MESA, Ariz. -- What do you see when look at Alfonso Soriano?
Do you see a world-class talent done in by insouciance?
A misunderstood artist hampered by circumstances?
An archetype defined by expectations and salary?
An example of the worst kind of profligate spending?
Soriano is the Rorschach test of the North Side. He represents something for everyone.
For every defender, there are 10 detractors. For every person who goes to Wrigley Field to boo Soriano, there are 30,000 ready to explode when the Chicago Cubs left fielder yanks a slider onto Waveland Ave.
Four years ago, Soriano was the high-priced savior of a flailing franchise and a soon-to-be parting gift from the Tribune Co. to the fans, who suffered through three declining seasons following a heart-wrenching playoff exit that symbolized a big-market run for that elusive World Series title.
The Soriano deal, $136 million for eight years and purposely backloaded so the Tribune wouldn't have to pay the freight on the deal, was made to lift the Cubs out of the doldrums of a 66-win season, but now it's derided as a classic big-market folly -- too much money, too many years following a contract season.
Soriano, still owed $76 million for the next four years, evenly divided into $19 million annual salaries, says he's in good shape now, and you want to believe him, because you know he's played through pain in his four years in Chicago, even if everyone knows Soriano is an optimist.
He's also a physical marvel. Soriano's ripped physique belies the trauma done to his legs the last four years and the toll it has taken on his game.
"Have you seen that hole in his leg?" a friend of Soriano's asked me in Arizona. (The friend has worked in baseball and known Soriano since he made it to the majors, but preferred to remain anonymous.)
The "hole," the friend said, is where Soriano tore a quad muscle in early August 2007, causing him to miss a few weeks during the Cubs' stirring pennant chase.
He came back to put up record numbers for the franchise. He hit 14 homers in 28 September games, batting .320 with a 1.108 OPS, to help the Cubs win the NL Central.
The injury was reported as a strain (a strain is a tear, of course), but it was always more severe than he let on, the friend said. Soriano never really recovered from that injury and several other leg injuries followed, chipping away at the 46-homer, 41-stolen base talent he brought to Chicago.
Soriano has clued reporters in to his injuries before, but hasn't broadcast them to the world. In 2008-09, he played in 226 games. Last year he played in 147, and had a decent statistical rebound from the previous season.
"He loves to play," Cubs manager Mike Quade said. "I'm sure he was having more fun when he could run and his bottom half was better, and I think that's affected his hitting too. But he comes to the park with a smile on his face, ready to play."
Soriano is unfailingly positive. He starts nearly every conversation in English in agreement with his questioner by saying, "Yeah, yeah." He is, despite the instincts of the crabby fan, a good influence in the clubhouse. And he desperately wants to play like the Soriano of 2006.
"The problem is, the last four years I play here something happens," he said. "I never played 100 percent. I hope that this is the year I play 100 percent and make the team better."
Quade coached the outfielders and third base before taking over for Lou Piniella late last season. He knows Soriano's limitations, and he accepts them.
For instance, most major league outfielders, the good ones anyway, have played that position since childhood, developing a well-drilled set of "instincts" along the way. Soriano was moved to left field in 2006, and he wasn't exactly Ryne Sandberg at second base. He has a hose for an arm, but that's his only real plus.
"He has covered some ground," Quade said. "As long as people understand he just doesn't run like he used to, he works on his defense every day. Is he going to win a Gold Glove? I don't think so. But he's catching what he needs to catch. He's actually throwing better this year than what he did last year."
After two very solid offensive years, the injuries have taken a toll on Soriano's production. He had a terrible 2009 which ended in knee surgery, and to a lot of people, Soriano epitomizes the fallen hopes of a schizophrenic
franchise that brings in fans by the busload to experience Wrigley Field while forever coming up short for the real fans.
But this is a new start. Soriano remains optimistic about the season, and he is singing the praises of his new manager.
"This year it feels more relaxed," he said at his locker at HoHoKam Park last week. "I think we have a good team and I think the manager makes everyone relaxed here. That's the big difference, the communication he has with the
players. He's a very exciting guy, a very happy guy.
"I'm not saying Lou was a bad guy, but Lou was a little different, to me. Lou's all about winning and that's not bad. But we can't win 162 games. Lou was always happier when we won, but if we lost, he wasn't happy. We're not happy if we lost, but we understand we can't win 162 games. Quade is totally different. If we lose a game but we play good, he's happy because he understands we play good. So maybe we play good again tomorrow and we win."
