Commentary

Cubs Need A (Smokin') Hot Soto

Cubs catcher showing steady improvement

Originally Published: June 26, 2009
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

You know, I'm a sucker for a feel-good story.

How often do you see a minor league guy, a nice guy, win a big league job as a September call-up, and then two seasons later, practically lose it in April? And then, to top it off, get busted like a high schooler behind the gymnasium, in front of the whole country?

So when Geovany Soto smoked a three-run homer in the seventh Friday, I knew I had to write about it.

Oh man, did I say "smoke"? That's probably not a word Soto wants to hear for the foreseeable future, not after testing positive for smoking marijuana during the World Baseball Classic, news that just broke on Thursday. Word to the Cubs' chefs: Don't even make smoked salmon. No one show "Dazed and Confused" on the team plane.

Soto was a breath of fresh air last season, a real good-timing guy. Here's a young, slugging catcher who could handle a veteran pitching staff and swing a bat with nary a tweezed eyebrow out of place.

The 26-year-old wasn't one of those "names" Cubs fans salivated over during his seven-year minor league career. It wasn't until he really learned how to hit professional pitching in 2007 that he became something more than a chubby catcher down on the farm. But man, he was something special last year, a rookie of the year with staying power -- no Jerome Walton is he.

But then 2009 hit and Soto's fledgling career could have taken the first turn on a downhill path. It still could, but I think we're seeing real results, and a true maturation of a young star.

Soto's 5-for-46 April was one to forget, and as it turns out, his March wasn't so hot either. Most observers just thought Soto lost his timing sitting on the bench for the Puerto Rican team in the World Baseball Classic, while expanding his waistline while exploring local gastronomical delights. What we later found out was that Soto had been weighed down mentally by a positive drug test taken during the WBC.

I think we can all agree this is another sign that the World Baseball Classic is an idea that should go the way of Disco Demolition nights and dugout Gatorade machines. If Soto were in Arizona with his teammates, the only thing he would've hit was bad minor league pitching.

I'm not even going to play the morality police here, because I personally don't think it's a big deal at all. However, in Soto's native Puerto Rico, possession of any amount of marijuana is a felony, which comes with a $5,000 fine and a possible three years in the clink, according to the National Organization for Reforming Marijuana Laws' Web site.

Soto has said he had some sleepless nights, wondering when the report was coming out. He's known about the test for months and while he's told a few confidantes, the embarrassed slugger internalized the relatively minor problem.

"I wasn't aware of this until about three or four days ago," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said before the game. "And if I had been aware of it, truthfully, I would've encouraged Geo to speak of this much, much sooner to get it off his chest. I think it's really had a negative effect on his performance."

Whether it truly affected his performance is questionable. In truth, he was just in a slump. His timing was off, and he had a hitting coach in Gerald Perry who wasn't providing the best assistance. Soto's slow start was surely one of the reasons that general manager Jim Hendry axed Perry earlier this month, bringing in Triple-A hitting coach Von Joshua.

Soto's improvement this season has been steady enough to show that it should continue. After hitting .109 with no home runs and two RBIs in April, he hit .278 (22-for-79) with one homer and 10 RBIs in May. The power returned in June, and he's hit six home runs, with 12 RBIs, while hitting .267.

"My timing wasn't there," he said of his start. "Some of the times I hit the ball good. Then I'd hit one bad and throw everything out the window, trying to do too much stuff in the box. You don't want to do too much there. You can't hit a three-run homer with nobody on. You just take what they give to you and roll with it."

Soto needs to string together a few more good games in a row. He's hitting .232, which is his best average of the season since going 1-for-4 in the opener, and he's hit four homers in his last eight games. He has eight more RBIs (24) than Milton Bradley.

He struck out with the tying run on second to end Thursday's 6-5 loss to Detroit, the Cubs' fourth straight, but he redeemed himself Friday, breaking a 2-2 tie with his shot to center off Jose Contreras.

"I feel good today, I felt great," Soto said. "It's really electrifying here with the crowd and the team. It's fun. It's always fun."

Well, not always.

After taking batting practice earlier in the day, he stopped to sign autographs by the Cubs' dugout, and when a handful of reporters stopped him to talk about his drug test (he's banned from international competition for two years, so I guess he's out for that celebrity softball game I got planned against Albania), he politely tried to sidestep the issue. It came back again after the game, and he tap-danced again.

"I come in here and as soon as I come through the doors, nothing matters but the game," he said. "And here it doesn't matter. Family, friends, problems, everything goes out the window when I step in here."

We know that's not quite true, given his admissions, but for the Cubs to accomplish anything this year, they need Soto to be all baseball, all the time.

If Soto can hit his weight, and maybe some of Bradley's, maybe the Cubs will be smoking something perfectly legal: victory cigars.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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