How Ariel Soriano Flipped The Script In His Long Fight For Baseball Glory

All smiles as Soriano returns to the field (Credit: Benjamin Witte)

At some point late Friday afternoon, on a ferryboat bound for Sicily, Ariel Soriano leaned up against the guard railing and stopped to admire the sparkling, mid-summer vista.

I know because someone captured the moment and posted it on the Facebook page of his new team, Nettuno Baseball Club 1945. And because I’d been in touch with the 28-year-old Dominican earlier that day — and spent much of the rest of the afternoon transcribing a much longer interview we’d done nearly five months prior — I found myself keeping virtual tabs on the team’s southward journey and thus saw the photo in what must have been close to real time.

What I can’t know, of course, is what was going through Soriano’s head right then. Mostly I imagine he was just happy for a bit of fresh air after being cramped up all day on the team bus as it made its way south from Nettuno, a coastal city about 40 kilometers from Rome, to the bottom edge of the Italian peninsula.

But I’d also like to think that the talented pelotero (ball player)  — on the eve of his first games with a new team, in a new country, and after an offseason that was so long and uncertain — was pausing to just soak up the moment, to appreciate where he’s at right now and all that he’s gone through to get there.

That’s what I imagine, at any rate. That looking out over the deep-blue Mediterranean, Soriano took a few seconds to just ponder his accomplishments, to contemplate the myriad ways he has pushed past life’s many obstacles and kept his baseball dreams alive regardless.

Taking it all in (Credit: Nettuno Baseball Club 1945)

Under the desert sky

The last time we’d spoken — in his apartment, on a wet, late-winter’s day outside of Toulouse — Soriano was getting ready to embark on a very different baseball adventure. It was late February and the athletic infielder was just days away from flying to Arizona to meet up with the rest of the French national team and their new coach, MLB legend Bruce Bochy.

Their quest was to earn France its first ever berth in the World Baseball Classic (WBC), the sport’s biggest international event. To do so they’d need to finish first or second in a six-team qualifier tournament that was slated to begin March 13, and among the players and coaches, there was as real sense that they finally had the right combination of arms, bats and gloves to get the job done.

Soriano, a former Tampa Bay Rays prospect who had been turning heads in France since arriving from the Dominican Republic two years earlier, is one of the reasons confidence was brimming. It’s not ever year that Les Bleus have access to a player of his caliber, and coaches and teammates know they’re lucky to have the ex-minor-leaguer aboard.

Joining Team France has been a thrill for Soriano as well, and he was especially excited about fighting for a spot in the MLB-sponsored Classic, which is wildly popular in his home country. But after flying to the United States and diligently preparing for the qualifiers to finally kick off, Soriano and his teammates received some devastating news: Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the event was being postponed — indefinitely.

Les Bleus were scheduled to play their tournament opener the very next day, against Germany. Instead they spent that morning packing up and heading home.

“We’d been talking about the Baseball Classic since I came to France,” Soriano, en route to Sicily, told me over the phone Friday morning. “They approached me about it two years ago. They wanted to put together an extraordinary team, and when they’d finally brought that extraordinary team together, one day before our first game everything got suspended. Fue un poco duro por esa parte (That part was a little hard),” he said.

Soriano (right) during a pratice game in Tucson, Arizona (Credit: Scott Stevenson)

Soriano uses words like poco (a little) or poquito (a little bit) a lot, and they’re kind of a “tell,” in the poker sense. They’re his way of downplaying the bad, I realized, of keeping things even keeled. He’s not someone who wallows or complains. Nor is he a guy who boasts about his exploits.

He also smiles — a lot — even when he’s playing ball, which he does with a compelling mixture of intensity but also joy. On the field Soriano is all business, concentrating fiercely on the task at hand, but then constantly bursting into a grin.

“Yeah,” he added. “Fue un poco difícil — because of how hard we’d worked, individually but also, once we’d arrived in the United States, together as a team. We worked so so much. We were really prepared to perform… until the news came.”

