Jose Guillen heaves a deep sigh, because his story line never seems to change. Oh, the teams change. Guillen is with his ninth organization...
Jose Guillen heaves a deep sigh, because his story line never seems to change.
Oh, the teams change. Guillen is with his ninth organization since 1999, each one hoping it will be the one to harness his five-tool skills and his one-track mind. But every stop, it’s always the same questions, the same trepidation, the same variation on this theme:
How does a nice guy like Jose Guillen always seem to get into the middle of those messes?
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With each new team, Guillen vows he’s a changed man, and expresses a sincere hope he has finally found his permanent resting stop. And yet the carousel keeps turning — from Pittsburgh to Tampa Bay to Arizona to Colorado to Cincinnati to Oakland to Anaheim to Montreal/Washington to Seattle, all since 1999.
So here Guillen is, sitting in the Mariners’ spring clubhouse, being asked about the reputation as a troublemaker that he can’t seem to shake.
That doesn’t mean he has to accept it. One thing you learn quickly about Guillen — he’s not one for accepting things for appearance’s sake.
“Baseball, when they put a tag on you, when you run into some problems in the past, it’s hard to take the tag away from you,” he says, the passion rising in his voice.
“Let me tell you something: There’s a lot of freakin’ players in this game that have done all kinds of crazy stuff, and you don’t hear anything about those players. I don’t understand this game sometimes. I’m telling you the truth. I will tell you the truth, in your face, like it, don’t like it.
“I just don’t know why people keep bringing this up. At the winter meetings, people say, ‘This guy, he’s a hard head in the clubhouse.’ I’ve never been a troublemaker in the clubhouse. I don’t drink. I don’t go out. You never hear Jose Guillen had a problem in a nightclub. You never hear Jose Guillen got arrested or got drunk or hit his wife.
“I just want to play. And I have an attitude? Because I want to play every day? Give me a break.”
The Guillen résumé comes with some givens: Teams will drool over his skills. Guillen will insist he is misunderstood. Teammates and the media will marvel over what a pleasant fellow he is. And at some point in his tenure, an issue of some sort will flare up.
One close observer of Guillen once quipped that he is “tri-polar,” so varied are his personalities. No doubt that under most circumstances, Guillen is personable, friendly, even charismatic. Until he feels wronged.
“He’s an engaging guy, but there’s some swings in there,” said one former teammate.
One of his former managers, Tampa Bay’s Hal McRae, was a tad harsher: “Guillen was the most difficult human being I ever dealt with,” he told the Dayton Daily News in 2003.
But counter that with Marlon Byrd, Guillen’s teammate last year on the Washington Nationals, now with Texas: “I loved him. He got a bad rap because he’s so aggressive. He’s a gamer. I mean, he played half the season with a torn ligament in his elbow. Win, lose or draw, he’s going to battle. You just need to know how to take him.”
And therein lies the Guillen rub. Angels manager Mike Scioscia thought he knew how to take Guillen, until the day Scioscia pulled him for a pinch-runner late in a key game in September 2004.
Guillen’s subsequent outburst, on the field and after the game in the clubhouse, caused the Angels to suspend the outfielder — hitting .294 with 27 homers and 104 runs batted in at the time — for the final eight games of the season and the playoffs.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Guillen “threw his arms into the air at first base, walked slowly off the field, tossed his helmet toward the side of the dugout Scioscia was standing in, and walked to the opposite side of the dugout before entering. He then fired his glove against the dugout wall.”
After the game, the two clashed in the clubhouse, but how that went down is in the eye of the beholder.
“I came to the clubhouse, and my manager approached me in front of everybody,” Guillen said. “Do you think that’s the way to handle stuff in the clubhouse? No. You call me to the office and we talk man to man. You’re not going to call me out in front of all my teammates.”
Invariably, Guillen’s problems have revolved around one major theme: his desire to be on the field virtually all the time. In the wake of the Angels incident, Guillen underwent anger-management classes, and his two years in Washington were comparatively turmoil free.
“Maybe his bumps in the road have taught him something,” said Jose Vidro, reunited with Guillen on the Mariners after two years together in Washington.
