It is on offense, though, that Soriano has emerged as one of baseball's brightest stars. Hitting ninth most of last season, he batted .268 with 18 homers, 73 RBIs and 43 stolen bases. When the Yankees reported to spring training this year, Torre penciled Jeter in at the top of the order and Soriano again at the bottom. Sure, Jeter fit best into the second hole, and Soriano's speed was ideal for the leadoff spot. But Soriano struck out 125 times in 2001 and had only a .304 on-base percentage. A number 1 hitter needs discipline and experience and bat control, but within three weeks Torre had changed his mind.
There was just something about Soriano leading off that made sense—an energy, an excitement, a buzz. Most great base thieves need 13 to 15 strides to go from first to second. With his long legs and fluid motion, Soriano makes it in 11. Most young hitters take months to learn pitchers. Soriano's pitch-recognition ability is off the charts. Most table setters are slap-hitting single sprayers. Soriano thrives at knocking balls off outfield walls. His swing is a Ted Williams-style uppercut that results in looooooong drives. " Rickey Henderson is a guy Alfonso talks about a lot, and that's good," says Torre. "But when Rickey was a leadoff hitter, his goal was to get to first. This kid wants to be on second."
Soriano's scarcity of walks (he had 18 through Sunday) and abundance of strikeouts (122) are no longer major concerns. Yes, Torre would like Soriano to exercise more discipline—to stop swinging at the first pitch every other at bat—but not too much discipline. "Part of what makes Sori dangerous is his explosive attitude," says Rick Down, New York's hitting coach. "If he walks 20 times but scores 120 runs, we probably shouldn't be complaining too much."
He may look like Gumby next to Giambi, but nobody in the clubhouse has stronger wrists or more flexible hips. Soriano uses a 34�-ounce bat, one of the heaviest pieces of timber in the league. "His body is all about explosiveness," says Jeff Mangold, the Yankees' strength and conditioning coach. "He has an unbelievable amount of fast-twitch muscle fiber, and his muscles are very long but powerful." When asked for an athletic comparison, Mangold doesn't mention Jeter but Neal Anderson, the former Chicago Bears back with whom Mangold worked as a trainer at the University of Florida. "Neal was so fluid and so powerful, I'd never seen another athlete like him," says Mangold. "Until Alfonso Soriano."
The movie is Rush Hour 2, a forgettable comedy starring Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan. Soriano is standing by his locker in Arlington, half getting dressed, half watching the film. Suddenly, he screams to nobody in particular: "HELLLOOOOOO BENJAMINS!" Nick Johnson, New York's rookie designated hitter, gives his pal a funny look, then starts to talk. "Sori, what are you...?"
Just then, Tucker yells at the top of his lungs from the TV: "HELLLOOOOOO BENJAMINS!"
Johnson shakes his head and laughs. He should have known. For all of Soriano's other accomplishments—his home run off Curt Schilling in Game 7 of last year's World Series, his first All-Star Game start in July, his MVP candidacy, his ice cream spree in Arlington—what impresses those around him perhaps even more is the improvement in his English since last season.
During his first spring training with the Yankees, in 1999, Soriano used George Rose, the interpreter for Japanese pitcher Hideki Irabu, to answer questions. In 2000 and 2001 he relied on a bilingual teammate. This February, Soriano arrived in Tampa disguised as Merriam Webster. Who are his teachers? " Chris Tucker and Sylvester Stallone," says Soriano, who has watched Rush Hour, Rush Hour 2 and Rambo: First Blood at least 10 times each. "I see movies, study the words and try to learn one every day."
Thanks to his newfound fluency, Soriano has emerged as one of the team's more popular spokesmen. Reporters regularly gather around his locker, and earlier this season he conducted his first TV interview in which the questions were relayed over a headset. "I think," says Rick Cerrone, New York's media-relations director, "that Alfonso was very proud of that moment."
Two hours before the Yankees-Angels game at Anaheim earlier this month, Soriano plopped down in the dugout, in the exact spot where Torre would momentarily hold his daily briefing. Suzyn Waldman, one of the team's TV commentators, turned to Soriano and jokingly asked, "Joe, what do you think of this Soriano guy?"