Opportunity knocks twice

Shortly afterwards Soriano was back in France, in mandatory lockdown with his wife and twin sons. In the meantime, spring came and mostly went before the French government formally lifted the quarantine, on May 11. And with the exception of far-away Taiwan, which contained the coronavirus early and allowed its four-team, professional league to play ball starting in April, everywhere else the sport remained on hold.

Before leaving for the WBC qualifiers, Soriano was fielding offers from several first-division (Serie A1) Italian teams, including Parma Clima, which had already recruited Manny Ramírez, a fellow Dominican and larger-than-life baseball character who had a monster career in the Major Leagues, with 2,574 hits and 555 home runs.

The offers were a just reward for Soriano’s dazzling, two-year run in France’s semi-professional league, the 11-team D1. In his first season, playing for the La Rochelle Boucaniers (2018), the Dominican batted a scorching .411, collecting 37 hits — and the league MVP award — in just 24 games played. He was equally sensational last year, with the Rouen Huskies, batting .470 in the finals to help give the team its fifth straight championship and 14th in the past 15 seasons.

Soriano went on a tear in France’s 2019 D1 finals (Credit: Benjamin Witte)

The promise of transferring to Italy’s more professional, better paid Serie A1 — and the chance, in particular, of playing alongside Ramírez — was another big reason for Soriano to be excited about the year ahead. But with the pandemic bringing baseball to a halt worldwide, and for longer than anyone at first suspected, the hard-hitting utility player eventually reached the conclusion that this would be a lost season.

“I figured that this year I just wouldn’t play, because of the situation,” he said.

But just when Soriano resigned himself to writing 2020 off completely, the phone started ringing again. In France, the sport’s governing body, the FFBS, decided in May to cancel the season outright. But elsewhere in Europe, including Italy, leagues began making contingency plans, and after weighing several different offers, Soriano opted to join Nettuno, in the country’s second division (Serie A2).

Even then it wasn’t completely certain that there’d really be games, but finally, about two weeks ago, Soriano got the green light to pack his bags and head to Italy. “In the end they said yes, and honestly, getting back on the field, after all this time, is something incredible,” he said. “It’s a really good thing.”

‘Fighting for something’

Having his baseball plans upended by a global pandemic was obviously a new experience for Soriano, who grew up in the small city of La Romana, along the Dominican Republic’s southeastern coast. But it was by no means his first taste of adversity in a professional career that began more than a dozen years ago, when the up-and-comer was just 16.

Like so many boys in La Romana — and in every other city, town and hamlet in the impoverished, baseball-crazed island nation — Soriano began playing at an early age. “We play in the street. We play on the corner. We play in the neighborhood, on the field, wherever,” he told me. “That’s how baseball in Dominica is… It’s a passion. The people really enjoy it. They live it.”

But the sport is also, Soriano explained, a way for some Dominican players — those with the talent, drive and enough lucky breaks — to pulls themselves and their families out of poverty. For the best young peloteros there’s the chance of getting signed by an MLB organization, which scour the country for talent, and using that first bonus they receive to give their families some real economic relief.

The best of the best might even make it to the Majors one day and strike it really rich, like superstars Sammy Sosa and Robinson Canó, who both hail from San Pedro de Macorís, just a few kilometers down the road from La Romana.

“The majority of the boys are fighting for something,” Soriano said. “Nobody plays baseball just because they like it. It’s more than that.”

Soriano was one of those boys. Economically, his family struggled. These days his mother works as a chef, he told me. But back then she eked out a living making cakes — bizcochos, they’re called in the Dominican Republic — and selling them from home. His father often didn’t have any work at all.

“There were five of us, four boys and a girl. I’m the youngest of the boys,” Soriano said of his siblings. “The economic situation in our house, it wasn’t very good,” he added.

