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Gutierrez eager to play again with Mariners

After battling illness, veteran outfielder is thankful for spring invitation

PEORIA, Ariz. -- For Franklin Gutierrez, the goal this spring is simple. After sitting out last season, the former Gold Glove center fielder just wants to see if there's still a chance to play the game he loves.

Nothing has come easy for Gutierrez in recent years, though an injury-plagued career in Seattle finally began to make more sense when he was diagnosed with an inflammatory nerve condition called ankylosing spondylitis that attacks the flexibility in the spine and lower back.

Gutierez thought about playing in 2014, then he went on the non-paid restricted list just prior to camp and spent the year with his family in Miami trying to balance life and medicine and therapy for his illness. But something was missing. And that something was baseball.

So Gutierrez is back again with the Mariners, agreeing to a Minor League deal that gives him a chance to go through Spring Training and see where he's at with things.

Short answer?

"I'm doing fine," the 32-year-old said after his first full-squad practice with the club on Thursday. "After missing a year, I'm very grateful to be back here. I've been here for a long time now. I just want to give it a shot one more time to see if I can do it."

The longer answer is a little more complicated. Gutierrez will need to deal with a different routine than his teammates, coming in early to do extra stretching and treatment, taking medication and sometimes just crossing his fingers and hoping the occasional bad day doesn't jump up and bite him no matter what he does in preparation.

The illness is something that "has a treatment, but not a cure," and Gutierrez expects to be dealing with it the rest of his life. But right now, that life is back in baseball, wherever that leads in the coming weeks.

"I don't have any expectations right now," he said. "I'm just glad to be back here with my friends, being around here and doing the things I've been doing my whole life. This is where I am right now."

Manager Lloyd McClendon pulled Gutierrez aside on the practice field on Thursday to reinforce that same message. The Mariners aren't placing any weight on having the veteran as part of their Major League roster coming out of spring. Being deep in outfield options at this point, the club will let Gutierrez take his time working his way back, most likely at Triple-A Tacoma if he sticks with it.

"We hope that he's healthy and can make it through the camp feeling good about himself and get back to playing baseball," McClendon said. "There are no big expectations. Do we expect him to be the guy he was two or three years ago? I doubt it. He's been off a long time. He needs to ease himself back into things and it's going to take time. No. 1, we have to make sure he's healthy."

Gutierrez was able to play just 81 games combined in 2012-13 for Seattle due to a variety of injuries, many of which he later attributed to the illness that wasn't diagnosed until late in his final year with the Mariners. After sitting out last year, he played just enough Winter Ball in Venezuela this offseason to convince himself and the Mariners to give it another go.

"Last year was hard, man, because without playing, I had too much time to think about stuff," Gutierrez said. "It was good because I spent time with my family -- with my wife and son -- and I did some other stuff that probably during the season I couldn't do. But it was hard to watch the games on TV and just root for my friends."

So he's back now, running down flies in the outfield, hitting in the cage, laughing with longtime teammates like Endy Chavez and Felix Hernandez.

"This is part of our life," Gutierrez said. "I've been doing this since I was a little kid. Just being out of it was kind of depressing a little. But I'm glad to be here again and doing the things I need to do. Obviously, my body doesn't feel the same as when I was 21 or 22 years old, but that's part of it. I have to deal with it."

Greg Johns is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog.
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