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When Carlos Guillen Had Tuberculosis

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Christian Petersen

This is something I know I've written about once or twice or thrice before. For me, it's always the first thing that comes to mind when I'm thinking about Carlos Guillen. Recently, in the last Seahawks playoff game, RGIII played through and made worse a significant knee injury. Matthew and I talked about this on the podcast, then I thought of and wrote up a Felix Hernandez parallel, and that all got me thinking about Guillen again. It got me thinking about Carlos Guillen as a 25-year-old major-league shortstop playing through pulmonary tuberculosis in 2001.

Every now and again, I've had the idea to collect all the stories I think any Mariners fan ought to know about the team's history. I've never done it, because holy shit that would be a lot of work, and I'm also too young to know what was up in the 70s and 80s. But I know, if I ever did create such a collection, I'd find room for the story about Guillen's TB. I think every Mariners fan should be familiar with the tale of what Guillen went through, and for any of you who aren't, or for any of you who want to brush up on some of the details, this post should give you what you need.

Background: Guillen, of course, came over in the Randy Johnson trade, in 1998. He got semi-regular playing time with the Mariners in 2000, and then in 2001 he took over as the starting shortstop after Alex Rodriguez bolted for warmer, shittier pastures. This is important: in 2001, the Mariners were amazing, and Guillen was an everyday player for the first time. He would've been thrilled to be a part of that.

In spring training, Guillen tested negative for tuberculosis, although the specific test isn't 100-percent accurate. Let's start moving forward. Through May 18, Guillen batted just .233, but the Mariners were 31-10 and Guillen was young and feeling his way. On May 19, Guillen collided with Al Martin going after a Paul O'Neill pop-up. Guillen stayed in the game, but Martin left with a concussion. Martin compared the collision to a college football hit he never delivered. Additionally, something I'd forgotten about:

Then the next inning [Martin] tried to run out to his position in left field. Mariner Manager Lou Piniella, preoccupied with Guillen, noticed his groggy player heading slowly to left. Immediately he sent out Mike Cameron to move to center, sliding Stan Javier over to left. And just to make sure, Piniella chased after Martin himself.

Guillen struggled to find an offensive groove. Through June 30, Guillen batted just .240, but the Mariners were 58-21 and Guillen was doing well enough. On July 1, Guillen collided with Al Martin again, going after a Larry Barnes pop-up. Martin stayed in the game, but Guillen left with a concussion. He was back in the starting lineup as soon as July 3. On July 6, he went 3-for-5.

This is around where it starts to get hazy. Guillen lifted his average up to .259, but on July 27 he was pulled with a nosebleed. The explanation was that Guillen was ill, and he didn't play until July 31. In August, he got into 25 games and started 20 of them, but he batted .179 with zero home runs. In September, there was an ankle injury, and there was also an unfortunate national tragedy. When a more rested Guillen played, he actually hit .439. His final regular-season appearance was on September 26, the Mariners' 153rd game. Why the sudden stop?

The regular season came to a premature end for him Sept. 28, however, when he suddenly began coughing up blood.

"I was coughing it up and it wouldn't stop," he said, "so finally I checked myself into the hospital."


The doctors looked him over and realized he had lost three liters of blood. Discovering he had TB, they shook their heads in amazement.

"The doctors said they couldn't understand how I was able to play," he said. "They said I should have been in a hospital bed."

Guillen wound up quarantined, which is what happens when an individual has more advanced TB. Needless to say, the news caught the Mariners by surprise. Needless to say, people didn't expect that the starting shortstop on baseball's best team had contracted pulmonary tuberculosis.

Guillen actually returned after treatment, playing three times in the ALCS. That was another surprise, but that isn't what's important. Once the Guillen news broke, people had a lot of questions. Where'd he get it? Did it spread? How long was he suffering? Why didn't he tell anybody? Why didn't the Mariners pick up on this? How did a shortstop play for months and months through a debilitating disease?

All of the Mariners were tested, and none of them had been infected. That was a great relief, to Guillen, to them, and to their families. Tuberculosis, after all, can be contagious, although it is not that easily spread. Now let's go back to July-ish. Guillen was having some nosebleeds. What did the Mariners do about it?

"As soon as he started having nosebleeds, we had him see an ear, nose and throat guy," said general manager Pat Gillick, who added it was thought through to be a result of the concussion Guillen received when he collided with outfielder Al Martin during a game July 1.

That seems sensible enough, but Guillen never started feeling better. He actually only felt worse, all the time. Chris Colston:

But when the game was over and the clubhouse cleared out and it was time to go home, the throbbing fever returned. He knew he really should eat something, but his appetite just wasn't there. Instead he'd head home, crawl into bed and pray that the next morning would be the one when he'd wake up and feel normal again.

That morning never came. This was some nasty flu, all right. When would it ever go away? Every night was like sleeping in a sauna. Sometimes, he had to change his pajamas twice they were so drenched in sweat.

"The worst times were at night," he said.

Ken Daley, with a similar summary:

Every morning Carlos Guillen woke up and wondered how he was going to play a baseball game that night.

