Ozzie Guillen’s suspension is over, but the public relations crisis may continue


Ozzie Guillen is back after taking some time to think about his boneheaded comments praising Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. (Mike Ehrmann/GETTY IMAGES)
Jason Reid
Columnist April 19, 2012

Miami Marlins Manager Ozzie Guillen made his return to the dugout Tuesday after getting some time off to think about his boneheaded comments praising Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. The Cuban American community’s capacity for forgiveness will help determine how much longer he’ll remain on the ballclub’s payroll.

In Miami, you’ll quickly find yourself being asked to step outside (or worse) if you dare say anything positive in public about Castro, and Guillen unwittingly (actually, “witlessly” might be more accurate) picked a fight he couldn’t win, telling Time magazine “I love Fidel Castro.” He elaborated with this gem: “I respect Fidel Castro,” the magazine reported. “You know why? Many people have tried to kill Fidel Castro in the last 60 years, yet that [expletive] is still there.”

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

Following protests by Cuban Americans, the main target of the Marlins’ multi-million dollar marketing efforts, Guillen apologized for his stupidity and begged for another chance last week during a news conference to announce his team-imposed five-game suspension. Miami politicians called for Guillen’s firing; Marlins President David Samson said that was never considered.

The Marlins — who open a three-game series Friday in Washington against the Nationals — gave Guillen a fat contract (he reportedly makes more than $2.5 million per season) and the World Series-winning, Venezuelan-born field leader is a key figure in their plan to become the leading sports franchise in the Latin-dominated market. But the Marlins had to take disciplinary action against Guillen, whose speak-first, think-later approach repeatedly failed him in his former job guiding the Chicago White Sox.

For eight years on Chicago’s South Side, Guillen was second to none in Major League Baseball at providing “he-said-what?” quotes. Guillen, and White Sox management, regularly faced media and fan criticism for his array of dunderheaded remarks, including polarizing comments about gays and immigrants . Then five games into his Marlins tenure, Guillen experienced his biggest “uh-oh” moment in a career full of them.

Guillen’s return was much quieter than his exit.

The Marlins defeated the visiting Chicago Cubs to make Guillen a winner in his first game back and, most importantly for wary Marlins officials, there were no reported protests outside Marlins Park in Miami’s Little Havana. Before the game, Samson announced the franchise had not lost any sponsors over the flap.

The extent to which the Marlins may have suffered long-term damage because of Guillen’s poor judgment will become clearer in the coming weeks. Fans speak loudest with their wallets, and if they don’t push the turnstiles as expected, Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria will get the message – which could result in Guillen eventually getting the boot after igniting a stunning public relations crisis.

To the Cuban American community, Castro is the devil. He’s its version of Hitler.

Many would argue that Hitler’s atrocities were far worse than what Castro has committed during his 50-plus years in power less than 230 miles from Miami. I would never try to rank them. That’s an unnecessary argument.

Castro, though, has reportedly ordered the execution, imprisonment and torture of many of the relatives and friends of the people the Marlins hope will become their core fans. Marlins Park – the team’s new $600 million-plus home built mostly at taxpayer expense – is in the heart of Miami’s Cuban American community.

Despite winning two World Series titles in their first 11 seasons, the Marlins were rarely a hot ticket in the Miami area. In choosing to construct their new ballpark in Little Havana and X-out the Florida in their name in favor of “Miami,” the Marlins made the strongest statement possible about who’s most important to their long-term viability.

In the Miami area, the Cuban American community is the most coveted voting bloc. Many of its members hold prominent positions throughout local government. It’s the wrong group to offend.

Talk about not understanding your audience. Guillen might as well have extolled the virtues of dogfighting to the Humane Society.

During Guillen’s playing days, I interviewed him several times. I never thought there was malice behind his wrongheaded comments – just a total lack of understanding about most subjects away from the baseball field. Being baseball smart isn’t good enough for someone who likes to talk as much as Guillen.

Some in the media don’t understand all the fuss. Guillen was only exercising free speech, they say, and who really cares about some manager’s off-the-cuff remarks on geopolitics? After all, Guillen doesn’t dictate public policy. He fills out lineup cards. Guillen’s rights, however, haven’t been infringed on. He isn’t under investigation by the U.S. government for expressing his opinion. He’s facing the consequences of his actions in the workplace.

As a high-profile Marlins employee, Guillen should be held accountable for his conduct representing the organization. Also, he can’t go into a crowded theater and yell, “Fire!” That’s essentially what many of Miami’s Cuban Americans believe he did in fawning over Castro. In those parts, that’s still the quickest way to incite a riot. Although the Marlins opted for a five-game scolding, 50 may have been more appropriate for the latest mess Guillen created by making thoughtless comments about a topic that requires more sophistication than understanding when to double-switch.

At his best, Guillen is a fiery, engaging storyteller. He’s a real character.

About 15 years ago, a young baseball writer sheepishly approached Guillen, then a member of the Atlanta Braves, to interview him about playing shortstop (Guillen was a three-time all-star).

Guillen pulled over a chair, told me to sit down next to him and spent approximately 30 minutes sharing anecdotes about growing up in his native Venezuela, life in the big leagues and what made certain foods better than others. Really.

We never got around to discussing the shortstop position. Still, I considered it time well spent.

That’s the guy Loria was expecting. He wanted Ozzie to be Ozzie to help pack ’em in at Marlins Park. But buyer beware.

For Jason Reid’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/reid.

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