- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 5, 2008

Cristian Guzman ought to be the Washington Nationals‘ representative at the All-Star Game, an honor that also would serve as a nice symbol for Nats fans.

The symbolism of it? Anything is possible.

Not so long ago, a reasonable person might have bet that Guzman would be out of baseball by now.

Guzman, after all, batted .219 in 142 games in his first season in Washington - and he had to rally at the end of the season just to do that well. He followed that up by missing the entire 2006 season because of injuries - not what the club hoped to get in return for the four-year, $16 million contract it gave him.

Nationals fans were hoping that Guzman, if he was still in the game, would at least be out of the District by now.

How things change. Those same fans now should hope that Guzman stays next season and the season after, that the team and player agree on a two-year contract extension.

After all, shortstops who bat .315 and lead the league in hits are hard to come by. (That performance appears to be no fluke, either: Guzman batted .328 in 46 games in his injury-shortened 2007 season.)

What is amazing about his transformation is that the reason for it is so simple: Guzman couldn’t see the ball, at least not until he underwent Lasik eye surgery before the 2007 season.

His success since the surgery is well documented. Still, you have to marvel every time you see Guzman drive a ball - and he drives them hard - at the notion that a player could get through seven major league seasons without being able to see the ball.

Guzman delivered some solid years in his first seven seasons in Minnesota, batting .302 in 2001 and hitting .274 in 2004.

But much of Guzman’s success in Minnesota came from bounced shots off the artificial turf, not hard drives down the line.

“A lot of times in Minnesota, he used the turf,” Nationals general manager Jim Bowden said. “We figured he was a .260 hitter out of the Metrodome, because a lot of his hits were bounce and run. We knew that, but he is a much better hitter now than he was in Minnesota.”

Guzman pulled a Mickey Mantle in spring training this year, hitting home runs from both sides of the plate in one game.

“I asked him [last Saturday], ‘Could you imagine what you could have done in Minnesota before if you were able to see the way you can see now?’” manager Manny Acta said. “He just laughed about it. He had a good career there and played well, but you have to wonder: What if? What if he were able to see better? Especially in a dome, which is even tougher. It is day and night, the difference, from both sides of the plate.

“Even when he is not the most patient guy, the difference now is he puts the barrel of the bat on the ball very consistently compared to before. He hits so many balls hard, driving the ball.”

It is hard to believe a player could survive not able to see that small ball traveling quickly toward him. But Acta says it is more common than one might think.

“A lot of these kids sometimes don’t take that seriously,” Acta said. “I can tell you by experience in the minor leagues, while they do have eye tests, a lot of these guys don’t want to wear glasses. There is a way sometimes to try to cheat the test, and it ends up hurting them.

“The last few years in the game they have taken those tests more seriously. If you can’t see, you can’t play.”

Acta is speaking from personal experience. His vision was not the best during his minor league career, and he didn’t take steps to correct it.

“Not that I could hit anyway, but I couldn’t see very well until I started coaching and then wearing my glasses,” he said.

Bowden said the organization places a high value on looking at players’ depth perception.

“We have never drafted a player since I have been here in Washington that we didn’t check for depth perception,” he said. “We check all of our players.”

If that’s so, how did Guzman get a $16 million contract when he probably couldn’t even see the line on the paper for his signature?

He hadn’t been tested, it turns out.

“Guzman’s signing did not include a depth perception test due to his performance with the Twins and the scouting reports that did not indicate that there was a potential problem or area of improvement,” Bowden wrote in an e-mail.

Now, all players drafted and hitters signed as free agents take an eye test as part of a physical, and the depth perception of all players is tested when they report to spring training, Bowden said.

You know what they say about hindsight - it’s 20/20, even without Lasik surgery.

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