The fans stood and applauded the player who was their hero seemingly five minutes ago. He acknowledged their cheers, stopping to wave his batting helmet to the crowd. When he took his position in right field, the fans out there stood and cheered him as well. This lovefest continued Saturday and Sunday.
It was all peace and love for the player who decided $440 million wasn’t enough to stay in love with Washington fans, leading to the Aug. 2 trade to San Diego for a shopping cart full of prospects for the Washington Nationals.
“You never realize until you’re there,” Soto told reporters after the game, when asked if he was more emotional than expected. “And when I stepped to the plate and see my teammates and see everybody clapping, it was very cool.”
About a half hour before the game started, the Nationals played a video tribute for both Soto and the afterthought, first baseman Josh Bell, a good player who was also traded in the deal with the Padres but was only here for the last two disastrous seasons.
The Soto highlights — the game-winning hit against the Milwaukee Brewers in the 2019 wild-card game, his score-tying home run in Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers and his monster blast in Game 1 of the World Series against the Houston Astros — meant a lot more to everyone in the ballpark.
Then came a video message from Soto, the 2020 National League batting champion and two-time All-Star, where he told fans, “I love you all, even if I have another team’s uniform. I am still going to love you guys. Thank you. You guys made me who I am today.”
Soto loves being loved. He wants to please people. Unfortunately for Nationals fans, one of the people he wanted to please was his agent, Scott Boras, who convinced him love of money was the best love of all.
It was a warm and fuzzy return, but let’s be clear about one thing — many of the 35,000 people who came to Nationals Park Friday night were there for Fido, not Soto. It was Pups in the Park night, and people will jump at the chance to take their dogs anywhere, even to a Nationals game.
“There’s just a lot of emotions, a lot of feelings that I have in this stadium,” Soto told about 30 media members gathered in the Padres’ dugout to record those emotions. “A lot of memories that I’ve had in the past, so it feels pretty good to be back and see these guys and enjoy the moment. It was some great moments here, but now we just got to keep going on.”
It didn’t have to end. Everyone treats the circumstances that drove Soto out of Washington like some other life form that was beyond everyone’s control, but it was orchestrated by the man who Soto has declared will dictate his future — Boras.
Everything changed for Soto when the news was leaked that the Nationals had offered him a legitimate long-term deal — a 15-year, $440 million contract without the typical funny money the Lerner family likes to put in their deals.
It was the most guaranteed money offered in the history of baseball. It was certainly complicated by the team being for sale and the uncertainty of new ownership, and it may have been short in the annual salary scale. But people take less money all the time in their jobs for comfort, happiness and love.
It is safe to say leaving is all Boras has ever thought about for Soto.
The Nationals management took the brunt of the blame for the leak, but it served Boras’ purposes as well, perhaps moreso. Having a number out there now serves as a marker for those faint of heart but deep of wallet who will attempt to dive into the Soto free agent pool after the 2024 season.
It also served as a lesson to his client, who said he cried all morning the day he was traded from Washington. “It was pretty tough to go through it, but at the end of the day I really understand that this is a business,” Soto said.
If Soto had any thoughts about staying put in Washington — perhaps considering taking a deal for love instead of money — that leak conveniently woke him up to the Boras reality, which Soto has pledged allegiance to. “I just let my agent take care of it,” Soto said upon his return to Nationals Park.
He did just that. Boras refused to make any counteroffer to Washington, which meant, for all intents and purposes, Soto was not going to sign any deal before free agency. The Nationals made their move in reaction to the stonewalling, trading their beloved star player for a group of highly rated prospects.
Soto is now playing for a pennant contender instead of a rebuilding team, a bigger stage for the sale of his emotions when they come up for bid. Before then, though, maybe they’ll be a Juanstock in San Diego when he leaves there.
“It feels great,” Soto said, when asked about adjusting to life with another team. “It feels like home right now.”
Hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.
• Thom Loverro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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