“Maybe he’s grown up, or maybe he understands he’s here to play baseball. The last two years in Washington, I didn’t see anything that people used to write about him. He’s a very nice guy, a nice teammate. He’s only worried about going out and playing hard every day.”
Ask Oakland’s Eric Chavez about Guillen’s two months with the A’s in 2003, and he raves about Guillen’s ability, his competitiveness and how he played through a broken hamate bone to hit .455 in the playoffs against Boston.
Then Chavez has another memory.
“He was a little moody. I remember one time he had a blowout with the trainers. He wanted to play. They don’t want him to play. There was a shouting match. That’s what I mean: He wants to play all the time. He’s real competitive.”
Seattle manager Mike Hargrove has coexisted in the past with Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez and Carl Everett, among others, and is confident that he can handle Guillen, too. The Mariners signed Guillen to a one-year, $5.5 million contract last December to be their right fielder.
“It really is a clean slate with Jose,” Hargrove said. “He’s an intense player. He loves to play the game. You just take those things one day at a time. It doesn’t do any good worrying about it. Eventually, something is going to happen with every player. You just get through this day and prepare for tomorrow.”
So many things have happened with Guillen since the Pirates signed him out of the Dominican Republic as a 16-year-old, and made him their starting right fielder at age 20, inevitably dubbed the next Clemente.
The Pirates sent him down to the minors after two solid years, citing his immaturity. With the Devil Rays, Guillen was suspended for 10 days in 2001 for using a corked bat while on a minor-league rehab. (He owned up to the offense, fearful that a teammate would be blamed). Tampa became one of three teams to release Guillen.
With Cincinnati in 2003, he once heaved three bats against a wall, leaving holes, when he was scratched from a lineup (the Reds traded Guillen to Oakland while he was hitting .337 with 23 homers in 91 games). With the A’s, he called out manager Ken Macha after being left out of the lineup (but Macha reportedly vouched strongly for Guillen when the Mariners called for a recommendation this past winter).
In both Anaheim and Washington, Guillen riled up his pitchers by accusing them of not protecting the team’s hitters after they were hit by pitches. In 2005 he had another eruption with the Angels and Scioscia, in which he supposedly tipped off his manager, Frank Robinson, that reliever Brendan Donnelly had pine tar on his glove.
“I would just appreciate if all the stuff would go away,” Guillen said with exasperation this spring. “It gets in my head quite a bit when I think about it. Because I know what kind of person I am.”
Former major-league pitcher Jose Rijo, who grew up in the same town in the Dominican Republic as Guillen, San Cristobal, believes that young Dominican players often struggle emotionally early in their careers because of a lack of formal education, coupled with the harsh transition to a foreign country and a new language.
Ask Rijo about Guillen’s Dominican upbringing, and he says, “Guillen’s life was the same as all of us. He didn’t have much of anything growing up. To come from where he came from, and then be in the States, making money, and being a god in the Dominican, it’s a lot of pressure. Everyone handles it a different way.”
Rijo, now a Nationals executive, once said of Guillen, “He’s in my top five ability wise. But then again, he’s not in the top 1,000 on my list of behavior.” But Rijo also saw Guillen mature in Washington under the grandfatherly guidance of Robinson.
“He’s a very lovable person,” Rijo said, “but when he gets into a role where he’s not playing every day, he doesn’t like it. Other than that, he’s a great person.”
Even his once and future teammate, Jarrod Washburn — by all accounts, an arch nemesis on the Angels in 2004 — says, “You know what? Even that year, when we had our problems, 90 percent of the time, he was a great guy, a great teammate. There were just a few instances, out of the blue, where something would happen, and that would escalate.”
Few deny that the dude can play. And he’s still just 30, which should be his baseball prime.
“If this young man could get settled into one spot for a while, he could put up some hefty numbers — he’s that good,” said Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, Scioscia’s bench coach in Anaheim during Guillen’s time there.
Maddon won’t speak to the details of his Angels incident, but he says, “There’s a real likeable side to this guy. He has an infectious smile.
“He’s almost like a kid, and I’m sure he’ll admit to you there’s times he gets upset rather quickly. If he learns to control that, he will stay with one group for a long time and be very productive.”
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org