- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 14, 2005

He stepped into the batter’s box at RFK Stadium one day last week, adjusted his stance, took a mighty swing and connected. The ball rose majestically toward the outfield and sailed up, up and away, over the roof in dead center field and out of the ballpark.

No doubt about it, Jose Guillen can really hit. Especially for someone who rarely plays golf.

That’s right. Three and a half hours before the Nationals — the first-place Nationals — went out and won yet another baseball game, Guillen, using a driver borrowed from pitcher Joey Eischen, was happily smacking a few balls off a tee planted at home plate.

“I’m not a big fan of golf,” he said. “I just like to take some balls and see how far I can hit them. It’s fun.”

Everything has been fun for Guillen so far, whether it’s conducting his own long-driving contest or playing right field, exhorting his teammates or starting another late-inning rally. And why not? The Nationals just completed a 12-1 homestand. They had won 10 straight and led Philadelphia by 1½ games in the National League East going into last night’s game in Anaheim, the start of a nine-game trip that will help determine whether the ballclub is, to quote heavyweight boxer Kevin McBride, “a contender, not a pretender.”

The Nationals have won even though Guillen has had a poor June statistically. His batting average has dropped from .305 on May 31 to .285, and he had 10 home runs and 32 RBI entering the Angels series. But Guillen is happy to contribute in other ways.

“If I’m not hitting, at least I’m gonna play defense. At least I’m gonna get on base and do all those little things to win some games,” he said.

Most important, Guillen is happy, period.

“This has been a great experience for me,” he said. “This is a great chemistry we have here, a great attitude. It doesn’t get any better than this.”

It certainly has been worse. On Sept. 25 while playing for Anaheim, which was battling Oakland in a hot division race, Guillen was hit by a pitch in the eighth inning of a game against the Athletics. After he was lifted for a pinch-runner, he returned to the dugout and flipped out. He threw his helmet near Angels manager Mike Scioscia and slammed his glove against the wall.

Guillen, who screamed at teammates the previous May for purportedly not retaliating after he was hit by a pitch, was hitting .294 with 27 home runs and 104 RBI. Yet the Angels suspended him for the rest of the season.

That did not deter Nationals general manager Jim Bowden, the GM of the Cincinnati Reds when Guillen played there in 2002 and 2003. On Nov. 19, Bowden traded Juan Rivera and Maicer Izturis for Guillen.

Bowden said he did not have to check with anyone to ensure Guillen was a sound investment.

“He has great leadership ability, he plays a good right field, he can throw people out and he’s a winner,” Bowden said. “He can drive in runs with the game on the line and get the big hit when you need it.

“You should never judge people based on perception,” Bowden added. “You should always judge people based on your personal contact. … Jose’s not just a player, he’s family. He’s a friend of mine. I trust my children with him. He’s played with them for hours. He’s good people.”

Bob Boone, Guillen’s manager in Cincinnati and now an assistant to Bowden, said, “I don’t believe all these labels. Jose is a guy who plays as hard as he can play and gets upset when you take him out.”

Not everyone has felt the same way. In a Los Angeles Times article that described Guillen as “one of the most polarizing figures in recent Angel history,” Angels pitcher John Lackey was quoted as saying, “You take him for what he’s worth. He came in with some baggage. He left with some more.”

Guillen is 29, yet he is playing for his eighth franchise. The Angels were not the first club to grow frustrated despite his production. Pittsburgh traded Guillen at age 23 despite some decent seasons. In 2003 near the trade deadline, Cincinnati traded Guillen, hitting .337 with 23 homers in 97 games at the time, to Oakland. The A’s let Guillen sign with Anaheim after he hit eight homers in 45 games.

“When you put up the numbers he’s put up and played for the number of teams he’s played for, something’s going on,” Lackey told the Los Angeles Times.

With the Reds, Boone said Guillen wanted to be traded during spring training in 2003 after Ken Griffey Jr. returned from an injury. The Reds’ outfield was crowded.

Boone said he told Guillen, “You’re my best player. Stay here. There’s nothing you can do that can separate you and me. You’re staying here.”

However, Boone also issued Guillen this warning: “If I get fired, they’ll probably get rid of you.”

Which is exactly what happened. Boone and Bowden were fired July 28, 2003. Two days later, Guillen was dealt to the A’s.

Before leaving for the Nationals’ West Coast trip, Guillen brushed aside questions about what happened with the Angels.

“It’s over,” he said. “I really don’t want to talk about it. The past is the past. I take full responsibility for what happened last year, take it like a man and that’s that. It was all my fault. I don’t want to blame anyone, and that’s it.”

The Angels made Guillen attend anger management classes that Guillen called both useful and unnecessary.

“It was great,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this year. “I learned a lot of stuff. I didn’t really need anger management classes, but I’ll do whatever I can, and maybe they’ll help me.”

Before things got out of hand in Anaheim, it appeared Guillen’s biggest problem was saying whatever happened to be on his mind.

“I grew up with a really tough father who always taught me to tell the truth,” said Guillen, a native of the Dominican Republic. “I know in baseball sometimes you’re not always told the truth, and a lot of people cannot handle the truth. I think that’s been part of my problem in the past. Speaking the truth to people. People don’t need to hear whatever I needed to tell them.”

Usually low-key in the clubhouse, where his locker is practically hidden in a corner, Guillen is a fiery presence on the field and in the dugout. He occasionally must be restrained from going after umpires, but he directs most of his emotions toward himself and his teammates.

“Everyone knows he gets angry. He gets upset, but he hasn’t really gone overboard this year,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “He’s brought us so much energy.”

Guillen said he has a good relationship with Nationals manager Frank Robinson, who was a bit hard-headed and feisty as a player in his day.

“I’ve shown him I just want to play every day,” said Guillen, whose $4 million contract was extended in April through next season.

Said Robinson, who noted Guillen’s willingness to play hurt: “He’s done everything we thought he could do and what he would bring to the ballclub. He’s gone beyond that because he’s a real competitor. This kid really lives to win, and he wants to win badly.”

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