Originally created 03/10/99

Guillen a team leader



LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The subject was Ozzie Guillen and Atlanta Braves general manager John Schuerholz was seeking advice.

Sign the veteran shortstop or not?

Schuerholz turned to backup catcher Eddie Perez, like Guillen, a native of Venezuela. What's Guillen like? he asked.

"He can play," Perez responded. Then he added, laughing, "But he talks a lot."

A week later Schuerholz stopped by Perez's locker and acknowledged, "You're right."

Perez was right on both counts. At age 35, Guillen can definitely still play. And, yes, he talks a good game too.

"He's smart, he talks a lot, but he knows what he's talking about," Perez said.

Indeed, Guillen is already acknowledged as one of the team's leaders, listened to by veterans and youngsters alike. That comes from 14 years in the big leagues, including 13 seasons as the Chicago White Sox regular shortstop. There's no one in Atlanta's clubhouse who's been around as long or has accumulated as much knowledge as Guillen.

"He plays really, really hard," manager Bobby Cox said, "but he has fun playing and he can laugh at himself if he makes a mistake."

When he hits the field, Guillen is all business. But inside the clubhouse he shows off a boisterous personality that leaves his teammates laughing.

"I like to have fun," he said. "I try and get along with every player and let them get to know me real well and have fun with me. I played all my life like that and I think it's a little late to change."

Guillen has the Baltimore Orioles to thank for reviving his career. Let go by the White Sox following the 1997 season, he signed with the Orioles as a free agent, then was released last May after hitting a paltry .063 in 12 games. It was perfect timing from Atlanta's perspective. With Rafael Belliard on the disabled list and Walt Weiss troubled by a sore hamstring, the Braves were desperate to shore up shortstop and Guillen provided the answer.

"He saved our rear end," Cox said. "When Walt went down we were really in trouble. I can't say enough good things about the guy. He's always upbeat and ready to go."

Guillen ended up playing in 83 games and hit .277, while playing all four infield positions. The Braves rewarded him with a two-year, $1 million contract this winter and though he knows he's already made the team, he's approaching the spring like a rookie.

"In the past I didn't even care about spring training," he said. "I knew I was going to be the starting shortstop. I learned a big lesson last year. I hit the ball good a couple of times, but I didn't have a good spring training. I think my manager had doubts whether he could put me in and I didn't show any good at-bats during the season, that's why I got released."

With that experience still fresh in his mind, Guillen reported to camp in great shape and it's paid off in a fast start. He's hitting .571, leads the club with five RBI and has played a flawless shortstop and third. He understands he'll backup Weiss again, though Cox is likely to give Weiss regular rest and start Guillen two or three times a week.

"I've got to have a good spring and show that they can count on me from day one," Guillen said. "Every day for me is a challenge. In the past I had a job for sure, but now I never know what's going to happen."