Monday at breakfast before his first opening day as a Baltimore Oriole, Jackie Gutierrez asked Jim McGee what would happen when he was introduced to the Memorial Stadium crowd. "Will they boo me?" asked Gutierrez.
"I promise you they'll cheer," said McGee, the team psychologist with whose family Gutierrez lives.
Even McGee didn't know how frequent or how loud those cheers would be. When a third baseman steals three enemy hits in one afternoon, Crab City approves.
"I am very happy," said Gutierrez afterward. "The fans are wonderful. I thank them. God bless you."
Being Jackie Gutierrez isn't easy. It's hard enough to come to a new town at 25, traded for a popular successful player such as Sammy Stewart. It's tougher when you hit .218 last year, then had to leave two winter league clubs because of "personal problems." It's hardest when your new team asks the American League president to rescind the deal.
As Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams says of his newest player, "He whistles all the time when he's playing the infield. He ought to learn to whistle 'Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Seen.' "
Because neither Gutierrez nor the Orioles will say much about his winter problems with severe depression, it may be helpful to see Gutierrez in a fuller context.
His father was the first Colombian athlete to reach the Olympics, throwing the javelin in '36 in Berlin. One of Jackie Gutierrez's brothers ran the hurdles in the '64 Olympics in Tokyo. Another is a chemist in Miami. Yet another is an executive with a Colombian airline. Jackie Gutierrez himself is the first Colombian to play regularly in the major leagues and third Colombian ever to appear in a major league game.
To call his family one of Colombia's most distinguished would be understatement. When he was a rookie with Boston in the spring of '84, three Colombian reporters followed his progress. National news. On opening day, his error lost the game. The front page headline in his home town of Cartagena said only: "Gutierrez Fails."
During his two years with the Red Sox, a Colombian radio station often broadcast games to his homeland. "Here's the great slugger Jim Rice. Yesterday he had breakfast with Jackie Gutierrez," the announcer might say. "Stay tuned. Next inning Gutierrez may hit."
After five solid minor league years as a hard-nosed shortstop, he made the '84 rookie all-star team, batting .263, fielding brilliantly and showing perhaps the strongest infield arm in baseball. He'd thrown the javelin all his life.
His lone singular quality, it seemed, was introversion. The only time you heard him was when that whistle pierced the silence between pitches. And he whistled constantly. Once, playing for Winston-Salem, his team led, 9-8, with the bases loaded and two strikes on the Alexandria hitter. As the pitcher wound up, Gutierrez burst into "Here Comes the Bride." The batter broke up laughing and took strike three to end the game.
Last season, Gutierrez's play deteriorated. The more he failed, the harder he pressed and the more unable he became to execute the most elementary plays. Perhaps it's hard to carry a family and a nation on your shoulders. He made 20 errors in his last 48 games, batted .100 after Sept. 1 and was the only man in baseball to bat below .100 with runners in scoring position. Pressure didn't bother him. It paralyzed him.
The Orioles didn't know about his erratic winter behavior until after they'd traded Stewart. Then they did an unusual, yet typical, Orioles thing. After bringing him to Baltimore for psychiatric evaluation, they tried to get rid of him at the administrative level while simultaneously welcoming him to spring training warmly.
Manager Earl Weaver had watched his gifted glove only a few days when he said simply, "He's a big league player -- period. He's on the team." Weaver called him into his office and told him not to worry, that he'd start the season in Baltimore if he hit .000.
Meanwhile, Gutierrez was staying with McGee and wife Kathleen, who speaks Spanish, Portuguese and French, and their three children. "He's intelligent, sensitive, very easy to like and good with our kids," says McGee, who works at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Towson. "He's shy, quiet and has some problems with English.
"It should be emphasized that Jackie had no problems whatsoever with drugs or alcohol. That's not the issue. To say he was depressed would be true. But I wouldn't put a clinical name on it . . . The way the Orioles have welcomed him has been an impressive effort. He's commented on it repeatedly . . . that he feels lucky to be with this club . . . Earl particularly should get credit."
You know, crabby, crusty Earl Weaver, the insensitive one who hurts the feelings of his young millionaires.
On the plane from Miami to Baltimore last weekend, "Jackie got moved from one seat to another about five times," recalled Scott McGregor. "First he was in Earl's seat, then the coaches', then the card-game seat."
On another team, he might have felt shunted. On this flight, team captain Eddie Murray (working on a $13 million contract) sat with Gutierrez and explained who always sits in which favorite seats.
So far, the Orioles like what they've seen. Gutierrez, a fine shortstop, may be an even better second and third baseman. "Twice with a man on first, somebody has smashed one in the hole to left and I've just started to jog over and back up third base," said pitcher Mike Flanagan. "Both times I looked up, and Jackie had started a double play."
These days McGee says that his house guest has a limited whistling repertoire. "It always seems to be either 'Born in the U.S.A.' or 'Celebration.' "
Good songs for opening day, baseball's time of rebirth.