Ozzie Guillen, suspended for Fidel Castro comments, back in dugout as Miami Marlins manager, team owner Jeffrey Loria says fans ready to accept him.
By Jon Paul Morosi FoxSports
Ozzie Guillen? Fidel Castro? Controversy?
Guillen has served his five-game suspension and will return to the Miami Marlins’ dugout for Tuesday’s game against the Chicago Cubs. And the Marlins would have you believe the maelstrom itself is about to fade away.
In his first extensive public remarks since Guillen’s suspension, Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria pointed to the attendance for last weekend’s series against the Houston Astros (96,060 for three games) as evidence that the worst is over.
“All you have to do is look at what happened during the weekend,” Loria told FOXSports.com. “People like their baseball. There’s no one person bigger than the game. That’s what people have to understand. They love their baseball here. It’s time to move forward.”
He added: “I have to tell you. Journalists would like to see dissension and problems. It ain’t happening. Period. It makes good stories. The bottom line is, we’re a really good bunch of kids here, and Ozzie is a good person.”
Loria was in a cheerful mood as he paused while strolling through the nattily appointed home clubhouse after Sunday’s win. The hydro-psychedelic home run sculpture sprang to life twice that day, looking like a carnival ride designed by Willy Wonka. Superstar Hanley Ramirez was the walk-off hero. And there were no signs of organized protest, in or around Marlins Park.
The debate surrounding Guillen’s comments to Time magazine about Castro is now more than one week old. Guillen said he loved and admired the Cuban dictator because Castro has remained in power despite attempts to kill him. The Marlins suspended Guillen amid calls from some Cuban-Americans that Guillen be fired.
Clearly, Loria believes the media has exaggerated the negative reaction to Guillen’s remarks — even though the response in some segments of the Cuban-American community remains very raw and very real. In refusing to dismiss Guillen, the Marlins have wagered that the crowd of paying customers inside the ballpark will outnumber any protesters outside.
So far, that has been the case.
The Marlins have an obligation to respect Miami’s large Cuban-American community, particularly because their new ballpark resides in Little Havana — the first home for many Cubans who flee Castro’s regime in search of freedom. But the decision to retain Guillen reinforced that the Marlins are a business, not a public trust. Apparently, it will take an even more extreme circumstance — or extreme losing — to fire Guillen and swallow the remainder of his four-year, $10 million contract.
Cuban-American business owners could pressure the Marlins by threatening to pull sponsorships or group tickets. But Loria said he doesn’t believe that has happened.
Asked if he still believes strongly that Guillen is the right person to lead the Marlins, Loria said, “He’s very good for here. Excellent. Not only for here, for any team. I didn’t hire him because he’d be good for here. I hired him because he’s a good manager. He’s an enthusiastic guy, with a tremendous amount of energy. He knows the game, knows the strategies. He doesn’t take any guff from anybody. He’s good.”
So, will Guillen remain with the team for all four years of his contract?
“I don’t know if I’m going to be here for four years,” Loria said. “You never know what life turns. I like what he’s been doing with this team.”
Left unsaid, though, is what Guillen has been doing for the past week.
The Marlins didn’t respond to a question about whether Guillen has reached out to Cuban-American organizations or individuals since his suspension began. Miami-Dade County mayor Carlos A. Gimenez has challenged the Marlins to “take decisive steps to bring this community back together.” But Suzy Trutie, a spokeswoman for Gimenez, told FOXSports.com on Monday that she was unaware of any recent contact between Guillen and the mayor’s office.
“This isn’t just about the suspension of the team’s manager,” Gimenez said in a statement to FOXSports.com. “As I said before, the Marlins organization has been the source of a number of controversies, including statements by their administration that have been disrespectful to many segments of our Miami community.
“As an organization, the Marlins need to earn back the respect of our residents. I know that our community is a forgiving one, and only time will tell whether the organization’s actions will be enough.”
Not a typical mayoral proclamation about a baseball franchise — particularly one with a four-game-old ballpark in an area of the city ripe for development. But such is the nature of frosty relations between the team and city. Public funding was used for roughly 73 percent of the stadium’s $615 million cost, so city and county officials must feel all the more justified in their outrage over Guillen’s remarks. An ongoing investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission into the stadium’s financing is yet another subtext.
