However, the ones standing and cheering and still loving Soto, they kept those emotions to themselves. Instead, they looked back and appreciated Soto’s shortened time in a Nats uniform. Now, if they can find it in themselves to be more forward looking, Washington fans should celebrate his future — and baseball’s — as Soto wears the foreign colors of brown and gold.
Baseball needs its brightest stars playing in October. Please, for the game’s sake, let there be no more shots of Soto occupying the expensive seats inside Dodger Stadium, wearing designer glasses and sitting next to the agent who wants to secure the richest contract in the history of the sport for him. That’s not good for baseball. Better for Soto to be spotted inside Dodger Stadium — but wiggling in the batter’s box during a wild-card game or the National League Championship Series.
He says he was happy here in Washington. But Soto, 23, should be happier in San Diego. Because there, he should have three cracks at playing in meaningful games over the next three Octobers.
Ten days before this Friday night reunion, Soto landed in the middle of a wild-card race with his new friends in Southern California. Although Fernando Tatis Jr.’s 80-game suspension — news that spread just before first pitch — could decrease the chances of the Padres doing significant damage this fall, the presence of Soto and Manny Machado in the lineup hitting back-to-back should still alarm opposing pitchers.
That should be fun. Maybe not so much for those pitchers’ ERAs or fans on this coast who have to wait out another Nationals’ rebuild. But certainly fun for Soto. The game’s biggest kid deserves at least that.
Here, Soto was being forced to grow up. He was one of the last champions standing in the clubhouse, so he had to graduate to become a veteran leader. That role had belonged to Ryan Zimmerman, respected and mild-mannered, when a teenage Soto came up to the pros. Over the years, everything about Soto’s game had matured, but a sprinkle of simple innocence never went away. You saw it in the way he tilted his hat above his hairline, the way a kid would in Little League. In his big, toothy smile that produced the only wrinkles on his smooth face. And in the way he handled his first big media scrum this season.
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On Opening Day, he sounded rehearsed when leaning back in his chair and answering a question about the contract extension he had turned down during the offseason; the smile disappeared when having to discuss the boring business part of baseball. But later in the same Q&A session, Soto noticed a photographer ready to snap his image, so he posed and tossed up two peace signs.
It’s not that Soto shirked away from the responsibility. This season, he picked his spots to be a leader here. And on Friday, Nationals Manager Dave Martinez reflected on that growth.
“He tried to teach our young guys the strike zone and the way to go about their business every day. For a young kid, he learned that fairly young,” Martinez said. “He tried to do that, and he’s going to get better at it. … You can’t appoint a leader. Leadership comes from within, and he was becoming that guy.”
But being a stodgy leader didn’t always fit his personality. Soto and his hip wiggles, his cheesy smiles, his peace signs, still oozed joy. He tried to hold on to it, even though this season threatened to squeeze all the fun out of him.
The Saturday before the all-star break, when news broke about Soto declining the Nats’ offer of 15 years and $440 million, he faced reporters and had never appeared more like a grisly, old veteran. Morose, annoyed, frustrated.
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On Friday, as he reflected over his final months in a Nationals uniform, Soto, sitting in the visitors’ dugout surrounded by more than 30 reporters, said he never lost his happiness.
“I never did. I never did. Because I know the outside stuff and everything that makes you think a lot of stuff, I just let my agent take care of it,” Soto said. “But whenever I get to those lines, I try to forget about what’s happening on the outside and try to enjoy that moment. Every time I’m in that dugout, in those lines, I just try to enjoy it as much as I can. That’s why you always see me smiling all day.”
Still, it’s not as easy to smile with the losses piling up, his numbers dipping and the speculation about his future dominating the baseball world.
His happiness seemed more credible Friday — as sad it might be for Nats fans — as Soto walked out onto the grass wearing that weird color combination. Bending his knee to lower himself to a child’s height, Soto visited with Aníbal Sánchez’s young son before taking batting practice. On the last pitch of his third round of BP, he hit the ball a foot short of the 402 feet required for a home run. He watched the ball land in the dirt, then feigned disappointment by buckling his knees. He was having fun.
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A crowd of people lucky enough to have field passes watched his every move, and before Soto exited the field, he walked down the line signing autographs and smiling for selfies. It’s easier for someone to say cheese when he’s about to hit ahead of Machado, close the summer in a race for the playoffs and, in about two years, cash in with a contract that could be worth more than half a billion dollars.
Before the game, fans stood and applauded Soto anyway. That hasn’t always happened here; namely, for Bryce Harper, the other young franchise star, who left under different circumstances. Maybe, this time, they understood. Baseball is better with a happy Juan Soto.