In this summer when baseball came back, when grateful arms wrapped themselves around every Washington National from Nick Johnson to Chad Cordero and each first was treated with the reverence of a papal visit, there has now come a different kind of first: the first player Nats fans love to hate.
It has gotten to be too much with Cristian Guzman. The strikeouts, the popups, the meek ground balls to second base.
And the disdain manifests itself in true Washington style, not with boos in the ballpark -- although those are starting to come -- but in a more passive-aggressive form with sniping on talk shows and Internet chat rooms and in the silent protest of people like Dennis Walsh, a part owner of a Bethesda bar who will not buy any more Nationals tickets until the team benches its regular shortstop.
The franchise's biggest offseason free agent signing -- $16.8 million -- has become its biggest impediment: too expensive to dump but so offensively inept that the Nationals almost seem to be conceding outs when they write his name on the lineup card.
What to do with Cristian Guzman?
The topic has filled more than a few organizational meetings, flummoxed Manager Frank Robinson and frustrated hitting coach Tom McCraw. They have tried everything, hitting him first, second, seventh, eighth and even ninth in interleague games in American League ballparks. All to little avail. Still, they keep playing him and hope he comes alive.
"Of course I feel for him," Robinson said one day last month just after announcing he was going to bench Guzman for a few days, hoping -- futilely, it turned out -- that this would clear his head. "I know he's a better offensive player than he's shown. You don't hit .274 a couple of times and all of a sudden he changes leagues and you don't hit? There's an adjustment period. You do eventually have to adjust."
A couple of hours earlier, Robinson called Guzman into his office to talk about the benching. He brought along bench coach Eddie Rodriguez, a Spanish speaker, to translate in case Guzman did not understand. They talked about Guzman's approach to hitting, how he needed to work on his swing and take more batting practice. The manager also thanked Guzman for playing good defense the first half of the year and not letting the season-long slump get in the way. Guzman smiled and said he understood.
"I know the offense has bothered him, he's sensitive to that," Robinson said that day. "You hear it from the fans and the radio and the press. It starts to wear on you. He comes to the ballpark every day with his head up and it's helped us have a hell of a first half. And he made some terrific plays."
The benching didn't help. In fact, Guzman got worse. He practiced all the things Robinson and McCraw told him while standing in the batting cage, then forgot them when he went to hit in the games. Then his defense fell apart. It started with little things: a missed ground ball that seemed to be something he could reach, a wild throw to second on a double play attempt. But the mistakes got bigger -- and costlier.
There was the throw from catcher Brian Schneider that he dropped two weeks ago in Atlanta, allowing Chipper Jones to steal second and eventually score the winning run. Then there was the play Guzman botched in the ninth inning on Friday that led to the winning run in yet another Washington defeat.
Privately, some in the organization say that Guzman is bothered by the fact that Robinson sometimes sits him in favor of Jamey Carroll or pinch-hits for him late in games. This, they say, has affected his defense, which concerns the people in charge and might prompt a quicker change. But what change? For now Carroll has to play second until Jose Vidro's sore quadriceps muscle is better. Maybe the Nationals could make a waiver deal in September to pick up a shortstop that somebody else doesn't want. There is even talk that the new owner might have to eat the remaining three years on Guzman's contract and simply cut him over the winter. But for now, there is little choice but to write Guzman's name in the lineup.
"I stuck with him for a lot of reasons," Robinson said. "He's our shortstop, our down-the-road shortstop, the shortstop of the future and we're a good pitching and defense team and he plays good defense for us."
Statistically, Guzman is having a historically wretched year. According to John Labombarda at the Elias Sports Bureau, Guzman's .190 batting average would be the worst of any player with at least 300 at bats since Tony Pena hit .181 with the Boston Red Sox in 1993. His slugging percentage of .273 would be the lowest since Rey Ordonez slugged .256 with the New York Mets in 1997 and his on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) of .509 would be the worst in 12 years. Pena had a .502 OPS in 1993. Guzman's 15 RBI are shockingly low.
"Nobody deserves what I have been through," Guzman said the other day as he stood in the home clubhouse at RFK Stadium. He had just come from a workout and had wrapped a large towel around his shoulders. It was about two hours before game time and he stood in shorts and running shoes. His English was halting but his frustration translated in any language.
"This is real hard, I can tell you," he said. "I don't want to see nobody go through what I go through. I try everything, man."
He smiled and shook his head.
There are so many theories for his slump. Some suggest that it has been tough to switch from the American to the National League but Guzman shrugs this off saying "the pitchers are the same." Others have wondered if he has struggled to adjust from hitting on the fast artificial turf in Minnesota that turned groundouts into base hits but Guzman shakes his head no. He is hitting eighth a lot and in the National League, a difficult place to bat because opposing pitchers will not throw fastballs -- which are usually easier pitches to hit -- to No. 8 hitters, preferring to taunt them with curves and change-ups with the thought that they would rather face the pitcher who bats next.
Asked if the eighth spot is a tough place to be, Guzman smiled.
"Everybody tells me that," he said. "I don't see too many fastballs."
His head is spinning with advice, some of it solicited, some not. Much of it focuses on the switch-hitter's swing from the left side of the plate, a lunging, awkward, flailing motion off his front foot that leaves him looking like he is trying to throw a Frisbee. Robinson would prefer the more traditional approach of putting his weight on the back foot and swinging through the ball. Such adjustments haven't worked.
Neither has McCraw's demand that Guzman end his slump by swinging only at fastballs. The hitting coach is baffled by Guzman's approach of watching fastballs sail right down the middle of the plate, then trying in vain to chase a curveball that flutters out of the strike zone.
Guzman shook his head. "It's not that easy," he said.
His manager for three seasons in Minnesota, Ron Gardenhire, would sit him from time to time, bothered by Guzman's occasional lapses in concentration. These were not long punishments, however, and Gardenhire said he came to have affection for his shortstop.
"Sure you get frustrated with young players sometimes," he said. "But he always came back."
With Guzman at shortstop, the Twins won three straight AL Central titles from 2002 to 2004 and he hit .273, .268 and .274 over that span. In 2001, he hit .302. That said, there were plenty of whispers over the winter that the Twins didn't mind seeing him leave as a free agent and were stunned the Nationals gave him a contract for both four years and $16.8 million. The Nationals contend that they had to overpay to be sure they could land a veteran shortstop.
Only the one they signed has been a disaster. And it's as much a mystery now as it was in April. Guzman had a small resurgence over the weekend when he lifted his batting average from .183 to .193, this after he decided to ignore all advice and go back to swinging the way he felt most comfortable, off his front foot. But on Sunday he struck out twice and civility finally left Washington. The fans booed him all the way back to the dugout after each strikeout.
"I don't feel nothing from the fans," Guzman said. "I feel from my teammates."
Right now, in the worst year of his career, it's all he has.