Hot Hand Felled By a Bum Thumb

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, June 27, 2007

If there is justice, the first man to bat for the Nationals in their new park on Opening Day in 2008 will be Cristian Guzman. The leadoff man should get quite an ovation. Finally, Nats fans know who the real Guzman is. By next April, let's not forget what we've learned about the shortstop in the last two months and what we saw on Sunday in the aftermath of his season-ending injury.

In the fifth inning Sunday, Guzman snagged a throw before it sailed into center field, then made a sweeping tag on an Indians base stealer. The runner was out, but the blow from Josh Barfield's batting helmet tore the ligaments in Guzman's left thumb so badly that, in the words of Manager Manny Acta, the thumb could "go all the way back -- a freaky thing. It's bad."

Nevertheless, Guzman disguised the extent of the injury and finished the game, including one final line drive when he was robbed of a hit, dropping his batting average to .329. On game tape, you can't tell he's hurt at all. No wincing on any swing, no reluctance on a later tag play, no examining his hand to call attention to himself. After the game, he avoided probing from reporters and even got teammate Jon Rauch to knot his tie for a road trip as if nothing much was wrong.

"I want to play through this. I don't want to do any more time on the disabled list," Guzman told Acta, expressing no interest in having the thumb thoroughly examined.

"Cristian was in denial, big-time," team president Stan Kasten said. "He didn't want to hear about any diagnosis."

Modern fans often are driven to cynicism by athletes who cheat, break the law, waste their talents or take the big money, then loaf. We sometimes forget that most pro games are full of steady, solid people such as Guzman who have professional pride, a work ethic and a sense of honor toward their sport. Their performance is a huge part of their identity, so they cherish and protect it.

Guzman is no paragon. He'll nonchalant a ground ball. He's never been a student of the game but is rather an enthusiastic, cheerful teammate, an excellent all-sport athlete who was considered a better basketball player growing up in the Dominican Republic.

But all in all, his character and toughness through the last two seasons are more the norm than the exception in baseball, where a 162-game season tests heart even more than talent and relentlessly exposes the lazy player to daily embarrassment. In Minnesota, where he helped the Twins to the playoffs three times, and here in Washington, where he was an utter washout until this season, Guzman always earned his money. In short, the player many fans thought was the worst of all the Nats, and worthy of their boos, in many ways represented the best in a grinding game that can demoralize anyone.

The reason so many feel so bad for Guzman now is that they admire how much he persevered with almost no support outside his teammates. He was our gag line. After all, he didn't have to fight his way back to a point where he might have made his second all-star team this year. He had it made. Including his current contract, Guzman knows he will earn at least $25 million in his career. That kind of currency lets you tell people to drop dead. Well, if that's who you are. After his horrid .219 average in 2005, then missing all of '06 after shoulder surgery, Guzman could have counted his cash and slid into a utility player role. How many would've noticed or cared? He'd just be another guy whose body wore down after 1,000 big league games.

Instead, for those who watched, Guzman never gave the Nats less than a professional effort. In '05, he sulked a little, but not much. You would, too, if you were hitting .192 on Aug. 31. He actually made fewer errors that year at shortstop (15), with half his games played on a poor grass infield at RFK, than he averaged in six seasons on indoor turf as a Twin (17).

In the last month of '05, when much of RFK turned "Goooz" to boos, he hit .325. Which shows more pride in performance, raising your average from .292 to .319 in September, as many do, or raising it from .192 to .219, as Guzman did, knowing you'll just get mocked anyway?

In a perverse silver lining, Guzman was so awful in '05 that he had laser surgery on his eyes before the '06 season. But, when his shoulder blew out, he had to wait a year to test his new vision. The results? This season, Guzman slugged .468 with a .382 on-base percentage in 173 at-bats, far better than his career marks of .383 and .303 entering the season. For a full year, he was on a pace for more than 100 runs and 20 triples. His rate of drawing walks nearly doubled. Just a hot streak? Or is his batting eye better? Stay tuned in '08.

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