The greatest tragedy here is in the lost opportunity for the franchise and Little Havana to wrap each other in a warm embrace at the beginning of their relationship. Marlins Park will have but one grand opening, and Guillen’s remarks halted the honeymoon before it began. Guillen, a Venezuelan, was supposed to be one face of the franchise’s outreach to its Latin-American fans. Instead, he insulted many of those around him just after moving into the neighborhood.
“I was offended,” said Jorge Perez, a Cuban-American and the head baseball coach at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens. “He made a big mistake. You can’t say that in this community. There’s a lot of pain here. … Did he mean what he said? I don’t know. Love and hate are pretty strong words. You don’t need a translator for that.
“He put a lot of pressure on himself that didn’t need to exist. I’ll tell you this: He’d better win.”
Perez now shares a difficult choice with the thousands of Cuban-Americans who love baseball: boycott the games until the Marlins hire a new manager or watch the best players in the world at an architectural marvel in the middle of a proud ethnic neighborhood.
“I have plans to go to the park, because I’m a baseball fan,” Perez said. “I can disregard the manager and focus on the game.”
Many Cuban-Americans already made the same decision. Tony Villamil, dean of the business school at St. Thomas, attended Sunday’s game and heard scattered boos from fans when an image of Guillen appeared on the center-field scoreboard during pregame introductions.
Villamil, the US Undersecretary of Commerce for Economic Affairs under President George H.W. Bush, said he expects more boos on Tuesday and perhaps some protests. But he senses that the Cuban-American community is less united in its anger now than it was during the Elián González custody affair more than a decade ago. As such, Villamil doesn’t expect Guillen’s comments to have a major impact on the franchise’s business operations.
“I don’t think this will consume the community for an extended period of time,” Villamil said. “With Elián González, that was serious business. Everybody was mad. This is different.
“It doesn’t help that the Marlins’ stadium is in the most Cuban-American neighborhood in Miami. To say what he said was ridiculous. But now he has made his retraction. Let’s go on and play ball.”
Yet, Villamil added a moment later: “I’m still offended. I can’t understand why he said that. So many Cuban exiles have suffered under Castro. How can you say you have respect for someone who killed so many people?”
In the strictest sense of the term, boycotts of Marlins games already have begun. While standing beside “La Ventanita” — the little window — at the renowned Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana on Monday afternoon, 77-year-old Luis Alfonso de la Paz said in Spanish that he won’t go to a Marlins game as long as Guillen is the manager.
Miguel Saavedra, president of the human rights organization Vigilia Mambisa, then joined the conversation and informed me that his group has planned a protest for Thursday’s series finale against the Cubs. “This is a test of fire from the Spanish community in South Florida,” Saavedra said. “The Spanish people here got power. We will go there and tell them, ‘No more tickets (from us).’ ” Still, Saavedra acknowledged that some Cuban-Americans will continue attending Marlins games. “They like baseball too much,” he said.
The conflicting emotions are common within Miami’s Cuban-American community now. Robert Lang, who attended Saturday’s game with his sister Arlene, said he heard commentators on a Cuban-American radio station talking excitedly about Friday’s win — because Gaby Sanchez, the lone Cuban-American on the team, delivered the decisive hit in extra innings.
The key word in that sentence: win.
The Guillen controversy stripped away one layer of armor from the manager — and, by extension, the organization itself. The novelty of the stadium, with its artistic touches and left-field nightclub, will draw fans for now. But Miami sports fans aren’t known for their altruism or loyalty. The first Saturday date at Marlins Park drew only the 11th-largest crowd among the 15 games in the majors that day.
For the Marlins to sustain their big-spending ways, they must regularly draw crowds of 30,000. And for the Marlins to regularly draw crowds of 30,000, they must contend in September. That remains an attainable goal. Still, many who fill those seats will look at the manager and think not of whether he will send Jose Reyes on a 1-1 count, but rather the awful thing he said.
“Look at everybody here,” said Mirta Valdes Ricci, a Cuban-American, as she surveyed the Saturday night crowd. “Will it affect attendance? I don’t think so. But we don’t know. I’m still going to come.”
Valdes Ricci shares a story with so many in South Florida: born in Cuba, fled the country with her mother and sister, grew up poor, lived in Little Havana. At times, her eyes moistened as she told of the hardships imposed by Castro’s regime. “Thousands and thousands and thousands of people have died because of that man,” she told me. So, you ask, how long might it take some Cuban-Americans to forgive Guillen? The answer, in some cases, is they never will. They may buy a ticket and a hot dog and a parking spot, but they will withhold something more sacred.
“They’re not going to respect him,” she said. “And the day he leaves, so be it.”