of circumstance, but what he was able to do should’ve made him a legend in this city.
And it would’ve… if the price was right.