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Fateful decision in Japan put Soriano on path to MLB

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Alfonso Soriano said on Tuesday that he was hanging up his cleats for good after 16 seasons in the major leagues. Soriano, who really exploded on the scene in 2001, his third with the New York Yankees, walks away with a career .270 average, 412 home runs and 1,159 RBIs.

News of his departure broke when comments he made in his native Dominican Republic began to surface on Tuesday.

“I’ve lost the love and passion to play the game,” Soriano was quoted as saying by The Associated Press during a radio interview. “Right now, my family is the most important thing.”

Soriano, 38, began and ended his career as a Yankee with stints with the Texas Rangers, Washington Nationals and Chicago Cubs in between. He was an All-Star for seven consecutive seasons from 2002-2008, a World Series champion with the Yankees in and 2001, and signed the richest, and among the most infamous now, deal in the history of the Chicago Cubs franchise in 2007.

There have been and will be remembrances abut Soriano’s career dealing with where his numbers rank and his overall impact. What will be largely omitted is his time in Japan with the Hiroshima Carp, a period that because of its brevity is usually regarded as a footnote, despite the importance Soriano’s stay, or rather, his departure, had on NPB.

Had a few situations gone differently, Soriano’s career, his life even, might have played out in a vastly different way. After seeing what Soriano became in the majors, one wonders what highs he could have reached in NPB, had he been happier in Japan. But he wasn’t happy and, with the help of agent Don Nomura, found a way to transfer to MLB in an incident that helped lead to creation of the original posting system.

“I don’t believe in destiny, but those were decisions that were made at that time, not knowing what would happen to his career,” Nomura told The Japan Times. “I was there in the beginning of his career, very honored with what he has done and what he has accomplished in his major league career. He had a unique history, but so does every other player. He proved himself. He had great numbers. You can’t challenge that.”

Long before the glitz and glamor of MLB and the Yankees, Soriano was at the Carp Academy, the baseball school Hiroshima launched in the Dominican Republic in 1990. Other players to have come through the system include Victor Marte and Timo Prez, who later went to MLB, Alejandro Quezada, the first player to head to the majors via the posting system, and current Carp player Rainel Rosario.

Hiroshima brought Soriano to Japan in 1996, and he played on the ni-gun level. He earned a cup of coffee with the ichi-gun squad in 1997, going 2-for-17 in nine games to account for his .118 career NPB average.

In 1998 Nomura, who at the time was representing Hiroshima pitcher Robinson Checo, another Carp Academy veteran, was approached by Soriano, who had grown weary of the rigorous practices in Japan and was also seeking a higher salary.

“He wanted to play in the United States,” Nomura said. “He basically comes from poverty and wanted to make money. So we went to arbitration for a salary, and then we lost.”

That setback, according to Nomura, put Soriano on the path of voluntarily retirement, the same loophole in the Working Agreement between MLB and NPB through which Nomura had helped Hideo Nomo engineer his highly publicized move to MLB in 1995, as players under this status were allowed to sign abroad.

Nomo’s move had left Japanese baseball officials in a furor. As the right-hander twisted his way through the National League with the Dodgers, his corkscrewing tornado motion sending Los Angeles into the throes of “Nomomania” in the process, NPB officials back home were busy closing the retirement loophole, intending to head would-be copycats off at the pass.

What they failed to do was inform MLB officials of the change, a violation of the World Agreement as both sides were required to notify the other of any alterations. This, of course, came to light once the Carp tried to prevent Soriano from joining an MLB club.

Eventually the Carp’s efforts proved futile, and Soriano became free to sign with an MLB club.

It was soon after this incident, which itself came on the heels of Hideki Irabu’s contentious move to the Yankees a year earlier, that the two leagues eventually drafted the original posting system, through which Japanese stars such as Yu Darvish, Ichiro Suzuki and Daisuke Matsuzaka have moved to MLB.

“Basically, we just followed the rule,” Nomura said. “He retired. If he’d won the arbitration, he would’ve signed back with the Carp. But we lost. He didn’t sign. He became voluntarily retired by refusing to sign. So we followed the rule and then sought other employment in the United States.”

Looking back, Nomura says the Soriano incident didn’t change Japanese baseball at the core.

“I don’t think it really had any impact,” he said. “They just changed the rules. If any, that’s the impact.”

Nomura did bemoan the fact Soriano wasn’t in Japan long enough to have forged a legacy on the field.

“He just had a cup of coffee,” Nomura said. “Look at Alex Ramirez. He had a cup of coffee in the big leagues and he became a legend here. Sometimes it works out best for the player to be where he’s the best fit. Maybe for Alfonso, it was the United States.”