Firing up combustible Guillen could end up burning Nationals

June 19, 2005|By PETER SCHMUCK

WASHINGTON Nationals fans are understandably gleeful about the position of their team in the National League East standings, but there is trouble on the horizon. Bank on it.

Manager Frank Robinson, who has done a wonderful job turning a terrible situation in Montreal into a terrific early pennant run in the nation's baseball-hungry capital, might have unwittingly opened the Pandora's box that will undo the Nats' exciting season.

Maybe you missed it, if you don't stay up real late and have satellite television, but things got a little nasty the past few days in Anaheim, Calif., where Robinson and Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia had to be separated Tuesday night after umpires found pine tar on the glove of Angels reliever Brendan Donnelly.

Robinson had asked the umpires to check Donnelly's glove for sandpaper, but the pine tar was enough to get the Angels' right-hander thrown out of the game and suspended for 10 games.

Nothing wrong with that, at least from a Nationals perspective. Robinson caught the Angels cheating. Scioscia got mad and confronted him, since pitchers were using pine tar on their fingers long before Frank was in short pants, but the rules are the rules and Robinson used them to his team's advantage.

The problem was in the subplot. There were whispers that the whole pine tar thing was a setup engineered by former disgruntled Angel Jose Guillen, who then made a spectacle of himself when the benches cleared Tuesday night, added further fuel to the feud by "Cadillacing" around the bases after a game-turning home run and then - on Wednesday night - publicly calling Scioscia "a piece of garbage."

It's probably fair to point out here that the whole thing was enjoyed thoroughly in the District, where one local columnist put the whole thing on Scioscia for trying to bully Robinson after the umpires ejected Donnelly from the game.

Which would be fine, except that no one has ever bullied Robinson and Scioscia is not the type to try. This rush to regionalism is just fine for a town with a new team, but I think that something very important - and very troubling - has been largely overlooked during the whole fiasco.

Whether he intended to or not, Robinson has turned the old Jose Guillen loose, and that is something the Nationals might eventually regret.

Sure, everything is just ducky when you've won 12 of your past 14 games (going into last night) and you're flying in the face of all preseason expectations, but seasons have their ups and downs, and Guillen has a history of hitting to all fields when it comes to the spectrum of human emotions.

He was a very valuable part of last year's playoff-bound Angels team, but a series of incidents - culminating with a dugout tantrum late in the season - led to his suspension from the postseason roster and undoubtedly had an impact on the club's poor performance in the Division Series.

It was a little more than a year ago when the Angels first started to wonder if they had made a mistake by signing Guillen to a two-year, $6 million contract. The team had weathered a string of injuries to get off to a promising start before Guillen - perhaps emboldened by his place among the league leaders in several offensive categories - ripped the Angels' pitching staff for failing to retaliate after he was hit by pitches several times early in the season.

He quickly apologized and stayed under the radar for much of the summer before his behavior became so unbearable that the Angels were willing to suspend him for the remainder of the regular season and do without him in the playoffs.

Now he calls Scioscia "a piece of garbage" and everybody in Washington chuckles at the brashness of the big hitter in the middle of the Nats' first-place lineup, a very talented guy who - not coincidentally - has played for seven major leagues teams in the past seven seasons.

I'm not big on psychobabble, but I believe this is known as enabling.

Emboldened again, Guillen has released his inner demons, albeit in defense of his manager and teammates. The next time, the Nationals might be on the wrong end of his volatile personality - as the Angels were at a pivotal juncture of the 2004 season.

And Robinson won't be able to call Mike Scioscia for advice on how to handle him.

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