'A lot of memories': Juan Soto feels the love as he returns to Washington with the Padres

·5 min read

WASHINGTON – It's become an unpleasant tradition the past few years for Washington Nationals fans, one of their favorite stars leaving town and coming back wearing another team’s jersey.

But Juan Soto’s return on Friday as a member of the San Diego Padres was a memory all its own -- from the montage of his many highlights on the Nationals Park video board to Soto's recorded message for the fans to the game itself.

As he made his way out of the on-deck circle in the top of the first inning, the buzz began to build.

Without his familiar walk-up music, Soto stepped to the plate in an unfamilar mustard-and-brown uniform, yet the fans greeted him with a standing ovation that lasted well over a minute.

He hugged and playfully joked with Nationals catcher Keibert Ruiz, knowing all eyes in the ballpark were on him.

Juan Soto tips his cap to Washington Nationals fans during his first at-bat Friday night.
Juan Soto tips his cap to Washington Nationals fans during his first at-bat Friday night.

"Pretty exciting moment for me to get to see those guys again, and see those fans and teammates again," Soto said.

Then, he caught himself. "Ex-teammates."

Soto tipped his cap. And the roar from the crowd of 35,390 grew louder.

"Just happy they cheered for me," he said afterward. "Glad to be on the field again."

Just 10 days earlier, the Nationals made the momentous decision to trade their superstar slugger, who helped bring a World Series title to the nation’s capital in 2019.

“I don’t know if it feels different. It just feels kinda weird,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said before the game. “It feels like he was just here yesterday.”

On trade deadline day, Soto and teammate Josh Bell were sent to San Diego for a treasure trove of prospects. They barely had time to clear out their lockers before they realized how soon they’d be back in town.

“I told the guys it’s not goodbye, it’s just see you later because I’m going to see them soon again,” Soto said.

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Although Soto had to make “a longer walk” to the visitors' clubhouse this time, he was back in a ballpark where he had some of his greatest moments.

“A lot of emotions and a lot of feelings that I have at this stadium. A lot of memories,” Soto said before the game, surrounded by reporters in the Padres dugout.

Was there one that stood out above all the others?

“The wild-card hit,” he said instantly of the clutch liner off then-Milwaukee Brewers closer (and now Padres teammate) Josh Hader that kick-started the Nats’ improbable run to a title in 2019.

He recalled “how the fans went crazy and how loud they were” when, in his first career postseason game, his bases-loaded single in the bottom of the eighth inning turned a 3-1 deficit into a 4-3 Nats lead.

“That’s got to be my favorite moment in this stadium."

On Friday night, Soto was the opponent – but not the enemy – as he fouled out to left field in his first plate appearance. He finished the night 2-for-6 with a double and scored a run as the Padres cruised to a 10-5 win.

The fans, many of them wearing Nationals No. 22 jerseys, applauded again.

“He started out here and we feel like he’s part of the family,” said Lisa Gordon of Bethesda, Maryland, one of those in a Soto jersey, as she was holding a homemade sign that said: “WE (heart) YOU SOTO!”

Over the past few years, Nats fans have seen several of their stars leave for other teams: Bryce Harper went to the Phillies as a free agent. Anthony Rendon signed with the Angels. Max Scherzer and Trea Turner were traded to the Dodgers. But with Soto, something felt different.

“He’ll always be kind of a Nat to us," said Nancy Todd of Arlington, Virginia. "I wouldn’t say that about everybody that leaves, but Juan’s kinda special. I feel like he was our kid. We kinda raised him, got him started, gave him a ring.”

The fans loved Soto. And it was obvious he loved them back.

“I cried the whole morning (after the trade),” Soto admitted. “It was pretty tough. But at the end of the day, I really understand that it’s business. You’ve got to do the best for yourself. They just did the best for them. I’m happy with them, whatever. No hard feelings or anything like that.

“I’ve just got to keep moving forward.”

Follow Gardner on Twitter @SteveAGardner

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Juan Soto feeling 'a lot of emotions' as he returns to DC with Padres