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Originally published August 20, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 23, 2007 at 9:08 PM

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Steve Kelley

Guillen one gamble that paid off big time

At the time it seemed like a mistake. A move made out of desperation, like Jose Guillen was the last free-agent outfielder standing. When general manager Bill...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Today

Seattle at Minnesota, 5:10 p.m., FSN/KOMO 1000 AM

At the time it seemed like a mistake. A move made out of desperation, like Jose Guillen was the last free-agent outfielder standing.

When general manager Bill Bavasi signed Guillen last December the news was greeted with a collective groan. It felt like déjà Carl Everett.

After all, Guillen played in only 69 games for Washington in 2006. He had Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in July. He had shoulder surgery and suffered injuries to his groin, rib cage, biceps and hand.

In Washington, he was a human walking tour of "Grey's Anatomy."

And then there was the matter of his, um, fiery, clubhouse reputation. The suspension by the Los Angeles Angels, for instance, just before the playoffs in 2004 after he objected to being pulled for a pinch-runner.

The Mariners would be his seventh big-league team since 2001. Signing Jose Guillen seemed like it was inviting trouble.

"I don't know why people always bring the negative stuff," Guillen said after another positive afternoon. "I've always been a positive guy. I'm not that type of player that I'm getting myself in trouble. You never hear about Jose Guillen getting in trouble off the field. I'm just a guy who wants to play every day. I want to earn people's respect and they've given me respect here."

Now, eight months after his signing, we have to ask ourselves where the M's would be without him. He has harnessed that fire and taken it onto the field. He has been a clubhouse leader, not a clubhouse lawyer, and provided a spark that has been missing since the halcyon days of 2001.

"They knew what they were getting," Guillen said. "Nobody can say Jose Guillen doesn't work hard. I always believed, you work hard and good things will happen. I've been working my butt off here and it's been paying off."

The Mariners remain a half-game ahead of the Yankees in the wild-card race and only two games behind Los Angeles in the American League West. And, if not for Ichiro, Guillen would be the Mariners' MVP.

"I'll tell you what, our organization, starting with Bill Bavasi, deserves a lot of credit, because it was a gamble on this guy. Absolutely a gamble on this guy," manager John McLaren said. "It's been a great gamble and it's paid off for us.

"He's been a joy to watch play and to talk to. He's a good man. I think he's finally found a place where he's comfortable and he likes everything about the organization. He likes the people. He likes the ballpark. And he likes what we've got inside the clubhouse."

In the first inning of the 11-5 victory Sunday over the dead-in-the-water White Sox, Guillen hit a two-run homer over the Chicago bullpen. He muscled a broken-bat single that scored two more and added a sacrifice fly.

Guillen, 31, finished the day 2 for 3 with five RBI. He's hitting .289 with 17 home runs and 77 RBI.

"I'm very happy because I'm pretty much healthy this year," he said. "That was my issue that last two years. This year it's a different Jose Guillen. Now pretty much I'm back to the Jose Guillen I was in the past."

He plays the game like a prize fighter. Every at-bat is a battle. Every inside pitch is a challenge. He reacts to every fly ball as if he absolutely knows he can make the catch.

He plays the game old school, the way another outfielder from another generation used to play.

"He reminds me of Lou [Piniella] a lot," McLaren said. "Lou played blood-and-guts-type baseball and then he also had this sentimental side to him. That's Jose, too.

"Lou had a soft side and Jose's got this big heart. He really cares about people and I think that's where people really misunderstand him. He's not this macho guy who's all about him."

Coming into this season, nobody in the clubhouse knew more about Guillen than designated hitter Jose Vidro. After two years in Washington, this is their third consecutive season together.

"This is the best I've seen him. He's happier than ever," Vidro said. "He's out of the injuries. The way he smiles every day. He's got his family here. He has his son here every day and I think that makes it a lot easier for him.

"People got the idea of Guillen being a really tough guy in the clubhouse and this and that. But that's what you guys have heard from outside. But we here inside who know how everything goes, it's just the other way around. He just wants to be the man. He wants to be the guy in the middle of everything. He's been proving a lot of people wrong."

Guillen is a free agent again at the end of the season, but there is talk the Mariners want to sign him to a two-year extension.

"Sometimes it's hard for me to walk into another team and just meet people and get to know everybody," he said. "But I feel comfortable here with all these people. To me this feels like my second home.

"I know it took me a little while to feel comfortable in this clubhouse and get to know everybody. But it's working out real well for me. It's been great. I feel welcome. It's going to be one of my toughest decisions after this season, where do I play next year?"

Signing Guillen was a gamble last December. It's a no-brainer now.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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