‘A lot of emotions’: Juan Soto, in a Padres uniform, returns to D.C.

Washington Post photo by John McDonnell.
San Diego Padres right fielder Juan Soto (22) tips his hat to the crowd for his first at bat in the 1st inning during a game between the Washington Nationals and the San Diego Padres at Nationals Park on Aug. 12, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

Just after 2 p.m. Friday, Juan Soto walked down the long ramp from the players’ parking lot at Nationals Park, taking the same path he has before so many games, smiling at the social media crew that once jumped at any chance to post about him, angling his walk to the clubhouse he once called home.

But instead of going fully inside the clubhouse – instead of sitting by a locker in the back of the room, instead of changing into red workout clothes, instead of grabbing a late lunch from the chef cooking Latin American food in the cafeteria – Soto stopped in the small lobby. He held envelopes for the Washington Nationals’ many clubhouse attendants. As he handed them out, his familiar laughter could be heard from the hallway.

Then Soto had a few hundred more steps to go. For the first time in his four-year career, he was in D.C. and playing for the road team, his locker next to first baseman Josh Bell’s on the visitors’ side. When the Nationals traded Soto and Bell to the San Diego Padres on Aug. 2, Soto immediately realized a reunion was coming.

Ten days ago, he knew nothing but the Nationals, the team that signed him as a 16-year-old outfielder out of the Dominican Republic.

Ten days later, Soto, now 23 and a veteran of the brightest spotlights, came to face them.

“There’s just a lot of emotions, a lot of feelings that I have in this stadium,” the outfielder said in the Padres’ dugout Friday afternoon, surrounded by more than 30 media members and six cameras. “A lot of memories that I’ve had in the past, so it feels pretty good to be back and see these guys and enjoy the moment. It was some great moments here, but now we just got to keep going on.”

About 30 minutes before first pitch, the Nationals played a video for Bell and Soto, who were both stretching between the third base line and center field. While Soto watched, he chatted with Nelson Cruz, Luis García and Yadiel Hernandez, then hugged each of his former teammates. Soto’s section of the tribute began with his first career homer when he was just 19. It ended with some of the biggest hits in club history: Soto’s game-winning single against the Milwaukee Brewers in the 2019 wild card game, which he called his favorite moment at Nationals Park; his score-knotting homer in Game 5 of the National League Division Series that fall; then his towering shot off Gerrit Cole in Game 1 of the World Series, the one that landed on the train tracks at Minute Maid Park.

After the early-arriving crowd gave the pair a standing ovation, Soto’s face popped onto the big screen. Wearing a backward Padres hat, having traded red for brown, he had taped a message for D.C. fans.

“I love you all even if I have another team’s uniform. I am still going to love you guys,” Soto said through the stadium’s speakers. “Thank you. You guys made me who I am today.”

For most of July, after Soto turned down a 15-year, $440 million extension, he was the biggest story in Major League Baseball. Would he land with the Los Angeles Dodgers, following Trea Turner and Max Scherzer from last season’s trade deadline? The Padres? The St. Louis Cardinals? Or might Soto stay in Washington if the Nationals’ didn’t find an offer they liked.

Thanks to the Padres and General Manager A.J. Preller, the Nationals’ bar was met. Soto and Bell were shipped out for six players: shortstop C.J. Abrams, outfielders Robert Hassell III and James Wood, left-handed pitcher MacKenzie Gore, right-handed pitcher Jarlin Susana and first baseman/designated hitter Luke Voit. But before he joined the Padres, in the weeks of questions about his future, Soto repeated a few sentiments.

He loved Washington. He understood the sport is a business. He would be very relieved when the circus closed shop.

The timing of Friday, though, kept a heavy weight on Soto’s first trip back to Washington. When Bryce Harper left for the Philadelphia Phillies in free agency, he returned a whole offseason after playing his final game in Washington. After Scherzer and Turner were traded last July, they didn’t come to D.C. until this season, with Scherzer having moved from the Dodgers to New York Mets in that time. Anthony Rendon, on the other hand, has yet to make it here as a member of the Los Angeles Angels.

With those star-sized departures, fans had months to process before seeing them in this building in another uniform. But with Soto, it was more like pouring alcohol on a fresh wound.

“It feels different,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “It just feels kind of weird because it feels like he was just here yesterday.”

There was a stark difference, too, in how Soto was introduced before his first at-bat. For the past five seasons, public address announcer Jerome Hruska lent his signature touch to Soto’s name. He drew out the vowels in Juan. His voice rose toward the last consonant in Soto’s first name. And when he reached Soto – the two syllables that, before this month, were synonymous with a smile and massive swing in Washington – Hruska would reach for his high notes.

But not Friday. When Soto left the on-deck circle, Hruska flatly spoke his name, just as he does for all opposing players. To leave room for another ovation, catcher Keibert Ruiz walked in front of the plate and starter Cory Abbott stepped off the mound. Soto tipped his helmet, the cheers getting louder until they faded into a cloudless evening. Then Soto kicked dirt around the batter’s box and prepared himself to hit.