The academy could be torturous: Dominican boys herded in and out like sheep, up at the crack of dawn for batting practice and defensive drills that would last for 10 hours. Worst of all was the food. There were no King Cones at the Carp academy. It was Japanese chefs cooking Latino grub, and the finished product tasted like soggy underwear. Still, Soriano never complained, and two years later the Carp issued him his first plane ticket. He would take a 20-hour flight to the Show.
But this Show wasn't the Show. Hiroshima assigned Soriano to its minor league team in Ono, where the organization's bigwigs wanted their skinny, 5'8" bundle of athleticism molded into a sure-handed shortstop. How? By turning Soriano's life into hell. For nearly all of 1996 and '97 Soriano spent his days and nights thinking, eating and breathing baseball. There were four sessions of BP daily, often accompanied by the unintelligible screams of drill-sergeant coaches. On the bright side Soriano gained an appreciation for sushi and—from watching TV and listening to teammates—learned to speak semifluent Japanese. He was also lonely and miserable.
"It was not a game, it was a job," he says. "There was nothing fun about Japanese baseball." After his first season, in which he hit .214 in 57 games, Soriano returned to the Dominican Republic for a few weeks. When his mother looked at his scabby, calloused hands, she insisted that he stay. He refused. A job was a job.
The following year Soriano got his first big break when Hiroshima's second baseman, Kozo Shoda, was injured. The Carp moved Soriano from short to second, let him play the position for three minor league games, then called him up to start for the big club. It was the most nerve-racking moment of his life. "I couldn't stop my heart from beating hard," he says. "I was 19, and my hands kept shaking. I didn't want anyone to hit me a ground ball. I knew I would drop it." Taken aback by the new position and the 30,000 chanting lunatics around him, Soriano bombed. He went 0 for 4 and booted a grounder. After nine games and a .118 average, Hiroshima mercifully returned Soriano to Ono.
Despite the flop, the Carp knew what it had. Soriano is a wonderful athlete. He doesn't run, he glides. He doesn't throw, he launches. Even as he struggled again in the minors—finishing the season with a .252 average and eight homers—his potential was obvious. "It was the way he moved, the way he swung the bat," says Leon Lee, the Chicago Cubs' Pacific Rim scouting coordinator. "There was something special about him. He looked like a baseball player."
Only he wasn't being paid like one. The average salary of a foreign-born minor leaguer was $220,000. After Soriano's second season, Nomura asked for a raise from $45,000 to $180,000; the Carp offered $45,000. That meant Soriano would have to go to arbitration before a board composed of commissioner Hiromori Kawashima and the two Japanese League presidents. About two weeks before the hearing, however, Nomura was told he could not accompany Soriano into commissioner Kawashima's office. "So I sat outside and waited," says Nomura. "I knew we wouldn't win. There was never a chance."
Soriano lost, and Nomura was livid. Ever since 1995, when he discovered a loophole that allowed Hideo Nomo to leave the Far East and pursue a career in the U.S., Japanese League officials had treated Nomura as if he were a traitor. The arbitration board would not grant Nomura another victory. "In Japan, they'll do everything to win," says Lee. "It can be ruthless."
So Nomura struck back. It had always been Soriano's dream to play in the U.S., and here was his chance. Just as he did with Nomo, Nomura took advantage of a since-eradicated clause in Japanese League contracts that granted free agency to players who retire. Instead of accepting the arbitration ruling and returning to the Carp, Soriano, at 20, "retired."
Hiroshima did not take this well. Far from presenting Soriano with a gold watch and a hearty Go get 'em, Sori-san!, the Carp sent letters to all 30 major league organizations, threatening to sue anyone who touched its property. But with Nomura's help, Soriano obtained a visa and flew to Los Angeles in May 1998. It was a thrilling 10-hour flight—his head buzzing with the glamorous images of movie stars and bright lights he'd seen on TV. His dreams always included one element that was missing when he arrived: big-time baseball. Because of the Carp's letter, major league teams shied away from Soriano. So while Nomura tried to clear things up, Soriano lived in a hotel, worked out daily and played on weekends in the National Adult Baseball Association, a long way from the majors. "I was scared," Soriano says. "It wasn't the life I expected."
Then, on July 13, his fortunes changed. Having spent two months reviewing his case, Major League Baseball declared Soriano a free agent. Truth be told, most front-office executives didn't know Alfonso Soriano from Alfonso Ribeiro. He was just a name on a sheet of paper—another kid to work out. "An unknown," says Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, "but a lot of scouting is about checking out the unknown." Nomura booked private workouts with seven clubs: the Brewers, Cubs, Diamondbacks, Indians, Mets, Rockies and Yankees. Soriano entered as a mystery. He walked away a prize.