"I was blown away," says Cleveland general manager Mark Shapiro. "He had an explosive, wiry body, with these unbelievable skills. And I remember his smile—this dynamic smile."
"I was blown away," says Arizona G.M. Joe Garagiola Jr. "After two or three throws, it was obvious he could be a very good shortstop. He was launching missiles to first." "I was blown away," echoes Milwaukee assistant G.M. Dave Wilder, who at the time was the Cubs' farm director. "He had this bat speed that reminded you of a Hank Aaron, a Willie Mays. There aren't many no-brainers, but this was one of them."
At Shapiro's urging the Indians offered Soriano a multiyear major league deal worth $1.6 million, the first time Cleveland had ever presented a player with a big league contract on the basis of one workout. "The only debate was whether he would play shortstop or centerfield," Shapiro says. "He had the skills for both."
Unfortunately for the Tribe, the Yankees, too, were awestruck. During Soriano's workout at Yankee Stadium, Lin Garrett, the team's vice president of scouting, whispered a sweet something into Cashman's ear: "Don't let this f——— guy get away."
He didn't. On Sept. 29, 1998, New York signed Soriano to a four-year, $3.1 million deal. It was, many whined, just the latest example of the greedy Yankees' way. Here was a team with Derek Jeter, one of the best young shortstops in baseball, paying millions...for a shortstop?
And as they whined, Soriano kept his promise. He used part of the money to buy his mom a new house.
The Yankees were right. Aren't they always? Soriano rolled through the minors, earning late-season call-ups in 1999 and 2000 before reporting to spring training last year with his first real chance to make the club. That he was still Yankees property was an upset. In the spring of 2000 the Anaheim Angels dangled outfielder Jim Edmonds for him; the Cubs offered outfielder Sammy Sosa as part of a bigger deal. Later that summer New York agreed to send Soriano and pitcher Ted Lilly to the Houston Astros for outfielder Moises Alou. Soriano was pulled from the lineup at Triple A Columbus and told of the deal. At the last minute Alou exercised a no-trade clause. "I admit," says Cashman, "that sometimes luck has helped me out."
Yankees manager Joe Torre needed a bit of luck too. He already had a second baseman, Chuck Knoblauch, but a week before the 2001 opener he had seen enough of Knoblauch's throwing yips to know it was time for a change. Torre reassigned Knoblauch to left. Soriano, who had started 41 games at second at Columbus, took his place. "I honestly believe that if we asked him to, Soriano could play in the outfield today and be outstanding," says Torre. "He's adaptable. He was a very good shortstop. Now he's a very good second baseman. He picks things up at a very fast pace."
Initially, swapping short for second was a huge blow to Soriano's ego. When he was growing up in San Pedro de Macor�s, shortstops were kings and all other players pawns. "Not playing short put him in a real funk," says Trey Hillman, Soriano's manager at Columbus. "But I told him the truth: Every day he let pride get in his way was a day he was keeping himself from making it."
Soriano had his defensive struggles at second, committing 19 errors in 2001. He rushed throws that didn't need rushing. He charged when he should have waited. Mostly, he learned. By season's end Soriano was a solid, sometimes spectacular second baseman with soft hands and a hawk's range. This year, despite committing 18 errors at week's end, Soriano has improved even more. Instead of relying on instincts, he has learned the intricacies of positioning. "He'll make plays that'll pop your eyes out," says Lee Mazzilli, New York's first base coach.