Cristian Guzman doesn't like running in straight lines. A
straight line means a single, something the Twins shortstop finds
only slightly more appealing than gum disease. So whenever he
hits a ball into the outfield--deep or shallow, hard or
soft--Guzman bursts from the batter's box and runs in a wide arc
toward first. If first base coach Jerry White screams Go!,
Guzman's arms really start to churn, his knees lift high and his
eyes widen. "Guzzie flat-out flies," says Minnesota utilityman
Denny Hocking. "If it's hit in the gap, it's a triple. If it's
hit down the line, it's a triple. He's a triple machine."
Even in the era of Pedro and Big Mac, few have dominated a
single-season statistic the way the 22-year-old Guzman has been
running up triples. At week's end his 14 three-baggers were not
only the highest total in the majors--six more than his nearest
competitor--but also, through 100 games, the most since the Mets'
Lance Johnson had 15 at that point in the 1996 season. (The major
league record is 36, set by the Pirates' Owen Wilson in 1912.) "I
love the triple more than anything," says the six-foot
195-pounder, who was two triples short of Rod Carew's 22-year-old
team record and 12 from the American League mark, held by
Shoeless Joe Jackson ('12) and Sam Crawford ('14). "It's a time
to hit the ball and run as hard as I can. It's the most exciting
thing I can do."
That's debatable. In his two years with the Twins, Guzman has
made some breathtaking plays in the field. In the eighth inning
of a 3-2 win over the Cardinals last week, Guzman went deep into
the hole, stabbed a scorching grounder off the bat of Placido
Polanco, pumped and then threw a one-hopper to first base for the
out. "He's a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop," says Hocking. "It's
unfortunate he's not mentioned in the same breath as [the
Indians'] Omar Vizquel."
Remarkably, Guzman never played the game until 6 1/2 years ago.
Growing up in Bani, a small town in the Dominican Republic, he
spent most of his free time helping his father, Tilson, a farmer,
pick papayas and tomatoes. "To me, baseball looked boring," says
Guzman, Minnesota's leadoff hitter, who was batting .261 with
seven home runs, 36 RBIs and 15 stolen bases.
Guzman's view changed when he was 15. Emerson Garcia, a family
friend who was signed by the Padres in May 1993, told Cristian
that baseball offered a high-salaried, nonagricultural future.
Less than six months after he first picked up a glove, Guzman was
signed by Yankees scout Victor Mata in August 1994. Guzman played
for New York's entry in the Dominican Summer League in '95 and
then came to the U.S. to play Rookie League ball the following
season; he was promoted to Class A in '97, batting .273 in his
first full pro season. That winter he was traded to the Twins as
part of a package for second baseman Chuck Knoblauch.
Guzman spent one season in Double A before making the jump to the
majors last year. Although he struggled offensively as a rookie,
hitting .226 with 26 RBIs, Guzman impressed the Minnesota brass
with his maturity and poise. When he came to the Twins, he spoke
barely enough English to order a steak and a Coke, but after
taking courses, he now converses easily with teammates and the
media. "I tell Matt Lawton that he can have all the doubles he
wants," Guzman says of his team's leader (29) in that category,
"because the triples are for me."
COLOR PHOTO: RICH PILLING/MLB PHOTOS