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APRIL 14, 2004

Luis Sojo
2001 Futility Infielder of the Year
Part 1 Part 2

NOW IT CAN BE TOLD: this website wouldn't exist if not for the heroics of Luis Sojo, role player-turned-World-Series-hero. At a time when this Internet outpost was nothing more than a twinkle in my eye, Sojo's October 2000 performance provided an unlikely source of inspiration: if a frumpy but amiable futility infielder could drive in the winning run of a World Series, then perhaps the rest of us could hope to transcend our limitations as well. Though I've mentioned Sojo dozens of times in my blog and other writings, his spot on my Wall of Fame is long overdue. On the occasion of celebrating this site's third birthday, it seems only fitting to explain Sojo's place in the FI pantheon and to formally recognize his 2001 Futility Infielder of the Year award.

Digging even deeper into the creation myth of the Futility Infielder, one could say it all started with Yankee second baseman Chuck Knoblauch's throwing problems. Sometime during the 1999 season, Knoblauch developed a mysterious and harrowing inability to make routine throws to first base, reminiscent of the difficulties Dodger second baseman Steve Sax endured sixteen years earlier. Knobby made 26 errors on the year, 14 of them on throws, but in an effort to keep his confidence up, manager Joe Torre rarely lifted him for a defensive replacement — even in the postseason, where he made more two errors. But during the 2000 season, things took a turn for the worse. In a 51-game stretch, Knoblauch made 15 errors, including three in one game on June 15. Two days after that debacle, he drew even more attention to his problem by airmailing a toss into the seats behind first base at Yankee Stadium, hitting Fox Sports anchor Keith Olbermann's mother in the head.

Up to that point, the Yanks had made do with Wilson Delgado and Clay Bellinger as Knoblauch's backups; the former acquired during spring training in a minor deal from the Giants, the latter a ten-year minor-league veteran who'd stuck with the Yankees the previous season as a jack-of-all-trades, playing every defensive position except catcher. Both had filled in while Knoblauch missed several games due to a litany of hand injuries in late April and May. As Knoblauch's meltdowns became back-page tabloid fodder, the ante was upped, and the Yanks required a more capable solution. On June 20, they exiled "The King," Jim Leyritz, to Los Angeles in favor of infielder Jose Vizcaino. Knoblauch's fielding stabilized, but Torre began using him as the designated hitter on some days and starting Vizcaino at second, or using "the Viz" as his defensive replacement. When Knoblauch went on the DL in early August with tendonitis in his right elbow, the Yankee front office decided even more insurance was necessary. Brian Cashman knew the man for the job, and traded a minor-league pitcher to the Pittsburgh Pirates to reacquire Sojo, a friendly face for a team feeling the weight of expectation as they pursued their third straight World Championship. For a brief and shining moment the Yanks owned the contracts of Delgado, Bellinger, Vizcaino, and Sojo — the Four Horsemen of the Mendoza Line. "The Yankees have cornered the market in Futility Infielders," I told my friends. The phrase stuck in my head.

• • •

Venezuela-born Luis Sojo had spent fifteen years cultivating his futility infielder status. Signed in 1986 by legendary superscout Epy Guerrero, Sojo revealed himself in the minors as a contact hitter who neither walked nor struck out very often, and who had little power. But even with his meager offensive skills, his good glove earned him recognition. Playing for Myrtle Beach of the South Atlantic League (A), in 1988 Sojo hit .289 AVG/.332 OBP/.377 SLG and was named the Sally League's All-Star shortstop, making Baseball America's Class A All-Star Team as well. Switching positions as he rose through th ranks, his hot half-season in AAA Syracuse in 1990 (.296/.321/.418) earned him both International League's All-Star second baseman honors and a trip to the majors. Debuting on July 14, 1990, Sojo stroked an RBI single in his first at bat. Ironically, his first several appearances were as a leftfielder, a DH or a pinch-hitter; he didn't play the infield until his ninth big-league game, but spent most of his time at second after that. In 33 games, he hit only .225/.271/.300. The August 31 game of that season was a highlight of sorts; entering in the second inning as a sub for the injured Tony Fernandez, Sojo drove in five runs on a double and a homer but made three errors as the Jays won 12-8.