Let’s make a deal

The boy’s talents on the baseball field began attracting attention early on, and by 13, coaches had singled him out as someone with professional potential. But he was also told that because he was on the small side, he’d need to be fast, which he wasn’t

“I didn’t run a lot,” Soriano recalls. “Where I was playing at that time, they took me aside and said, ‘Hey, you don’t run, so we’re not going to waste our time on you.’”

That’s when he was approached by a former pro player, a well-known figure in the La Ramona baseball scene, who offered to train the boy. The trainer had returned to the Dominican Republic after a playing career that peaked with Triple-A stints with both the Toronto Blue Jays and Montreal Expos organizations and become what’s known as a buscón (a seeker), a middle-man who helps develop promising young players and then, as they approach 16 — the legal age at which Dominican boys can sign a professional contract — shops them around to scouts.

The talent broker helped Soriano build up his speed and stamina. He also gave him money from time to time, so that after his early morning practices — and before rushing off to school — he could buy himself breakfast. As time went on, the young prospect really did improve his speed, and finally the matching process began.

Soriano credits a trainer for teaching him to pick up the pace (Credit: Benjamin Witte)

Soriano’s first tryout was with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The club was interested, he recalls, but his trainer, thinking they could secure a bigger signing bonus elsewhere, wanted to keep their options open. Next they met with the New York Mets and again, the talent broker advised the teenager not to accept the deal.

The prospect met with the Washington Nationals at one point too, and there was talk of maybe securing a three-figure signing bonus. But on the day of the tryout his arm was hurting badly from overuse, and the organization changed its mind.

Soriano’s last option was with the Tampa Bay Rays, but after he’d spent several weeks at their local training facility, the organization came up with excuses to significantly cut the signing bonus they’d originally proposed, first by about 20% and then by roughly two-thirds.

Fearing that his shot at professional baseball — and the kind of payout that could change his family’s financial situation overnight — was slipping through his fingers, Soriano turned to his father for advice. They decided to take the deal with the Rays, even if it was a fraction of what Soriano originally thought he might secure.

“It was so stressful, but I was thinking about the economic situation at home,” he explained. “That’s what really worried me. I kept telling myself that my family needed money, that I need to get that money so they can get ahead a little. It wasn’t as much as the coach wanted, but I wanted the money to help my family be more comfortable.”

Climbing the ladder

The teenager was now signed to a Major League organization and, barring any last-minute legal problems (there have cases of contracts being annulled over questions about the veracity, for example, of the player’s stated age) he’d soon have a chunk of money to help his family.

But as author Mark Kurlansky explains in The Eastern Stars, a 2010, non-fiction book about Dominican baseball, even with that first MLB contract in hand, prospects enjoy little in the way of assurances.

“A few hundred Dominicans are signed in a year, and probably only about three percent, maybe a dozen players, will ever play in a major-league stadium. And there is very little money in baseball between the signing bonus and the first major-league season,” Kurlansky writes.

Kurlansky wrote about the baseball life Soriano lived

Some of the signed players don’t even make it to the U.S. minor leagues; they’re cut before they even have a chance to leave the island. And when and if they do ship out to the States, there they face a whole new set of hurdles, not the least of which is the language barrier.

Within a few months of signing with the Rays, Soriano was sent to the United States — to Florida — for the first of multiple stints over the next couple years, when he would gradually move up the minor-league ranks and eventually attend a spring training with the Major League squad.

He recalls the excitement of first arriving, but also remembers how hard it was to be separated from his family. He was just a teenager still, a stranger in a strange land. Un poco difícil — a little difficult — is how he described those first few months.

“I didn’t speak any English. It was really hot there. Also, I had to cook, and I didn’t know how. That was a big deal,” he said. “Sometimes I felt really bad, but I didn’t want to tell my mom. I didn’t want to say, ‘listen mom, I’m sad.’ I didn’t want to worry her. So I just had to gut it out.”

Missing the mark

Soriano lasted longer in the minor-league system than many, but wasn’t, in the end, one of the select few who makes it to the Majors. He never made his millions, and in his mid-20s, at his peak in terms of strength and preparedness, his playing days with the organization came to a sudden end.

