VIERA, Fla. — They say you only get one chance to make a first impression. If that’s true, then Jose Guillen and the Washington Nationals have experienced love at first sight.
For all the baggage Guillen brought with him from his aborted stint with the Anaheim Angels, the 28-year-old outfielder has been nothing but a model citizen since he set foot inside the Nationals’ spring training clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium.
He’s typically among the first to arrive in the morning for workouts. He has gone out of his way to befriend teammates, staff members and even reporters. And rarely has he been seen without a wide grin across his face.
Guillen, by all indications, appears to be a changed man.
“I take full responsibility for all the stuff that happened [in the past],” he said before yesterday’s game against the Florida Marlins. “In your career, you’re going to make some mistakes, and it costs you a lot. But right now, at this time in my career, I’ve got to grow up and realize I’ve got a good opportunity ahead of me. I’ve got a family I’ve got to take care of.
“It’s been great so far. I’ve got a great relationship going with [manager] Frank [Robinson]. Hopefully, everything just keeps going in the same direction.”
Not everyone knew how best to approach Guillen for the first time this spring. He came to the Nationals with a damaged reputation — the product of his on-field tirade and subsequent suspension by the Angels during the final week of the 2004 season — and first-time greeters were understandably wary of him.
Even Robinson avoided Guillen for the most part during the early days of camp. When the manager did talk to the player, he made it a point not to bring up the Anaheim incident.
“And I won’t,” Robinson said. “No reason to.”
The two have begun getting to know each other better in recent weeks, spending time near the batting cage joking around. The result has been a budding kinship between the former staar outfielder and the current one.
“The first week I just kind of let him go and settle in,” Robinson said. “I don’t know how his personality was before. I didn’t ask. I don’t care. But he has kind of fit in with the rest of the guys here. He’s very light and enjoyable.”
It’s Guillen’s strained relationships with managers that seem to have gotten him into trouble in the past. He’s a fiery competitor who doesn’t take well to being benched, which may explain why he went off on Angels manager Mike Scioscia last year after getting pulled for a pinch-runner in the middle of a pennant race.
Guillen insists he had a good relationship with Scioscia and that those who don’t know him have misrepresented his character. He does, however, admit he has overreacted to criticism in the past and has paid the price for his actions.
“I know I’ve got to change some of that,” said Guillen, who underwent anger management this winter before signing with the Nationals. “That’s not going to be my style this year. I’m just going to come out and play, give everything I’ve got to my teammates and fans and the organization. I’m going to prove a lot of people wrong. I know there’s going to be a lot of eyes on me this year. But that happens, that’s baseball.”
If Guillen plays up to his potential on the field, fans and reporters surely will forget about his past. A legitimate five-tool right fielder, he has displayed some of those traits this spring. He hit the first home run in Nationals history in the exhibition opener against the Mets. On Sunday, he finally flashed his cannon of a right arm, gunning down the Dodgers’ Jeff Kent at third base.
And after going 2-for-2 with a double yesterday, Guillen raised his spring batting average to .286 with four extra-base hits.
If Guillen duplicates his numbers from last season (27 homers, 104 RBI, .294 average), he will prove to be quite a steal for Washington. Though general manager Jim Bowden traded a pair of promising young players (outfielder Juan Rivera and shortstop Maicer Izturis) to the Angels, Guillen will make only $3.5million in the final year of the two-year deal he signed with Anaheim in 2004.