WASHINGTON -- The Washington Nationals have been through quite a few of these before, where a former star player, a postseason hero, returned to D.C. with a new team. Regardless of how you view that trend - good that they have developed and found a lot of stars, or bad that they have let a lot of them go - they have experience with nights just like Friday.
Juan Soto also has experience. This time it was his turn, now a member of the San Diego Padres, having just been traded from his original franchise 10 days before. He was there when Bryce Harper, Trea Turner and Max Scherzer returned to Washington and remembers what it was like playing in those games.
"At the moment, I didn't think about it. But since I got traded, I really saw myself in them. I saw how cool the fans were with them, how much they enjoyed it. I'm going to try to do the same thing," Soto said while wearing a backwards Padres hat sitting in the third-base side visitors' dugout.
Soto maintains he never lost joy in the game, even as the losses piled up and trade rumors swirled leading up to the Aug. 2 deal that sent him westward. He let his agent, Scott Boras, handle contract negotiations. Once those reached an impasse, he knew a trade was possible.
Entertaining the idea of trading a player the caliber and age (23) of Soto is one thing. Actually going through with it is another and the trade ended up being one of the biggest blockbusters in the history of Major League Baseball. The Nats by all accounts received a massive haul of prospects and they not only traded Soto, a two-time All-Star and batting champ, they also traded first baseman Josh Bell, who was one of their best players.
As much as Soto could prepare for the trade deadline, the news still came as an emotional shock.
"I cried the whole morning that day," Soto said. "It was pretty tough to go through it, but at the end of the day I really understand that this is a business."
With a week-and-a-half for those emotions to settle, Soto now feels well-adjusted in his new baseball home on the West Coast. He called Friday's homecoming "just another day of baseball."
Soto arrived at Nationals Park and made his way to the visitors' clubhouse. But he made a stop on the Nationals' side to greet some of his former colleagues. He said he gave gifts to the clubhouse attendants who had handled his equipment for the first four months of this season.
After settling in and addressing the media, Soto took the field where he embraced his former teammates and coaches. The Nationals played a combined video tribute for Bell and Soto before the game. It began with Bell highlights, including some of his community work. With a clever edit using a shot of both players in the Nationals dugout, it transitioned to Soto.
He didn't even play five full seasons in Washington, but there was plenty to recap. They showed his debut and then his famous retroactive homer in a continuation game against the Yankees. They showed his 2022 Home Run Derby win, his go-ahead hit against the Brewers in the 2019 NL Wild Card game, his homer off Clayton Kershaw in the NLDS and his homer off Gerrit Cole in the World Series.
"Everyone knows my favorite memory," Soto said pregame in the dugout, pointing to his ring finger.
After the video montage, the Nationals played a message from Soto to fans on the scoreboard, in which he told the 35,390 in attendance: "I love you all." Fans cheered as Bell and Soto each doffed their caps while warming up in the outfield. Each then got a standing ovation before their first at-bats in the top of the first inning.
As is customary for these types of games, there are moments of reflection and gratitude and then things just kind of go back to normal rather quickly. Just like with Harper's return in 2019, the second at-bat feels almost like any other. The noise dies down steadily with each plate appearance.
In the crowd were plenty with mixed emotions. Many had purchased tickets just for this game. Soto No. 22 Nationals jerseys were all over the concourse.
Akul Mehra of Arlington, Va. was wearing one. He says he gets the practical side of the trade, that it may be best for the team in the long-term. But he also said hearing the news Soto was traded "heartbreaking."
"He was one of the only guys left that when you come to the ballpark, you look forward to watching. It takes some of the charm and some of the star power away from coming to a Nats game," Mehra said. "I hope he gets another ring this year. I don't mind being part of the farewell party, wishing him well."
Like Mehra, Jeff Miller of Rockville, Md. thinks the trade makes baseball sense. He also wore a Soto Nationals jersey to the park and said he understands why the front office made the move.
"I'm happy for him," Miller said. "Best of luck to him. Hopefully we can start getting other players and start winning again."
Not all fans were on the same page with the Nationals when it comes to trading Soto, however. Suzanne Masri drove over four hours from Pittsburgh, Pa., taking the day off from work as a marketing executive. She said she was "really heartbroken" when the trade first went down and that it was a "bad day."
"It's hard. We watched him from when he first came up... At least they didn't trade him to the Mets," she said.
Soto said he appreciates all the support from Nationals fans. He noticed some of his jerseys in the crowd and around the ballpark when the Padres' bus was pulling in.
For a 23-year-old, he left quite a legacy. It may be a record for the youngest player to get a tribute video and a standing ovation in his return.
"I'm happy that they still cheer for me. I'm happy that they always supported me. But I hope they change to the Padres," he joked.
As the night transpired, the surprisingly large swath of Padres fans in attendance had much more to celebrate and cheer for. San Diego broke the game open in the fifth inning with a seven-run frame. Soto got going in that inning with two hits as they batted around the order. He doubled off the scoreboard in right-center field, then scored, then came back to the plate to pop an RBI single into left field. He finished 2-for-6 with a double, a run and an RBI. The Padres won 10-5.
The night was a showcase of two teams on divergent paths. San Diego just acquired two really good players, including Soto, one of the biggest stars in the sport. As the Padres zoom forward to what they hope are several deep playoff runs before Soto hits free agency after the 2024 season, the Nationals are on the side of the highway, waiting for a tow truck, in disrepair. They hope it doesn't take long until they return to prominence, but they may be at the very beginning of that process.
Nationals manager Davey Martinez joked of the exponentially more media members in attendance for Friday's game than he's used to these days: "I feel like we're going to the playoffs."
No, and probably not soon. But maybe the Soto trade will help them get there someday quicker than they otherwise would.