Juan Soto wasn’t in the Nationals’ lineup on Tuesday, but he still found a way to get both his teammates and fans pumped up from the top of the dugout.
No, really. The top of the dugout. Activated from the injured list 12 days after testing positive for the coronavirus, Soto was allowed to return to the team but wasn’t ready to start just yet. He spent the first half of the game sitting in the stands but couldn’t help himself from jumping on top of the dugout when new teammate Josh Harrison launched his first home run in a Nationals uniform.
It was a reminder of what Soto will bring with him once he finally does slot into his normal spot in the heart of the Nationals’ lineup. Of course, he’s brings an elite combination of power and plate discipline that’s matched by few across the sport—never mind among players 21 or younger. The thing is, Soto also has an exuberant attitude that’s contagious in the dugout and a model for how MLB can cater to young fans.
For every historic achievement—youngest player with three home runs in a World Series, MLB record for most walks before turning 21, owner of perhaps greatest teenage season of all time—there’s just as many moments that show his personality bursting out of him—copying Alex Bregman by carrying his bat down to first base in the World Series, drawing the ire of Miles Mikolas for an elongated Soto Shuffle, joking about just wanting to make the team in spring training.
The baseball community has taken notice, too. Former Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz called him a 20-year-old who plays the game with the maturity of a 30-year-old. Fellow young phenom Ronald Acuña Jr. admitted that he thinks Soto is a more exciting player than him. Soto’s agent Scott Boras considers him to already be one of the faces of baseball and he’s not alone in that thinking.
The Nationals have plenty of outgoing personalities. Eric Thames, Starlin Castro and Emilio Bonifacio all signed free-agent deals last offseason to join a clubhouse that already had Soto, Victor Robles and Aníbal Sánchez. So far this season, they’ve showed they still know how to have fun with trumpet celebrations on the basepaths and socially distant dance parties in the dugout.
But Soto’s status as a star heightens the amount of attention directed at him, something that can only benefit both the Nationals and baseball as a whole given how well he’s handled it since reaching the majors in 2018.
Not only does he give the Nationals MVP-caliber production, but he knows how to pump up his teammates while does it. MLB may be in the midst of navigating a season during a pandemic (and struggling to prevent outbreaks from happening), yet Soto’s return should be a boost for MLB as it competes with NBA and NHL restarts for the attention of sports fans.
Baseball is in a weird state right now. The season is shorter, stadiums are empty and everything from spitting to high fives has been banned. Yet if there’s anyone well-suited to make the best out of it, it’s Soto. And soon, he’ll be able to jump down from the top of the dugout and finally step back into the batter’s box to make his presence known once again.
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