If Fidel Castro is the third rail of South Florida politics, Ozzie Guillen just impaled himself on it.
You can say a lot of things in a lot of places and get away with it. Guillen, the bombastic manager of the Miami Marlins, is living proof of that. In 2006, he hurled an anti-gay slur towards a reporter from the Chicago Sun-Times. He was ordered to sensitivity training and kept his job. But you can't walk into Miami and profess your love for Fidel Castro. You just can't. Guillen is learning that the hard way. The lesson may cost him his career.
Here's what Guillen said to Time magazine earlier this week:
"I love Fidel Castro. I respect Fidel Castro. You know why? A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years, but that [expletive] is still there."
The 32 words are equal parts shocking, thoughtless, and flip. First of all, let's dispose of the argument that Guillen's comments were merely expressing admiration for Castro's longevity and not his policies. That doesn't wash. That's like praising Hitler for his organizational skills. Try making that argument at the B'nai B'rith. You won't get very far.
The Cuban-American community condemned Guillen swiftly and in unison in the wake of his comments. Numerous politicians and community leaders called for his dismissal. Guillen tried to walk his words back by speaking with baseball beat writers during the Marlins' road trip to Cincinnati and Philadelphia over the past several days, but when that didn't work, he took the highly unorthodox step of returning to Miami while the team was still on the road to address the people of the city in person. The press conference, which took place earlier today, was a bilingual feeding frenzy. The normally bold Guillen was wounded and contrite. The gathering was preceded by the announcement that Guillen would be suspended by the team for five days--all moves that are straight out of the crisis management handbook. But was it enough? Will it mollify a seething South Florida public?
The Marlins just opened a brand new $600 million stadium. Guess where they built it: in Little Havana. An estimated 800,000 Cuban-Americans live within 20 miles of the new ballpark. It reflects a renewed effort by the franchise to reach out to the Latin majority of its home city.
In its previous incarnation, the Marlins franchise tried to be all things to all people. It used the word "Florida" in its name and played in a ballpark situated near the Dade/Broward border. It didn't work. The team suffered from meager attendance and despite winning two World Series titles over the past 15 years, rumors abounded that the Marlins might move out of state. But in its most recent iteration, the Marlins have renewed their efforts to connect specifically with the Latin community. The word Florida has been replaced by "Miami" on the jerseys; they made free agent shortstop Jose Reyes the new cornerstone of the franchise, signing the Dominican star to a six-year, $106 million contract; and they poached Guillen from Chicago, where he led the White Sox to a world series title in 2005.
And it was all going just fine--until Ozzie opened his mouth.
To most Americans, Castro is an abstract figure--the guy with the beard on his chin, the cigar in his mouth, and the military fatigues on his back, who made impassioned speeches to his people on television. To Cuban-Americans, he is anything but abstract. For more than half a century, the dictator has engaged in the systematic persecution, imprisonment, and murder of subjects who defied his administration. It was the Freedom Flights of the Johnson and Nixon administrations that liberated more than a quarter million Cuban nationals to the United States and out of the reach of Castro's regime. Most settled in Miami. The majority of the more than 1 million Cuban-Americans who live in this country still reside in that city.
How could Guillen be so tone deaf to the most vital issue facing the most important group of people in his town? Even more, how could the Marlins hire a guy to be the face of their franchise who holds these views--and who has expressed them before
Yes, this is not the first time Guillen has made public his affinity for Castro. He expressed similar sentiments in an interview with Men's Journal in 2008. This revelation shifts a fair portion of the burden onto the Marlins' upper management for not carrying out due diligence on Guillen. It would have taken little more than a Google search to discover that the man they were considering to be the conduit between their franchise and their largely Latin fanbase held views likely to disgust said fans.
You'd think Guillen would be more sensitive when it comes to matters such as these. His home country of Venezuela has suffered for the past 13 years under the dictatorial whim of Hugo Chavez. Then again, it was Guillen who guested on Chavez's radio program twice in 2005 after his White Sox won the World Series. According to the Associated Press, Guillen remarked at the time, "Not too many people like the President [Chavez]. I do. My mom will kill me, but it's an honor to talk to the president."
At today's press conference, Guillen tried his best to distance himself from his support of both Chavez and Castro. The buy-in factor on his contrition seemed lukewarm. His explanation for the Time comments regarding his "love" for Castro was that he was thinking in Spanish but speaking in English, and he was misunderstood. Seems like a flimsy equivocation.
Is a five-game suspension going to make this go away? There are too many people in South Florida with too many raw wounds inflicted by Castro. These are the people who gave Guillen the loudest ovation when he was introduced at the new stadium on opening day. They have every right to feel betrayed by his thoughtless comments.
The late Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott was suspended on several occasions by Major League Baseball for a total of more than two years. Her offenses, like Guillen's, were mostly rhetorical. She said, among other incendiary things, that Hitler "was good in the beginning, but went too far."
If the backlash toward Schott required more than two years away from the ballpark to satisfy offended baseball fans, I'm not sure five games is going to cut it in Guillen's case.