washingtonpost.com  > Sports > Leagues and Sports > MLB > Nationals

Nationals' Guillen Makes 1st Impression

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 22, 2005; Page D01

VIERA, Fla., Feb. 21 -- Everything was glorious when Jose Guillen arrived at a batting cage early Monday afternoon, a new hat on his head, a new bat in his hand, a new future ahead. He greeted some of his new teammates on the Washington Nationals with the wave of a hand or a shout across the outfield, and promptly hugged General Manager Jim Bowden. When he stepped into the cage and ripped one pitch to left, the next up the middle, Bowden called from behind: "Beautiful to my eyes, Jose. Beautiful to my eyes, baby."

If spring training is all about fresh starts and new beginnings, Guillen's commenced Monday under the brilliant rays of the Florida sun. The first official workout for position players isn't until Tuesday, but Guillen got a head start not only on working out, but also on trying to sever himself from his turbulent past.

Jose Guillen
Jose Guillen
Jose Guillen had 104 RBI for the Angels before getting suspended for the season during playoff race. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

"Everything is going to be perfect," Guillen said. "All the stuff going on is behind me. I don't even want to talk about it. New team. New teammates. Coming to a new town. Hopefully, everything will go well."

Guillen is in the Nationals' camp for an array of reasons, a balance between his ability, which is exceptional, and his past behavior, which is not. The most recent and most publicized incident came on Sept. 25, when Anaheim Manager Mike Scioscia removed Guillen for a pinch runner. Guillen responded by flinging his helmet in Scioscia's direction. He threw his glove against the dugout wall. He continued his tirade inside the clubhouse.

The next day, he was suspended -- for the rest of the season, by a team in the thick of a pennant race. So it was little surprise when, in November, Anaheim traded him to Washington for outfielder Juan Rivera and infielder Maicer Izturis.

What he could mean to the Nationals' lineup, one that was all but anemic in 2004, is immeasurable, and it's why a crowd of coaches and front-office staff gathered around the cage when Guillen stepped in. Washington's players, well aware of their new teammate's abilities, are making a point not to pre-judge him.

"You treat everybody good until they treat you in a bad way," outfielder-first baseman Brad Wilkerson said. "You always give them a fair shake."

The incident last September isn't the only one in Guillen's past. In stops with five other major league teams, he was criticized for putting himself before his team and frequently complained when he was left out of the lineup.

Bowden, though, fiercely defends his new addition. When Bowden was the GM in Cincinnati, he took a chance by signing Guillen as a minor league free agent in August 2002. By early 2003, Guillen had burst into the Reds' lineup and finally started to show what people had foreseen for him when, in 1997, he jumped from Class A to the majors at age 20.

"He's a winning guy," Bowden said. "If you really get to know him, and you care, and you look over a few of the incidences, he's a good kid. He just wears his emotions on his sleeve sometimes."

That, former teammates said, has been the case almost since the first time he set foot in a major league clubhouse. Blessed with what Bowden calls a "Roberto Clemente kind of arm," he used to stand in the outfield in Pittsburgh and launch throws from the warning track to home plate on the fly -- just to show off.

"He started acting, like they say, a little bit cocky," said Nationals pitcher Esteban Loaiza, who was with Pittsburgh when Guillen came to the majors. "For a young guy, he really wasn't listening to the big guys. . . . He just wanted to go out there and wanted to start taking charge, and a lot of people were getting mad."

Guillen admits now that arriving in the majors at such a young age wasn't ideal. But the Pirates, in the midst of a youth movement, had little choice, particularly after Guillen hit .322 at Class A Lynchburg the year before, when he was the Carolina League's MVP.

"It was tough, but everybody makes mistakes in their life," Guillen said. "At a young age . . . probably I don't know how to take care of myself like I am now. I put my head on straight, and here I am."

But the route was a bit more circuitous. After a 1999 trade to Tampa Bay, he was released by the Devil Rays following three seasons of toggling between the majors and minors. He was subsequently released by Arizona and Colorado, and he never even reached the big leagues with the Rockies.

But Bowden, who keenly observes opponents as much as his own team, had admired Guillen's ability from afar -- the short, compact swing, the arm. So he gave him a chance. In 2003, as Bowden said, "He got it." In 91 games with the Reds, he hit .337 with 23 homers and 63 RBI.

"He figured it out that year," said Bob Boone, then the Reds manager and now a special assistant to Bowden. "He's always been a great talent. He was in the big leagues when he was 20, and maybe had too much success early. I don't know. I really enjoyed him. The only problem he ever had with me was when I didn't put his name in the lineup."

That's unlikely to happen very often with the Nationals, who would love for Guillen to bat cleanup and duplicate his production of last season, when he hit .294 with 27 homers and 104 RBI. But before Guillen secures his place in the lineup, Manager Frank Robinson plans to sit him down and have a chat. He will set the ground rules, which basically amount to arriving on time and playing hard. And he will try to find out, he said, what makes Guillen tick.

"To show emotions, there's nothing wrong with that," Robinson said. "I like people to show emotions -- as long as they keep control of their emotions."

To that end, Guillen voluntarily enrolled himself in anger management classes over the winter, "just to learn how to react in those type of situations," he said earlier this month. Monday, sitting in his new dugout, having greeted his new teammates, he preferred to be judged on his actions in the future, not those from the past.

"What have I learned from my mistakes?" Guillen said. "Well, we'll see this year. We'll leave it at that."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company