By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 22, 2006
VIERA, Fla., Feb. 21 -- He seemed to emerge out of the cow pastures that surround the Washington Nationals' spring training complex Tuesday, like some sort of modern-day Shoeless Joe Jackson, as the sun burned away the fog and climbed toward its midday apex. A crowd of players soon converged upon the figure, which looked like Cristian Guzman, only skinnier and more animated. Finally, as hugs broke out all over, it became clear: It was, in fact, the one known as Guzie. And Guzie had come with a vow.
"The people are going to like the new Guzie," he said. "I've got a little surprise for them."
The unexpected arrival of Guzman, the Nationals' wayward shortstop, injected an element of intrigue into an otherwise mundane day of pickoff-move drills and bullpen-throwing sessions. Position players are not required to report to camp until Thursday, with the first full-squad workout scheduled for Friday.
What the poets say about spring training, that it symbolizes rebirth and a cleansing of sins, holds a special poignancy for Guzman, whose 2005 season was one big, messy pile of unproductive at-bats, embarrassing statistics and armchair psychoanalysis from the media, fans and team officials.
He batted just .219, and his OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) of .574 would have been last in the majors by 80 points -- among players who had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title -- had he not missed two weeks in July with a strained hamstring. Only a strong finish (he batted .325 in the season's final month) kept his season from becoming one of historic futility.
Along the way, Guzman became sullen and withdrawn. Team officials complained privately that he was unresponsive to the suggestions of coaches. Eventually, he stopped talking to the media because he had no answers to the only question he was ever asked: What's wrong with you?
"You know when you struggle the whole year, you have to be strong to be happy every day," he said. "When you do nothing for your teammates [to help win games], you get a little bit down. But [now] I smile all the time."
If nothing else, Guzman looks better and sees better this spring. At the team's urging, he dropped eight pounds over the winter in his native Dominican Republic, and he underwent laser eye surgery shortly after the season ended in October, which has improved his vision even beyond what contact lenses were doing for him.
Asked if he thinks his vision was one of the problems behind his performance last year, Guzman said, "I think so, yeah. Now, on this first day of [batting practice] here, I see the ball very good."
Still, the Nationals are at least as concerned about his mental state as his physical state. Less than two weeks before spring training began, the team signed Royce Clayton to a minor league contract, telling the veteran shortstop -- and the media -- that Guzman's job is there for the stealing.
"We're not going to sit back," General Manager Jim Bowden said at the time, "and watch Cristian Guzman have another year like he did last year."
Though it was a fairly transparent ploy to jolt Guzman into a sense of urgency -- the fact he is owed another $12.6 million over the next three years makes him impossible to trade and nearly as impossible to bench -- Guzman on Tuesday shrugged off a question about Clayton.
"It's okay for me," he said. "Everybody needs a job. That's not working for me. They can bring Derek Jeter. It's the new Guzie right now."
Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said the team is trying not to place any expectations on Guzman beyond being himself. Which is to say, his old self -- perhaps the one who hit .302 with 52 extra-base hits in 2001 for the Minnesota Twins.
"I know he's a better player, a better hitter, than the way he performed last year," Robinson. "He had four or five [productive] years in Minnesota. And that's not a fluke. You don't forget how to hit all of a sudden, one year to the next."
As Guzman stepped into the batting cage Tuesday, once the pitchers and catchers had left the field and a gang of early-reporting position players commandeered it, a half-dozen or so members of the coaching staff and front office gathered around to watch. His eyes locked in on the ball, and his newly streamlined torso whipped his arms through it.
But one team executive noticed something that, to him, seemed even more encouraging.
"It's good," he said, "to see Guzie smile again."