Nats, Guillen Seek A Happy Balance

Jose Guillen homered three times and drove in eight runs in his first seven games this spring.
Jose Guillen homered three times and drove in eight runs in his first seven games this spring. (AP)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 30, 2006

VERO BEACH, Fla., March 29 -- Jose Guillen is happy. He sits in front of his locker and he smiles. He jokes with teammates, ribs a clubhouse attendant, bounces into the office of Frank Robinson, the man entrusted not only with managing the Washington Nationals, but managing the club's most unpredictable personality.

Jose Guillen is upset. He sits in front of his locker and he broods. These are the down days, and there's no telling when they'll come. It seems, though, that they may be the days when he plays best, when he is mad at the pitcher or mad at his teammates or mad at the world. Could that be true?

"You better believe it," Guillen said. "I love when people [tick] me off."

It has been a sunny spring in Florida, nary a storm in sight, and as the Nationals prepared to pack up and head north on Thursday evening, it has been a relatively sunny spring for Guillen as well. He rose at 6 a.m. on a daily basis to report to Space Coast Stadium in Viera, where the Nationals train, and rehabilitate his left shoulder, on which he had surgery in the offseason. He overcame inflammation in his left wrist, and returned to the lineup as the potent offensive player the Nationals need him to be, homering three times and driving in eight runs in his first seven games.

This spring, though, has been different for Guillen as well, because he isn't quite the mystery he was last year at this time, when few people with the Nationals knew him. This doesn't mean that his teammates and coaches truly understand him now, not by a long shot. But now, he walks into a situation in which he is simultaneously embraced as a family member and monitored as a troubled teenager -- all in his own clubhouse.

In 2005, his first year with the Nationals, Guillen showed how productive he could be during a tremendous first half in which he homered 18 times. He also showed his combustibility, a trait that led him to confront other teams -- namely, the Los Angeles Angels -- as well as, occasionally, his own teammates and manager. If there is anything the Nationals know better than they did a year ago, it is that Guillen must be watched -- at the plate, in the field, near his locker -- for there could be excellence or explosions at any moment.

"There's drama all the time," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "There's going to be events. There's going to be situations that [media members] get to talk about and write about. And I get to get gray hairs -- but I'll color it, and we'll be all right."

The most notable situation this spring has been Guillen's desire for a contract extension, one that would, as he said, "let me finish my career in Washington, where I can have a home." He will earn $4 million this season, a bargain for a player who could, if healthy, lead the team in homers and RBI, as he did a year ago. He is well aware of the five-year, $50 million offer the team made to disgruntled left fielder Alfonso Soriano, not to mention the $31.5 million it committed to first baseman Nick Johnson and catcher Brian Schneider.

"I'm happy for those guys," Guillen said.

But Guillen's salary is still, even now, tied to his itinerant and turbulent past, one in which, by his own admission, he caused problems in clubhouses from Cincinnati to Anaheim. That stuff so defines him that, in the first 20 seconds of an interview this week, he brought up not only a benches-clearing melee in Anaheim last year -- one started because Guillen tipped off Robinson that an Angels reliever illegally used pine tar on his glove -- but the incident the previous year in which, while playing for Anaheim, he had a confrontation with Angels Manager Mike Scioscia that led to his suspension in the middle of a pennant race. Following the run-in between the Angels and Nationals, Guillen infamously referred to his former manager as a "piece of garbage" who could "go to hell."

"Everybody learns from their mistakes," Guillen said. "I make one mistake last year that really cost me a lot, what happened in Anaheim. All that controversial stuff, I don't need it.

"But people are different. Players are different. When you're mad and stuff, you always have something to prove: 'Okay, you make me mad? I'm going to prove you wrong.' "

Which puts the Nationals in the somewhat precarious position of knowing that an angry Guillen just might be a productive Guillen, but an angry Guillen is no good for the clubhouse, one which crumbled in the heat of a pennant race last summer. At the helm of all this is Robinson, who last year frequently found himself sitting in his tiny, dark office at RFK Stadium listening to Guillen prattle on about something that frustrated him.

"He's one of the guys that likes to talk, that comes in and talks to me about things," Robinson said. "Not just his personal stuff or things that affect him. He is genuinely concerned about this ballclub, period. And it bothers him when the ballclub doesn't perform the way it should perform. He wants to win. That's the bottom line."

The fact that Robinson says such things about Guillen is part of the reason Guillen feels so comfortable. They are not without their differences, and there are those in the organization who feel like Guillen has trouble stepping outside himself and seeing how his actions affect others. But Robinson decided at some point last season that the best response to Guillen is to try a little reasoning, try to get him to understand the other side of a situation. But if that fails -- and it sometimes does -- then just sit back and listen.

"Trust me, Frank and Jose Guillen are like this," Guillen said, crossing his fingers. "Tighter than whatever you think it is. I can walk in there anytime I want to. Any time, any minute, any second, and he would never say anything. He'd probably kick the people out of the office to talk to me. I can say to Frank pretty much whatever I want."

Such is the force of Guillen's personality. The more important part for the Nationals, however, is the force of his bat. He is that rare player whose career statistics are hardly overwhelming -- a .276 average with 134 homers and 534 RBI in parts of nine major league seasons -- but is still, at age 29, talked about in terms of his potential.

"He could be," Bowden said, "that 30-homer, 100-RBI guy that we need."

He could be that because it appears he is healthy. Last season, during a miserable second half in which he hit .246 and slugged .395, Guillen's left shoulder was "dead," as he described it. He didn't know the extent of the injury at the time, that the labrum in the shoulder was slightly torn. Robinson said he, too, didn't know how bad the injury was, and if he had, "I would've chained him down."

"Believe me," Guillen said. "I'm not going to do that again, to play like that, unless it was the playoffs or the World Series. I have to be smarter."

There are no guarantees, however. "He wants to be in there," Robinson said. And his teammates want him there, too.

"He knows how bad we need him in there," second baseman Jose Vidro said. "He knows what a big part of this ballclub he is."

He is a big part on the days he is happy, and he is a big part on the days he is angry. His teammates must deal with him on all of those days, when he homers and when he strikes out, when he smiles and when he broods.

"It doesn't even matter to me," Guillen said. "They know what Jose Guillen's all about. They know when I come here, I'm just ready to work and get the job done and go home. I don't get in nobody's way, like I don't like nobody to get in my way."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company