In December 1990, the Jays traded him to the California Angels as part of a deal that sent Devon White to Toronto. Sojo won the Angels regular second baseman job, though his line in 1991 was nothing special: .258/.295/ .327 with 3 homers. He led the AL in sacrifice bunts with 19, the only time he led any statistical category in the majors. In the spring of '92, the Angels decided to give Bobby Rose a shot at the second base job, exiling Sojo to AAA Edmonton to start the season. Rose didn't hit, so after about six weeks, Sojo was recalled and hit .272/.299/.378 with a career-high seven homers. But he didn't figure in the Angels' long-term plans, so in December 1992, he was reacquired by the Jays for Kelly Gruber. With Roberto Alomar and Tony Fernandez at the middle-infield positions, he didn't exactly fit in Toronto's plans either. Sojo played in only 19 games for the Jays in 1993, hitting a bare .170. He didn't make the postseason roster, but he did earn a World Series ring when they won their second consecutive championship.

Released by the Jays, Sojo caught on with the Seattle Mariners, and after a hot month in AAA, he earned a regular spot in manager Lou Piniella's lineup, playing mostly second base but some shortstop as well. In 63 games, Sojo hit .277/.308/.423 with six homers — five in his first 20 games — while the Mariners went 49-63 in the strike-torn season. The following year, Sojo started out splitting time between second and short, at times playing alongside a promising 19-year-old named Alex Rodriguez. When A-Rod was sent down late in May, the shortstop job was his. The Mariners got off to a good start, but their hopes seemed dashed when Ken Griffey Jr. broke his wrist midseason. They meandered around .500 into late August, at one point falling 13.5 games behind the division-leading Angels. But late in the month they caught fire; the "Refuse to Lose" M's went on to win 24 out of 35, ending the regular season in a tie for first with the Angels. On the day they first caught the Angels in a tie atop the AL West, Sojo drove in six runs.

The fateful one-game playoff forever endeared Sojo to Seattle fans. With the M's leading 1-0 behind a masterful Randy Johnson, Luis came up with the bases loaded in the seventh inning. He connected on the first pitch, breaking his bat but sending the ball down the first-base line. As one Mariner fan reports announcer Rick Rizz's call:

Here's the pitch. Swing, and it's a ground ball, and [Rizzs's voice raises to a fever pitch] it gets on by Snow. Down the right field line into the bullpen. Here comes Blowers. Here comes Tino. Here comes Joey. The throw to the plate is cut off. The relay by Langston gets by Allanson. Cora scores! Here comes Sojo! Everybody scores!!! Sojo comes in!!!

Sojo had himself a Little League-style grand slam, pushing the M's to a lead they never relinquished in taking their first-ever AL West crown. To this day, the team's improbable victory is credited with saving baseball in Seattle. Sojo started every Mariner playoff game that fall, going 10-for-40 with 2 doubles and 4 RBI as the M's upset the Yanks in a thrilling Divisional Series, then lost to the Indians in the Championship Series.

Sojo got off to a slow start in 1996, and by the end of April it was clear that the shortstop of the future, A-Rod, was ready to take over the job full-time. Early in August, the Mariners placed him on waivers, and fatefully, the Yankees bit. As manager Joe Torre juggled infielders, Sojo found time mostly at second base, where he was error-free in 14 games. He hit a thin .275 but made the post-season roster and played in 10 of the Yanks' 15 postseason games, usually as a defensive replacement. But he held his own with the bat when given the opportunity: 4-for-10, including 3-for-5 with an RBI in the World Series. He was playing second base when Mark Lemke popped to third baseman Charlie Hayes, giving the Yanks their first World Championship in 18 years.

When incumbent Mariano Duncan fell out of favor, Sojo won the Yankee second-base job in 1997, overcoming a 3-for-29 start. He was hitting .307/.355/.372 when on August 14 he was hit by a Ricky Bones pitch, fracturing his forearm and ending his season — is it any surprise the Yanks didn't repeat their Series win? The 1998 and '99 campaigns saw him return to his role as a reserve, but in doing so he got a front-row seat to one of the great teams of all time. The '98 Yanks won 114 regular-season games, then romped through the postseason to win their second title under Torre, and the '99 team added a third title. Sojo only played in about 50 games each season, with similar results (.231/.250/.265 and .252/.275/.346). He didn't play much in either postseason — four games, one at-bat — and he missed the first two games of the '99 Series attending the funeral of his father.