That seems like a silly statement at its face -- "Lou wanted to win too much!" -- but baseball is unlike any other sport. Good teams have to possess the equanimity to forget about losses. Only head cases let bad outings linger for more than a night.
A manager has to know when to be calm and when to rage. By the end Piniella was worn out with his team, and vice versa. Those things happen.
One way we'll see if this bond holds is how Quade handles sitting the outfielder. Quade said he will try to rest Soriano occasionally to preserve his health. But he knows that will be easier said than done.
"He's normally not a happy guy on those days," Quade said. "The guy I've had that's most like Sori in that regard was Miguel Tejada. Miggy wanted to play every day."
Quade, a former A's third-base coach, goes into a story about Tejada telling Oakland manager Ken Macha he couldn't take a day off because he was "right behind Ripken" in consecutive games played. He really believed he could catch Cal Ripken's record, Quade said with an equal dose of admiration and humor.
"I like to play every day, because that's my job," Soriano said. "I like to play the game, not sit on the bench and watch the game."
Soriano doesn't expect fans to lighten up on him anytime soon. That's a mature attitude.
"You know, those fans, they love the game," he said. "They want me to do well. So when I strike out or do something wrong, they boo. But you know, everyone is going to have a strikeout. We have 162 games and no one is going to win 162 games. That's why I don't even think about what the fans do to me. It's part of the game. We want to play perfect. That's what I think in my mind, I want to play perfect, I want to play hard. But we're not perfect."
Soriano's certainly not perfect, which is what aggravates fans, broadcasters, management, etc. He still watches the flight of a deep fly ball at the plate, he will make baserunning errors or show a lack of patience.
But he's trying to improve. For instance, he's been hitting the ball toward center and right for power at camp, rather than trying to pull everything to left.
"I think it's a point of emphasis between [hitting coach] Rudy [Jaramillo] and him," Quade said. "Seeing him as a younger player, and a lot of people don't realize this, but he hit a lot of balls to right center. More than I've seen here."
Soriano's occasional nonchalance in the field doesn't translate into his personal life. He took in Starlin Castro when the rookie joined the club last May, and the shortstop is extremely grateful.
"He's a really nice guy," Castro said. "He's the best. He's the nicest guy I've seen in my life, in baseball. He signed for a lot of money, but when you stay with him he doesn't look like a guy that thinks 'I'm pimp,' you know what I mean?"
It was an easy call for Soriano to offer to house his fellow Dominican.
"When I used to play with the Yankees, all those guys, Mariano [Rivera], [Derek] Jeter, Bernie Williams, they opened up for me," he said. "They did a lot of good things for me. They make me a better player, a better person. Those guys do that for me, now I feel like I have to do that for young guys who make the big leagues. Somebody did it for me and I do it for Castro, so I hope in four or five years he does it for somebody else."
Soriano's influence must not have been too bad; Castro had a rookie season that augurs well for his future.
But while Soriano loves living in Chicago and Miami, his real home is in Quisqueya, a suburb of San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic. He goes back during the offseason -- he lives in a gated community near the Cubs' complex -- and mingles with old friends and relatives.
"He has the same group of friends," his friend marvels. "Whenever we go back there, I joke 'Why aren't we hanging out with the president or something?'"
Soriano's foundation helps feed and clothe the children of his town of 30,000 and beyond. For the past couple years, he's purchased book bags filled with school supplies for every kid. On Three Kings Day, he gives out toys to every child in the town. This past winter, he saw a picture of himself with schoolchildren and noticed how many were barefoot.
"He called me up and told me to buy 500 pairs of shoes," the friend said.
"I feel better to do it, but at the same time it breaks my heart to see those kids," Soriano said. "If I don't help those kids, who's going to help them? It's very sad, but at the same time I feel happy I'm there for them."
Three Kings Day is also his mother's birthday. Andrea, who raised him by herself, died this past January of a sudden heart attack, two weeks after her birthday and one week after he took her, and his family, to Disney World. Andrea had never been there before.
With his mother in mind, Soriano plans on increasing his charitable involvements in Chicago, focusing on helping single mothers. Soriano is married (and previously divorced) and has six kids.
"I start doing this because of my mom," he said. "When she was alive, she always told me to help somebody else. Because if you have the opportunity to help someone, why not? So I think what I do now is for her."
Cubs fans may not care about his foundation, his friendships or his desire to play every day. They just want him to produce. And they're right.
So for the Cubs, for the fans and for himself, Soriano will try his best to stay healthy, run hard and be the star paid big bucks to perform in October.
It hasn't all worked out yet, but as always, Soriano is positive this is the year.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.