Baseball is a cutthroat business. In 2015, the year Soriano joined the Rays for spring training, he felt confident that if he could just play the whole season he’d finally break through. “I felt like I could really go big-time, I knew it, because I was so prepared,” he told me.

But in April, at the end of the training period, his opportunities evaporated. Soriano was told he’d go to a Double-A team, a notch above where he’d played the previous season. But the team then told him that there was no room left on the roster. The alternative, they told him, was to accept a coaching job with the organization, albeit back in the Dominican Republic.

The young prospect took a serious shot at MLB stardom

Soriano was disappointed, and not just un poquito, I imagine. But he also had a pair of toddlers to feed, so after talking things over with his wife, he agreed to take on the new trainer role.

In the opening pages of Eastern Stars, Mark Kurlansky addresses the make-or-break nature of the baseball business, particularly as it applies to young, economically-vulnerable prospects from the Dominican Republic.

“This is a story… about the slight twists and turns that determine success and failure, and how each changes lives — about a world where the right or wrong nod from a coach on a farm team so called for their obscure American locations, can make the difference between earnings a few million dollars a year or going back home and earning a few hundred dollars a year,” he writes

There are, of course, variations to this story, as Kurlansky acknowledges later the in book. And by moving back to the Dominican Republic — but with a paid coaching job waiting for him — Soriano began charting a path that runs somewhere in between the rags-or-riches dichotomy described at the outset of Eastern Stars.

Dreams die hard, however, and what Soriano didn’t know, just then, was that the winding baseball journey he’d been traversing for years already would soon take him in an entirely new direction. Instead of looking north, to the United States, he started contemplating a move to the east, to old Europe.

A chance to shine

The way Soriano tells it, his decision to debark for France two years ago didn’t have much to do with baseball. His wife inherited French nationality from her father, and it was something they could take advantage of, the couple realized, to get a fresh start and raise their sons in a totally different environment.

“It was a family decision,” he said. “Things are un poco más seguro (a little safer) in France,” Soriano added. “My country is beautiful, it’s a happy place, but it’s a little dangerous. So France is safer for the boys. It’s a different culture, and I think that’s also good for them.”

Throwing caution to the wind, the former minor-leaguer ended his years-long relationship with the Tampa Bay Rays and set off for France, hoping to play some ball here, but unable to anticipate just how much the decision would breath new life into his playing career.

Truth be told, there isn’t much real money to be made in French baseball. But the clubs do try to help foreign players settle in. They assist with paperwork, often offer housing, sometimes a part-time coaching job on the side.

Donning his new duds: Soriano joins Nettuno

The league is also a place where someone with Soriano’s experience and skill level can shine, as he very much did in his two seasons in the D1, starting in La Rochelle. That then led to some other unexpected opportunities: a roster spot on the French national team; a chance to train, however briefly, with Bruce Bochy; and now, as of two weeks ago, an entirely new baseball adventure, in one of Europe’s top baseball countries.

After reaching the shores of Sicily on Friday night, Soriano and his Netunno teammates completed the final leg of their journey to the city of Paternó, for a double-header against the hometown Red Sox — their first games of the season.

Earlier in the day I’d asked the former D1 star about his goals for the shorted season. “To be champions,” he said. “But also I want to be among the [stats] leaders. I like being among the leaders. I work hard for that.”

On Saturday, in his first official game since winning the D1 championship nearly a year ago, Soriano went three-for-five with a three-run homer in the 4th inning and — just to put an exclamation point on the outing — a triple! He collected another hit in the second game, and is now batting .444 with a team-leading 4 RBIs. Nettuno won both games.

I’m curious, though. Would Soriano think maybe about relocating again — to Italy? “Noooo,” he told me, quite matter-of-factly. “Soy francés — I’m French.”

By Benjamin Witte (benjawitte@gmail.com)

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