I love Ozzie Guillen. I love his passion. I love his honesty. I love listening to him talk. He is a say-anything guy. Sometimes that’s funny and sometimes his inability to stifle his wagging tongue gets him into trouble. This week he got into trouble. On Tuesday the Miami Marlins suspended their manager for five games for putting his words too far out in front of his brain.
We live in an age of massive sensitivity and Guillen’s normally refreshing bluntness has not caught up to reality, so he is paying. I think he is paying a price too high for a verbal gaffe, but he opened the door and got whacked. Guillen was talking about Cuban leader Fidel Castro and goofed by using the word “respect” in the same paragraph as the dictator’s name.
Guillen was quoted in Time magazine and he didn’t say he was misquoted and he didn’t say they got it wrong. I have spent a fair amount of time around Ozzie Guillen when we both lived in Chicago. He was a joy to be around when he sat in the home dugout, issuing humorous comments mixed with his baseball commentary before each game. Many times he was also wise enough to separate his “official” pre-game commentary from his personal observations and more controversial statements by signaling ahead of time that the forthcoming comments were off the record. While no doubt many baseball fans wish Ozzie had pushed the mute button altogether this time, the talk-interruptus button might have sufficed.
Few Americans, especially those in a public role, would say aloud that they respect Fidel Castro. That is particularl incendiary talk in Miami, the largest community of Cuban exiles in the United States, where Castro is a despised figure. So that’s a big no-no and Guillen, who long has had ties to the South Florida city, should have known that saying anything that could be interpreted as remotely positive about that man would provoke people.
Ironically, the way I read what Guillen said it is not essentially complimentary and his use of the word “respect” almost seems like a wrong word choice in context. “I respect Fidel Castro,” Guillen told Time. “You know why? A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years, but (he) is still there.” Bet there are 100 people who work in the U.S. State Department who think exactly the same way. They probably sit around their desks, shaking their heads, and say things like, “I can’t believe that sucker is still alive and still on our radar screen” all the time.
Probably 100 million Americans share that opinion and sentiment, too, especially if they are of a certain age, old enough to remember the Bay of Pigs invasion in the JFK Administration. Who would believe Castro would still be around a half century later? I hesitate to note this, but Guillen, who grew up in Venezuela, has English as a second language. He speaks with an accent, but he’s fluent alright. Still, is it possible that the nuance of the language escaped him at this time, that he might have found a less-inflammatory synonym if he was being interviewed in Spanish? Who knows?
Guillen did not say he liked Castro. He did not say he endorsed his Communistic and dictatorial ways. He basically just said he “respects” Castro for surviving. If Guillen had made that comment while wearing his old White Sox uniform, a few people would have sneezed 1,000 miles away. But representing a Miami-based organization magnified it. The punishment, sidelining Guillen for five games, is still an over-reaction by the Marlins. They should have showcased Guillen’s apology and fined him a substantial amount, perhaps $10,000.
Guillen should have been smart enough not to talk about Castro in any way except the bearded one’s supposed deep love for baseball. Still, the suspension is too much and too long. But it is also symbolic of the hysterical times we live in.