This time, Feeney suspended Soto for five days and fined him $5,000. Washington was given three days and a $1,000 fine. "What would you do," says Soto, "if someone came into your house and attacked you? Wouldn't you fight back?
"I do feel bad about what happened. But everybody blows away once in a while. Sometimes you do things and don't remember that you did them. In Chicago, all I wanted to do with the umpires was argue with them. In Atlanta, I was only trying to defend myself. It's only a moment, but people aren't going to let me forget."
Soto has taken some heavy flak in Cincinnati, the city he has chosen to stay in rather than test his value on the open market. The afternoon disc jockey on WLW in Cincinnati, Gary Burbank, did some funny, if cruel, routines on Soto for a week, and his theme song was that old standard They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa. Both The Cincinnati Enquirer and WKRC-TV came out with strong editorial stances demanding stiff penalties for Soto.
Jerry Dowling, a cartoonist for the Enquirer, drew Soto sitting atop a Cincinnati bridge known, ironically enough, as the Suspension Bridge. Soto is depicted reading a letter—"Dear Mario, Your recent request for a name change to Soto Low Bridge is hereby denied. Also, the Washington Bridge referred to is named after George, not Claudell. Love, Chub."
Says Rapp, "I wish people knew where Mario comes from, how he had to fight to achieve what he has. Think of him as someone who grew up in the Depression, when things were tough and you had to be strong to become somebody. They don't know that when he was 14 he worked for 10 cents an hour in construction to support his family. Of course he's going to fight to protect what's his.
"He still has to learn self-control, to act like a professional. It's a lesson I had to learn—in my case, I was rough on umpires because I couldn't stand to see them do a disappointing job—and Mario and I have sat down and talked about this. What he did this year had no malicious intent to it as far as I can see. I think he just became frightened, more than anything else. Somebody was trying to take away his livelihood."
Soto grew up in Bani, Dominican Republic, a city of about 40,000, southwest of Santo Domingo. "People there are very tough, real fighters," says Dominican-born Felipe Alou, a Montreal coach and Soto's manager for many years in the winter league. "The soil isn't very fertile, so they have to work in the salt mines, or in hard labor." When Soto was eight, his parents separated, and Marta, his mother, took in laundry for the Dominican air force. "We used to go down to the river at six in the morning, baskets of laundry on our heads, and not come back until the evening," says Soto.
When he was 14, Soto dropped out of school and took up construction work full-time. He became a skilled mason in a short time—Soto has always been a quick study. "Once a scout came to me at work and said he wanted to see me play, but I told him, 'Not unless you pay me what I'm making in construction.' I was making $7.50 a day for 12 hours' work."
Soto wasn't a pitcher, but a catcher, and a very good one. "The only thing was, I couldn't run and I couldn't hit." Eventually, somebody found a use for his rifle arm, and two months after Soto became a pitcher, Johnny Sierra spotted him for the Reds. Sierra had to talk scout George Zuraw into shelling out $1,000 for Soto.
Throughout his first few years in the minors, Soto had all kinds of injuries and often thought of returning home. As is the case with many Latin American players, he found learning English to be a frustrating experience. "My first year at Eugene [Ore.], I remember being in tears after a clubhouse meeting because I didn't understand a word," he says. Today, Soto speaks almost flawless English with an accent that sounds as if he had been raised in California. Like the mermaid in Splash, he picked up the language watching television. "Movies, soap operas, talk shows—you name it, I watched it," he says.