WASHINGTON – Juan Soto sat on a raised bench in the third-base dugout, yes, enemy territory, here at Nationals Park on a gorgeous, 81-degree afternoon in the nation’s capital Friday.
The new outfielder for San Diego wore a bright pink Padres’ T-shirt - former manager Dave Martinez said he had no trouble seeing from the opposite side of the field – along with brown shorts, a baseball hat turned backwards and five wristbands on his left hand, one in support of ALS causes.
But the wardrobe selection wasn’t on the mind of the nearly two dozen reporters and broadcasters who crowded around Soto, whose just-over four-year tenure with the Nationals seemed to flash in front of his eyes before his new team began a weekend series in D.C.
“At the end of the day, we have to take care of business,” Soto said of his return to Nationals Park. “It is a lot of emotions and a lot feelings and memories. It feels pretty good to be back and see these guys over there” in the home clubhouse.
“It is going to be pretty cool; it feels great to be back here,” he added of his return to his old haunts and old fans. “I will give them 100 percent out here; it feels kind of weird” to be with the visiting team.
Soto admitted he cried the morning in late July when he learned he had been traded from the Nationals, the team that signed him as he began his minor league career in 2016.
Just two years later he was in The Show, playing just 39 games down on the farm in 2018 as he blitzed through Woodbridge, Virginia; Hagerstown, Maryland; and Harrisburg, Pa., about long enough just to learn the local area or zip codes.
His destination, from early on, was the big ballpark off South Capital Street in the transformed Navy Yard neighborhood.
That first season, he shared living quarters in an apartment building on Potomac Avenue just outside of the player’s entrance back of home plate with fellow outfielder and friend Victor Robles.
But in a flash Soto was gone, staying at least long enough to help Washington win its first World Series in the fall of 2019.
“There are a lot of people in that clubhouse,” he said of learning new faces with San Diego. “I am happy where I am at.”
The native of the Dominican Republic, whose grasp of the English language has improved along with his knowledge of the strike zone, said one of his best memories at Nationals Park came with his clutch hit in the last of the eighth inning gave Washington a wild-card win over the Brewers in 2019.
That bases-loaded bullet to right field came off lefty reliever Josh Hader, who grew up in nearby Anne Arundel County, Maryland and is now teammates with Soto in San Diego.
Now this weekend, Soto will be in the third-base dugout.
“It looks way different,” he said of Nationals Park from that spot. “It’s a lot longer walk” from where the bus drops off players close to his old apartment.
Washington manager Dave Martinez said he surely misses Soto and also Josh Bell, the former Washington first baseman who was also traded to San Diego for a boatload of prospects in late July.
“I’m sure the fans miss him as well,” Martinez said.