Ozzie Guillen's mouth has finally exceeded the boundaries of ... something. By now you've heard the skinny: Guillen recently made remarks in an interview expressing respect, admiration, and even "love" for Fidel Castro. These comments, understandably, have not been taken well by many. This isn't the first time he's faced steep consequences after a verbal misstep; a hefty fine and MLB-mandated sensitivity training accompanied some homophobic invective he leveled at a Chicago reporter in 2006. Not to minimize the awfulness of that incident, (as I've written before, we as a society really need to collectively clean that sort of thing out of our lexicon), but this is different. Because of the geography and ethnicity of where he hangs his hat these days, the ramifications cannot be lessened or removed with an apology, or fines, or the five-game suspension handed down by the Marlins brass to their newly-minted skipper earlier today. The damage is done, and it's going to have a shelf life way beyond Guillen's return to the dugout. Whether or not he was "taken out of context" is immaterial. Because, well. Because.
Because Ozzie Guillen manages a professional baseball team in Miami.
And he expressed complimentary sentiments about Fidel Castro.
And you simply can't engage in the latter if the former is true. Not without bringing the heavy hammers down, at any rate. And that, really, is the only issue here.
Let's be clear: the Marlins knew exactly what they were getting when they brought Guillen on to manage this rebooted, re-branded franchise. The man has pretty much made his bones on two things: his considerable baseball acumen, and his unceasing font of entertaining and often controversial sound bytes. They had to know about his combustible nature and his tendency to bypass even the most obvious and rudimentary internal filters while speaking publicly. Most of the time, his unflinching honesty and humorously abrasive demeanor are in his favor. They give him a unique charisma that serves well with the press and public, and probably helps him to be an effective manager in the clubhouse as well.
However, in those rare instances where his lack of judgement ceases to be a source of entertainment and becomes a vehicle of offensiveness, you have to question the sanity of bringing such an unpredictable factor into an organization. And never more so than now.
Cuba is ninety miles south of the Florida coast. And since Castro has been such an unrelenting force of terror and oppression for better than a half-century, Cubans over the years have felt compelled to escape his regime by fleeing to their northern neighbor by any means necessary. For many, this has meant sneaking away in the dead of night, terrified that they might be caught outright or betrayed by those helping them. Sometimes, when they're forced by circumstance to leave loved ones behind, swearing to the sister or brother, mother or father, son or daughter, friend or lover that they will return to get them out. One day. If they can. The extremely lucky ones somehow get out by plane. The rest, in boats or floating on makeshift rafts for days and sometimes weeks with little or no food. They pray to survive the ocean passage. They pray they'll make landfall somewhere safe. They pray that those loved ones will remain unharmed until they can somehow go back to extricate them. Or, if they left nothing and no one behind, they pray they never have to set eyes on that island again.
Miami is the epicenter, the natural endpoint of that painfully arduous journey. It has been a hub of Cuban and Cuban-American culture for decades, a nexus for the expats of Castro's dictatorial hell. They came here to escape that life, that world, and now here's the manager of their baseball team, extolling the man who forced them to such desperate measures. The people whose ears burn at the mention of Castro's name are in no mood to dismiss or forgive what was said.
It's a safe bet that none of this crossed Ozzie's mind before he made those comments. It's an even safer one that, once the reaction and its reasons were brought into focus, he felt every bit as lousy as he claimed. He may be an outspoken firebrand, but I'm fairly certain the man does not condone firing squads, oppression, and torture, nor would he enjoy the thought of evoking those memories and emotions in the Cuban-American population. Making this a commentary on his geopolitical beliefs is missing the point. He said something that affected a certain audience in a certain powerful way, and now he and his organization will have to deal.
That's the full extent of this. No more, no less.
To use the phrase "irreconcilable differences" doesn't quiet cover the messy divorce currently underway between the Marlins and their Cuban and Cuban-American fan base in the wake of all this. More than one official public group has already stated that, until Guillen's firing or resignation, the team has permanently forfeited that portion of their fans. This is likely neither an idle threat, nor a sentiment that will fade over time.
