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Former Cubs teammates are eager to say hi to Alfonso Soriano

ON DECK

CUBS AT YANKEES

Tuesday: Jason Hammel (2-0, 2.63 ERA) vs. Masahiro Tanaka (1-0, 3.21), 6:05 p.m., CSN, 720-AM.

Wednesday: Travis Wood (0-1, 2.92) vs. Michael Pineda (1-1, 1.50), 6:05 p.m., Ch. 9, 720-AM.

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Updated: May 16, 2014 6:39AM



NEW YORK — A lot of these Cubs in New York for this two-game interleague series with the Yankees have never played in the Bronx, much less the new, sixth-year Yankee Stadium.

But almost everywhere they look Tuesday and Wednesday, they will see reminders of what they might have been — and used to be.

From the free-agent pitcher they committed an offseason to chasing, without getting him. To the manager the business-side ­execs claimed they could land, without getting him.

To the outfielder who remains the highest-paid player on the Cubs’ books this year — the last big-money, star-power player they had, until trading Alfonso Soriano to the Yankees for a Class A pitching prospect last July.

New Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka?

“Is he pitching? Cool,” Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija said. “I’m more excited to see Soriano. ­Soriano’s one of my favorite teammates I ever played with, man.”

That was a universal sentiment in the clubhouse when Soriano ­finally approved the trade that sent him back to his original team.

But more than the often underrated teammate he was, Soriano is the $136 million link to the last time the Cubs could dream of Yankee-like Octobers. The link to the last time they were big-market players in the game — to a time when free-agent pitchers (C.C. Sabathia, for one) used to tell friends playing for the Cubs that they would rather sign in Chicago than New York. To win.

Now second-tier free-agent pitchers trying to build value line up for one-year “flip” deals, a rotation-spot commitment and a chance to go to a contender in July.

Soriano wasn’t the ideal free agent fit when ownership ordered the win-now spending spree after the 2006 season just ahead of Tribune Company’s sale. But he was the biggest name, the one they wanted bad enough that then-president John McDonough personally added years and millions to close the deal.

The eight-year, $136 million deal came to define Soriano’s nearly seven-year tenure in Chicago and influenced an often glove-hate, quick-to-boo relationship between the streaky hitter and Wrigley faithful. But a constantly upbeat and energetic Soriano never wanted a day off, often played hurt, led younger players with his attitude and work ethic, and the Cubs don’t make the playoffs in 2007 without him — maybe not in 2008 either.

A two-time All-Star with the Cubs, he played under three managers, three ownership groups, two front office regimes, hit 29 or more homers three times — four if you count last year — and even reinvented himself into a statistically above-average left fielder at age 36.

For all the criticism that came with his contract, he has come surprisingly close to living up to it. Who would have predicted 34 homers and 101 RBI in the seventh year of the deal?

The New York Times recently suggested, “Without any steroid implications against him, Soriano could be slowly creeping into the Hall of Fame conversation.”

Be sure that Samardzija’s not the only ex-Cubs teammate missing Soriano. He’ll be the most popular Yankee with the visiting team during batting practice Tuesday.

But more than that, he represents something the organization has lost, at least for now. Its big-league ­compass, maybe. Its big-market muscle, for sure. But also something as simple as what Lou Piniella used to call Cubbie Swagger.

Remember what that looked like? If not, then take a good look these next two nights at the smiling, 38-year-old kid wearing high socks and pinstripes, the one trying to find October every time he swings the biggest bat in the place.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

Twitter: @GDubCub



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