His head ached. His chest felt almost bruised, as if he had been taking hard jabs the night before. His cough had turned his throat as raw as sandpaper.

His sheets were damp from the fever he was running. And the bed, which had become his haven, was becoming harder and harder to leave.

Guillen was dreadfully ill, and he knew it. There wasn't any hiding from it. But something about getting to the ballpark made him feel better, if only temporarily, and he continued to play without complaining and without telling the coaching staff what was going on. Most of the time, Carlos Guillen felt like absolute shit. Some of the time, enough of the time, he didn't, and he certainly didn't want to let his team down. This paragraph is funny, now:

Piniella thought Guillen's performance was a tad lackadaisical during the team's trip to Texas last week, and asked coach Dave Myers to talk with the shortstop. Guillen did not offer illness as an excuse. He merely told Myers, "I'll pick it up."

Guillen wasn't completely silent. This paragraph is less funny:

Pitcher Jose Paniagua said Guillen had been sick for about three months and had told him he suspected the blood he was losing was from his lungs, and not his nose.

Carlos Guillen knew how bad Carlos Guillen felt. Jose Paniagua had some idea how bad Carlos Guillen felt. The Mariners had very little idea how bad Carlos Guillen felt, and he didn't take any opportunity to clue them in. Neither did Paniagua, and neither did any other teammate who might have been aware. The Mariners might've missed some signs, and it looks awful for them to have missed months upon months of tuberculosis right under their noses, but it's not like Guillen was an open book.

The Mariners, of course, drew their criticism. This didn't make them look good. Said Lou Piniella:

"I feel like a fool," he said before the game last night. "But we didn't know."


In the Mariners clubhouse, relief pitcher Jose Paniagua, a close friend of Guillen, was furious over the news. He told a reporter the Mariners should have known Guillen was sick three months ago, and accused them of shoddy practices. Storey said later he was not given a chance to respond.

When Paniagua continued his complaints the next day, he was called into Piniella's office and told he was out of line. Paniagua later apologized for his remarks.

The Mariners scrambled in response to the controversy. There were meetings, and there were conferences. Not that there was any sort of legal investigation, but it seems the Mariners were basically cleared of any wrongdoing, if mostly by themselves:

The situation prompted multiple meetings in-house, including with ownership. According to sources, the conclusion was that the best that could be done, was done.

By yesterday afternoon, Dr. Charles Nolan, director of tuberculosis control for the Seattle King County Department of Public Health, was at the ballpark joining Storey in a brief press conference that dealt in generalities about TB and saying good things about the Mariners' medical response.

In fairness to the Mariners, you don't really ever suspect tuberculosis. Not in the US, not when the player has already passed a tuberculosis test, and not when the player won't say anything. The concussion made sense as a nosebleed explanation, and if the Mariners noticed Guillen's weight loss, he didn't elect to clue them in. And here's the incredible thing: before the All-Star break, Guillen posted a .656 OPS. After the All-Star break, he posted a .739 OPS. He tripled his triples, and he tripled his stolen bases. In the months during which Guillen was his sickest, he performed better. Carlos Guillen posted a .739 OPS through full-blown pulmonary tuberculosis.

So the Mariners didn't have much reason to suspect Guillen was being held back by a dreadful illness. And Guillen, in a way, didn't have much reason to open up. You don't want a player to ever jeopardize his health in this sort of fashion, but Guillen was a starter for the first time on an awesome team, and though he didn't feel good at home, at the park he kept on producing. Guillen felt like he could play through it; Guillen did play through it, until he started coughing up blood. Only then did he go to the hospital. Jose Paniagua might've been furious that the Mariners didn't catch on sooner, but it was Guillen who didn't help them. And he didn't help them because, on the field, he was helping them. Why cause a stir?

My recollection was that the Mariners really screwed up. It's kind of the first thing that comes to mind when you think about a shortstop playing through severe tuberculosis for months. I've become increasingly convinced that the Mariners did just about all they could be expected to do, so I don't really hold them responsible. I don't hold Paniagua responsible, because that would've betrayed a friend's trust. Guillen is most responsible for having jeopardized himself, but it's understandable why he did that, because he wanted to impress his employer, and because he was still able to play despite everything that was going on.

The best team in baseball had a shortstop with tuberculosis. Tubercufuckinglosis. The 2001 Mariners, ultimately, were stopped by the 2001 Yankees, but given that it's contagious, the 2001 Mariners could've conceivably been stopped by tuberculosis instead. In Ichiro's rookie year, he could've contracted tuberculosis. In Bret Boone's unbelievable MVP-caliber season, he could've contracted tuberculosis. Anyone and everyone on the team could've contracted tuberculosis, which would've been a problem in games against teams that weren't ill. The best team in baseball came that close to a medical disaster. They settled instead for a more conventional playoff disaster. To be honest, I don't know which is preferable.

But nevermind the 2001 Seattle Mariners. This is about the 2001 Carlos Guillen. The quietly diseased 2001 Carlos Guillen, who later in his career would get criticized for not being sufficiently tough.