In the visitors' clubhouse of The Ballpark in Arlington there is a Jabba the Hurt-sized freezer packed with ice cream. Cartons and cartons of ice cream—15 varieties of dairy goodness. Over the last few years some of the game's biggest ice cream bingers have gone deep into the Texas Rangers' massive stockpile. Tampa Bay Devil Rays first baseman Steve Cox polished off three Choco Tacos. "That," says Kasey Terrell, the assistant clubhouse manager, "was impressive." Another time, Cincinnati Reds catcher Jason LaRue inhaled three Klondike bars and a King Cone. Says Terrell, "That was our record."
Then came Alfonso Soriano. And, heck, the New York Yankees' second baseman wasn't even that hungry. But growing up in the tattered Dominican town of San Pedro de Macor�s, he had learned a simple rule that applied to everything from food to new languages to ground balls: Gobble up what's in front of you. So, sitting on a couch before a large-screen TV, Soriano did. He started by filling a bowl with five scoops of vanilla ice cream and quickly downed them. Then he turned to Reese's Peanut Butter Cup ice cream bars, consuming one in four bites and then another in three. Following a lengthy (well, five-minute) hiatus, Soriano jogged back to the freezer, pulled out an Orange sherbet pushup and swallowed it whole.
At some point during the gorge-a-thon, Terrell was sufficiently dazzled to stop, put down a pile of laundry and watch. And there was more. After the 9-2 Yankees win, Terrell was asked to take Soriano to a stadium suite where Roger Clemens was celebrating his 40th birthday. When Terrell picked him up, yet another Orange sherbet push-up was in Soriano's mouth. "Dude, how many of those have you had today?" asked Terrell.
Soriano smiled like, well, a kid with a free pass to a freezer full of ice cream. He held up eight fingers. "A lot of incredible things happen in baseball," says Terrell, shaking his head in awe. "But I've never seen a performance like that. That guy ate everything." The 24-year-old Soriano's appetite hardly ends there. For as ravenously as he consumes ice cream (and hamburgers and sushi and Blowpops and gallons of fruit juice), he has become an American League MVP candidate by feasting on another ballpark staple: meatballs. Meatballs up and away, meatballs low, meatballs down the middle. In Arlington, righthander Rob Bell served Soriano one of his favorites, a sinkerball that didn't sink, and watched it land 369 feet away in the leftfield seats. "That's what happens when you throw Soriano a bad pitch," says Terry Francona, the Rangers' bench coach. "He'll jump on it and—whack!—kill it. He's a monster of a hitter."
Like the ice cream in Arlington, Soriano's offensive excellence comes in 15 varieties. Utilizing bat speed that Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi calls "insanely fast" and strength that outfielder Rondell White calls "brutish," Soriano has hit for average (.303 at week's end, 13th in the American League) and for power (30 home runs and a .558 slugging percentage, fourth and seventh, respectively, in the AL). He has driven balls into the gaps for 42 doubles (second in the league). He has scored 97 runs (second) and driven in 77 (18th). As New York's leadoff hitter, he has also stolen a league-high 34 bases. Last Saturday, Soriano became the first second baseman to have a 30 dinger-30 steal season, and there's a chance he'll break the mark for homers by a second baseman (42) held by Rogers Hornsby (1922) and Davey Johnson ('73)
At his current pace Soriano will rack up 396 total bases this season. Only three Yankees have ever exceeded 400: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio. Remarkably, in an era of heavily muscled baseball behemoths, all this comes from a 6'1", 180-pound rubber band who seemingly arrived out of nowhere.
He looked around and wondered, Who are these people? Or at least he wondered that in Spanish because his English was limited to two words: ball and baseball. What was going on? This certainly wasn't the American dream that Soriano had envisioned. He thought he would be wearing a crisp white uniform in front of 40,000 fans, competing against Pedro and Sammy and Big Mac. No, this was a nightmare. Somehow, in a world gone terribly wrong, he was the newest member of the Southern California Angels of the National Adult Baseball Association, playing once a week in a glorified rec league before, oh, 20 people and a couple of dogs on a field on the east side of Los Angeles.
The leftfielder looked old enough to be Soriano's grandfather. The third baseman could double for John Goodman. Hadn't Soriano's agent, Don Nomura, told him that coming to California would be a huge step toward stardom? Well, here he was in the summer of 1998, the starting shortstop on a team of has-beens and never-will-bes. This was something that Soriano—a perceptive, quick-witted man—didn't understand.
Fourteen years earlier, when he decided that baseball would be his life, little Alfonso had issued a simple proclamation to his family: Quiero jugar be�sbol para comprar una casapara mi madre. But for a six-year-old boy in San Pedro de Macor�s, wanting to play baseball to buy his mom a house was hardly an unusual desire. Alfonso's uncle, Hilario Soriano, was then a minor league catcher in the Los Angeles Dodgers' organization, and he would bring home bats and gloves and stories. Both of Alfonso's older brothers, Julio, now 29, and Federico, 28, would also enjoy brief stints in the minors. (Alfonso's mother, Andrea, primarily raised him and his siblings.)
Soriano dedicated himself to the game, and at 16 he was invited to a baseball academy run by the Hiroshima Toyo Carp just 20 minutes from his home. In his uncle's tales there were Yankees and Mets and Cubs and Tigers. No Carp. But the Japanese League club would provide room, board and a small salary. "I was very happy," Soriano says, "because somebody would pay for me to play baseball."