Juan Soto begins day one of the rest of his baseball life with Padres

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SAN DIEGO — Juan Soto sat down in a wheelchair with a San Diego Padres logo on it and lifted his leg, high enough that Fernando Tatis Jr. could see his red and white cleats from his chair a few lockers away.

“Look at them!” Soto said on Wednesday, and Tatis laughed at the combination of red and white with Soto’s cool brown socks. Brown and gold cleats are expected soon. But the first day of the rest of Juan Soto’s career would include a reminder of all those other days spent in Washington, a baseball world away.

“I never thought they would. I thought they would try to keep me and rebuild the team with me. It took me by surprise,” Soto said in the Padres clubhouse. lacing the other cleat. The New York Mets beat the Nationals on a television hung a few feet away. “Deep in my heart, I thought they wouldn’t.”

That Soto found himself there, joking with his friend and fellow young superstar Tatis, introducing himself to infielder Ha-Seong Kim with a “nice to meet you” and talking about Max Scherzer’s repertoire with catcher Austin Nola , is a transformative development for the team he left. and the team he joined. It could also prove transformative for Soto and Josh Bell.

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Less than 24 hours after boarding a private plane to San Diego paid for by the Padres, Soto and Bell found themselves sandwiching superstar Manny Machado into the roster of a team vying under the California sun.

“Starting with a team that has no chance of coming this far is a great feeling,” Soto said. “It’s a new start for me. This year is just a fresh start, a new feeling to go out there and give more than I have.

Before either could worry about going there, the two were transported by Petco Park for social media shoots and introductory interviews, sitting alongside general manager AJ Preller and owner Peter Seidler.

Preller introduced Soto with a story about when a Padres assistant general manager learned the young star was hitting at nearby Point Loma. He had flown there after his successful rookie season to work with a hitting coach, “working on his craft,” Preller said. Preller recalled the team chasing Soto when he was a teenager in the Dominican Republic — a chase that ended, he joked, with Preller assessing someone else in front of him. But Preller pointed to that January punching session as a time when he decided his team would do their best to get him if they could.

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The GM also joked that Bell – the slugging switch hitter with .877 on-base percentage plus slugging entering Wednesday – was “not bad for a throw-in” before clarifying that Bell was much more than that . From then on, Soto’s smile stole the afternoon. He flashed it when asked about the Padres’ roster, which is still waiting for Tatis to come back from his injury and still waiting for Machado to get hot again.

“I wish the other pitchers good luck,” Soto said with a laugh.

He flashed it again when he explained that pitcher Nick Martinez, who wore number 22 with the Padres until a few hours ago, asked him for a fishing boat in exchange for the number.

“He really surprised me. I had never seen anything like that. I had seen a few guys trying to get numbers and what they gave. But when he asked me for a boat, I I was really shocked and surprised,” Soto said. “I thought it was a bit too much, but I tried to explain to him that I’m going to try to get him a really nice watch and he agreed.

The implications of Soto finding himself in this roster after a calendar year at the center of every opponent’s game plan could extend well beyond a few more smiles. His new manager, Bob Melvin, said he wasn’t sure what order he would hit Soto, Machado and Bell in – but he expected Soto and Bell to feel a difference immediately, not just at because of the bats that surround them, but also because of the energy of Petco Park.

“I will continue to walk. I will not try to be a superhero,” Soto said. “But it’s definitely going to be more exciting. It’s going to be more opportunities to bring the guys home. I will have more chances to win matches.

A person close to Soto said he sometimes became demoralized with the Nationals, fearing that a frustrating first half (he was hitting .246 at the time of the trade – nearly 50 points below his career average) would would become more frustrating if Washington traded everyone else but kept it. After the trade, he expressed excitement about playing “real baseball” again, the person said.

Soto’s arrogance never really wavered. But here, with talent and energy around him again, it just might skyrocket.

“We talked about it when I was talking to these guys: they’re going to feel the excitement in this stadium,” Melvin said. “It’s always exciting, but it’s probably going to go to another level today. We will all feel it.

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Soto has never played for a major league manager who isn’t named Dave Martinez, and he will notice that too. He admitted saying goodbye to Martinez just before leaving the national park on Tuesday was one of the hardest parts of a long day that began with him waking up to a call from Officer Scott Boras telling him that an exchange was likely to occur this time. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo also called him, telling him nothing was official, but something was in the works. He said he was still surprised when it happened, even though Boras had told him the reason for a deal, even though he had understood over the past few months that no one was there. home of baseball business.

“I have no hard feelings for those guys. I always feel good about what they did for me. They’re the first team, my first team, the team that makes me a professional player,” Soto said. “They gave me the chance to come into the big leagues. They made me a great leaguer. I’ll always be grateful for that. No hard feelings about it.

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Soto hopes brown and gold cleats will arrive soon. In the meantime, he beat around the clubhouse in those reds and whites, shaking hands with his new teammates. At one point, he stopped and looked to his right, noticing Bell’s new locker on the other side of the clubhouse.

“JB! he said casually, taking a slightly more circuitous route to his own locker than he probably will in a week.

When he ran onto the grounds at Petco Park for the first time, he pointed to fans in the stands as he did before at Nationals Park. He looked a little hesitant. Them too. But four pitches into his Padres career, he was safely on first base. Five hitters in his Padres career, he had scored one run. After all, for Soto, home is a major league batter’s box, regardless of the color of his cleats as they move through the dirt.

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