Spring Training Game Turns into Test of Wills Between Star, Team

The St. Louis Cardinals face the Washington Nationals in a spring training game in Florida on Wednesday. The big question surrounding the game is whether National's star Alfonso Soriano will take his assigned spot in left field. He refused to play the outfield position in a game earlier this week. Soriano played second base last year for the Texas Rangers.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On Wednesdays, our business report focuses on the workplace.

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In major league baseball, a workplace erupted in turmoil this week. Imagine if you tried this in your workplace.

Alfonso Soriano, of the Washington Nationals, refused to go out on the field and play in a spring training game in Florida. The veteran all-star is unhappy about which position he's been asked to play. The team has threatened to take strong action against Soriano unless he changes his mind.

NPR's Uri Berliner is covering this story.

Good morning, Uri.

URI BERLINER reporting:

Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So, what exactly happened at the start of this game?

BERLINER: Well, it was an amazing turn of events. Alfonso Soriano was supposed to play his first spring training game Monday. He was on the lineup card as playing left field, but when the Nationals took the field, there were only eight players out there. There was no Soriano.

So, after a few uncomfortable moments, manager Frank Robinson had to shuffle the lineup. But it was an embarrassment for the team, to say the least.

INSKEEP: What's wrong with playing left field?

BERLINER: Soriano was acquired in an off-season trade with the Texas Rangers. He's an all-star dynamic player, a power hitter. But here's the problem: he likes to play second base. He's not that good there, defensively. He makes a lot of errors. And the Nationals already have a really good second baseman named Jose Vitro.

The Nationals say what's best for the team is for Soriano to play left and for Vitro to play second. Soriano doesn't buy that; he wants to play second, which has been his traditional position.

INSKEEP: Does he have the right to do this?

BERLINER: Well, that's interesting. We'll see. The Nationals say that Soriano has to start playing left field this week; that he's got to get on the stick and start playing. Soriano says he's going to think it over. The Nationals general manager Jim Bowden says if Soriano doesn't play left, he'll be put on something called the disqualified list. That means he won't get paid, he's going to sit. And he's going to be delayed in his eligibility for free agency.

Free agency, of course, is a big deal for players. It's a chance for them to go test themselves on the open market and make really big bucks. Soriano, it must be said, is already making big bucks: ten million dollars this year.

INSKEEP: We should point out this pits Soriano against one of the great names in baseball, Frank Robinson, the Nationals' manager. Could this have been handled any differently by the team?

BERLINER: Well, I don't know if Robinson could have handled it differently, but when they were in trade negotiations, apparently Soriano was never told that he was going to be asked to switch from second base to the outfield. Now, if that was brought up at the time, could that have been settled? Who knows. It's possible, but who knows.

INSKEEP: How often does this happen?

BERLINER: It's really rare. You know, players complain all the time about their contracts, or their lack of playing time, but crossing the line is something they don't do, where they refuse to go into a game. It's just sort of in the DNA of sports at all levels that, when the coach says you play, you play.

One notable example of when it happened, you may remember, Scottie Pippen, a former Chicago Bull. In 1994, there was a playoff game. His coach, Phil Jackson, drew up a play for another play and not Pippen for a last second shot. Pippen refused to go in the game, and it was a lot of negative fallout for Pippen, who was one of the great players of all time. You know, it didn't ruin his career by any means, but there's a taint on his legacy.

INSKEEP: NPR's Uri Berliner. The coach told him to come in and play early this morning.

Thanks for coming in.

BERLINER: Thank you, Steve.

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