By Robert Dominguez
Jorge Soler’s 48th and final home run in the Royal’s last game of the 2019 season on Sept. 29 was cause for a double celebration.
The first-inning, nearly 400-foot blast against the Minnesota Twins not only sealed his title as American League home run champion (the injured Mike Trout was second with 45), it also gave Soler the single-season record for most homers by a Cuban-born player.
The 27-year-old rightfielder/DH passed Rafael Palmiero, who hit 47 homers in both 1999 and 2001 for the Texas Rangers.
Make that a triple celebration: Soler’s home run was also the most in Royals’ history, and the first time a KC player hit more than 40 in a season.
“It means a lot for me, my family,” Soler said after the game, a 5-4 win at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City. “The organization has never had a home run champ.”
It was a breakout season for the Havana-born Soler, who first attracted the attention of Major League scouts as a member of Cuba’s national team. After defecting from the island in 2011, he was signed by the Cubs the following year with the hopes he’d become a prodigious power threat within the friendly confines of Wrigley Field.
Never happened. With a reputation as an injury-prone, non-hustling hothead — in one infamous minor league incident, he charged the opposing dugout with a bat after a bench-clearing brawl — Soler’s three seasons in Chicago were a bust. He never hit more than 12 home runs in three partial seasons marred by several trips to the Injured List.
More injuries — and underachieving — followed his trade to the Royals for reliever Wade Davis before the 2017 season. But the 6’ 4” Soler finally fulfilled his promise as a dangerous slugger in 2019. Playing a full season for the first time in his six-year career— he appeared in all 162 games — he added a team-leading 117 RBI and .922 OPS to his impressive HR total.
And only Mets rookie Pete Alonso, with 53, and Eugenio Suarez of the Reds, with 49 (the most by a Venezuelan-born player), had more home runs than Soler.
But perhaps more importantly, Soler’s performance gave downtrodden Royals fans a ray of hope for 2020 after the team’s fourth-place finish in the AL Central — and fourth straight season of losing baseball after winning the World Series in 2015.
Robert Dominguez is the co-author of “Bronx Bummers: The Unofficial History of the New York Yankees’ Bad Boys, Blunders and Brawls.”
Photo source: KA Sports Photos – Under Creative Commons license