But along with Tim Raines, Sojo was credited as one of the great influences in the Yankee clubhouse, and he even attained a bit of celebrity through exposure in the memorable Adidas "Only In New York/ANSKY" TV ad campaign, the "El Duque" commercial in which he asks David Cone, "Hey Coney, why don't you have a dance?" As revered as he was — particularly by Derek Jeter, who he helped with advice on defense (don't laugh) and by the younger Spanish-speaking players who he took under his wing — the Yanks elected to cut ties with him following the '99 Series. Writing in the New York Times on March 4 of the following spring, Buster Olney captured Sojo magnificently in a few paragraphs:

...[Sojo] has an acute sense of humor, has enjoyed a long career and has a deep knowledge of the game.

"He might be the most respected teammate I've ever been around," David Cone said.

Sojo speaks English, but his pronunciation of the language is imperfect, and for the amusement of teammates, he would sometimes accentuate the imperfections. Sojo would play intermittently, sometimes after weeks of sitting on the bench, and he always managed to do something significant with his awkward flailing swing, and then he would laugh about it.

• • •

The beauty of the Yanks' reacquisition of Sojo in 2000 was that for the first time since '97, he had been playing somewhat regularly. Young Pirate third baseman Aramis Ramirez had struggled and been demoted at the end of April, and as bad as the going-nowhere Bucs were, they still had a need for a warm body at the hot corner. A week into the starting role, Sojo homered in three straight games (the wind must have been blowing out at Wrigley) and he held the job for seven weeks while Ramirez righted himself in AAA. He played sparingly upon Ramirez's return, missed a month due to elbow tendinitis and was designated for assignment about a week after returning. His acquisition was celebrated by players — Brian Cashman later revealed that Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams had begged him to reacquire Sojo — and fans, even as it was overshadowed by the Yanks puzzling acquisition of Jose Canseco on the same day.

During his time in Pittsburgh, Sojo had hit .284/.328/.432 with 5 homers, and he continued to hit upon returned to the Yanks. I was in attendance on August 8, Sojo's return to pinstripes, and he drew a standing ovation on his first at-bat and then promptly singled ("Luis, Luis!" I wrote on my scorecard; that game would later be remembered for Oakland closer Jason Isringhausen's disastrous two-pitch outing, the first yielding a game-tying homer to Bernie Williams, the second a game-winning homer to David Justice). Sojo went on to hit in 17 of his first 18 games for the Yanks, including a career-high 14-game hitting streak. Though the team underwent a gruesome 3-15 swoon at the end of the season (they were outscored 148-59), Sojo continued to hit when called upon to the tune of .288/.321/.408.

His hot bat and steady glove had earned him the starting second-base role on a playoff team, as Torre elected to DH Knoblauch in order to keep his bat in the lineup and his glove away from it. Sojo hit a two-run double in the Yanks 4-0 win in Game Two of the AL Divisional Series against Oakland, also providing some comic relief that night when he tripped and fell fielding a routine grounder. The gaffe came during a tense spot in the game — Yanks up 3-0 in the eighth with two outs and one on, Sojo's error thus prolonging the inning, bringing the tying run to the plate, and chasing Andy Pettitte in favor of Mariano Rivera. When Randy Velarde grounded out, there were smiles all around the Yankee dugout. Sojo started all five games againt Oakland, going 3-for-16 with 5 RBI. He remained in the starting role against his old team in the ALCS, going 6-for-23, driving in both in their 6-2 loss in Game Five.

Torre changed his lineup for the World Series opener, starting Jose Vizcaino because of his familiarity with the Mets' pitchers. The move made the manager look like a genius. The Viz stroked four hits in the twelve-inning epic, including one in a game-tying ninth-inning rally and the eventual walk-off game-winning single. That success earned Vizcaino more time as the starter, while Sojo played sparingly. But by Game Four back in Shea Stadium, Torre was calling Looie's number. Batting second, he went 1-for-4 with a walk, an RBI groundout, and improbably enough a stolen base in a 3-2 win. In Game Five, Vizcaino drew the starting nod, but a double-switch found Sojo entering a tie ballgame in the eighth. In the top of the ninth, with two outs the Yanks got something going. Jorge Posada walked, and then Scott Brosius singled, bringing up Sojo with the go-ahead run in scoring position against tiring starter Al Leiter. With the weight of the World Series suddenly on his shoulders, Sojo calmly delivered a single up the middle, scoring Posada and then Brosius when the throw from the outfield hit Posada. Three Mariano Rivera outs later, the Yanks were World Champions for the third straight time and fourth in the Torre era. Suddenly Sojo — a lumpy role player trapped in the body of a third base coach — was a hero both in Series lore and in his native Venezuela.