For the large part of Miami's population who have been affected by Castro, any act if contrition is going to fall on deaf ears. Even those of Cuban descent who were born and raised in America, who never witnessed or felt the awfulness of his machinations firsthand, will still have been told the stories by their parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents and neighbors. The emotional and geographical distance may make them slightly more inclined than their elders to forgive Guillen's remarks, but the pull of history and the bonds of heritage will make that hard, if not impossible.
Also, Miami is not the University of Arkansas. You may have heard about Arkansas football coach Bobby Petrino's motorcycle accident, and the subsequent revelations of an illicit affair Petrino was carrying on with Jessica Dorrell, an employee he himself hired who ... well, it's a complicated mess, but the upshot is this: students, boosters, and alums held a rally asking that Petrino NOT be fired in the wake of the incident. Moreover, they didn't seem to care at all that Petrino is a gutless, dastardly snake who deceived his wife, his employers, the cops, and the press. (And it wasn't the first time for at least two parties on that list.)* The fact is, the Razorbacks have been a very good football team under Petrino, and next to the win column, all else is sadly irrelevant to the school's fans.** My point is that Miami harbors no such blind fondness and loyalty for the Marlins. Despite two World Series titles in a scant 20 years of existence, the city has largely failed to embrace the team, just as they didn't fully embrace the Heat until LeBron and Bosh showed up, and even then only on a superficial level. In Miami, there are the Dolphins (beloved despite their protracted and ongoing stretch of impotence), and The U (ditto). Everything else sports-related is a secondary concern at best and a tertiary point of interest as a rule. Suffice it to say that winning, even on the magnitude of a third title this year, is not going to make this go away.
Which is a significant problem from Guillen and the Marlins' perspective. The point of this whole exercise of rechristening the team with the new colors and the new (more geographically specific) name and the new stadium was to pique maximum interest and stir an ambivalent fan base into a more active participation. Read: spending more cash at the ballpark. Guillen, too, was part of this calculated revival, the charismatic face of the "New Marlins." And he's blown his goodwill allotment to hell less than a week into the season.
This is a baseball, financial, and public image problem for the Marlins, and for Guillen as long as he's in Miami, but there's not much else there. As has happened before, his mouth eclipsed the speed of the editorial synapses in his brain. A middle-class Venezuelan who spent most of his professional career in Chicago, he simply failed to equate his stadium's location in the "Little Havana" neighborhood with what the residents of that neighborhood might feel about Castro.
I believe that his apology today was utterly sincere, if also self-serving. But that ultimately doesn't matter. The fact is that the Marlins were trying to make a fresh start, and because he mentioned in a positive light the one name you cannot in a positive light in southern Florida, Ozzie Guillen has quite possibly damaged that aim beyond immediate repair. As I said earlier, this is a baseball problem. Nothing more.
"Guilty", "Sad", and "Embarrassed", were a few of the terms Guillen applied to himself at the apologetic press conference today. He also said he would learn from "the worst mistake [he] ever made in his life." All of those are another way of saying that, in the future, he might think a little more circumspectly before he speaks. The Marlins are going to lose some fans and some money. Maybe Guillen can gain a little equilibrium, and restrict his future diatribes to the hilarious and innocuous. He'll be better off, and so will baseball. He may well be displaying his reformed sensibilities in a different city, but still. Small victories, right?
* As a lifelong Falcons fan, I may be just a tad biased on the subject of Bobby Petrino. Also, while I was typing this, Petrino was fired. HAHAHAAH!!!!
** Verbatim transcript from an afternoon sports radio show in Atlanta, after the host asked Arkansas fans to call in with their views on the situation:
Host: "Is Bobby Petrino trustworthy?"
Caller/Razorbacks Fan: "Oh, hell no."
Host: "Does he have integrity?"
Caller/Razorbacks Fan: "Zero percent."
Host: "Do you want him coaching your football team?"
Caller/Razorbacks Fan: "Absolutely! He's gonna get us a national title next year!"