MIAMI — The angry chants of Cuban American protestors waving signs and flags near the entry of Marlins Park could be heard from inside the gleaming new building where Ozzie Guillen, the Miami Marlins manager, walked somberly to a makeshift stage Tuesday. He sat behind a microphone at a packed news conference, looked up with reddened, puffy eyes and apologized for “the biggest mistake so far in my life.”
Guillen and his latest employer, a baseball team that for years has struggled to connect to Cuban Americans, a core part of Miami’s diverse community, attempted Tuesday to bridge the rift opened when the outspoken Guillen, a U.S. citizen born in Venezuela, was quoted over the weekend saying he loved and respected Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
The comments infuriated residents of the Little Havana neighborhood in which Miami’s spanking new ballpark stands and inflamed a host of elected officials, some of whom called for Guillen’s ouster. But perhaps most significantly for the Marlins, the remarks seemed to further damage what had been a distant, if not contentious, relationship between this city and its baseball team.
The gaffe is the latest and perhaps worst misstep by an organization already facing scorn for its use of $487 million in public funds to build a $642 million baseball stadium in the historic center of the city’s Cuban population. The modern, retractable-roof park, unveiled at last Wednesday’s opening game, sits amid working-class neighborhoods whose residents have complained that game-night traffic and parking woes will ruin the area’s serenity.
“I’m putting this squarely on the Marlins,” Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez said in a telephone interview. “They need to do right by the community. I think the current ownership doesn’t get it. They may be a decent baseball organization, but they’re not a good community organization. They are hypersensitive to criticism and insensitive to the community.”
The Marlins denounced Guillen’s remarks in a statement Sunday and reiterated their disapproval through team President David Samson Tuesday, shortly after announcing a five-game suspension of Guillen. But the disciplinary action seemed unlikely to placate the protestors who roared “Fuera! Fuera! [Out! Out!]” and “Boycott! Boycott!” during a rally on the stadium’s multicolored tile entry.
“The five-game suspension really doesn’t address the magnitude of his statements,” Joe A. Martinez, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Board of County Commissioners, said in a phone interview. “I guess they figured it would be enough to calm the people. . . . The people will let him know.”
Standing not far from a placard that read “Renuncia Idiota, Oswaldo Guillen, No Mas Excusas, Hipocrita, Fuera, Fuera, [Get rid of this idiot, Oswaldo Guillen, no more excuses, hypocrite, out, out]” Elio Rojas, 77, a Cuban American who arrived in Miami in 1957, said nothing short of Guillen’s dismissal would stem the fury.
“We want the administration to fire him,” Rojas said. “This stadium is paid for with our money, that’s why. . . . We are so upset. . . . We are going to stay here for every game if they keep him.”
Guillen, who said he had been distraught and unable to sleep, claimed he had been misunderstood during the interview with Time magazine. But he also told assembled reporters that he felt “very bad, very guilty, very bad, very sad, very embarrassed . . . [and] very stupid.”
Guillen, 48, took the extraordinary step of leaving his Marlins players during a road trip after a game Monday in Philadelphia to fly home for Tuesday’s news conference, which was called as criticism and anger reached a fever pitch. He said he would rejoin the team to apologize personally to his players Wednesday before leaving the club in the hands of bench coach Joey Cora.
Time quoted Guillen as saying “I love Fidel Castro” and “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 here.”
“It was a misunderstanding,” Guillen said. “What I mean in Spanish, I cannot believe somebody who hurt so many people over the years is still alive.”
Guillen has been known for controversial and occasionally outrageous and profane statements. The Marlins lured him from the Chicago White Sox, where he spent seven seasons and won a World Series in 2005, with a four-year, $10 million contract during the past offseason.
Last week, he was quoted saying he got drunk after every game. On Tuesday, Guillen endured heated questions in Spanish about positive remarks he had made about Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez during his tenure in Chicago.
“If I don’t learn from this, then I will call myself dumb,” he said. “But not yet.”
Guillen said he would not be paid during the five-day suspension. Samson, however, said Guillen would receive his salary but had decided to donate it to local charities. Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, who helped generate support in 2009 for the stadium’s public funding, did not attend.
“The healing process begins with our community,” Samson said. “We take this very seriously. Five games is not a slap on the wrist at all. . . . Whether the ballpark is in Little Havana or not, we want to be good neighbors, good partners in this community.”
The Marlins — the team was called the Florida Marlins until this season—have wildly underachieved at the box office since the franchise’s inception in 1993. Though the team put a ticket and memorabilia office on Calle Ocho from its earliest days, the franchise failed to develop a strong Latin fan base.
In fact, it failed to develop any sort of die-hard fan base at all. The team has had one of the league’s worst attendance and ticket sales records throughout its history, despite winning the World Series in 1997 and 2003.
On opening day, Loria blamed the attendance woes almost entirely on the afternoon showers that plague Miami on most summer days. Until this year, the team played its games at a football stadium near the northern boundary of Miami-Dade County.
Loria insisted that the new retractable-roof stadium, which drew a sellout crowd of nearly 37,000 at the Marlins’ opener last week, would solve that problem.
It won’t, however, solve the latest one.
“It’s not what happens today, it’s what is going to happen in the future,” Guillen said. “I expect to be here in Miami a long time. . . . I’m very, very, very sorry about the problem, about what happened. I will do everything to make it better. . . . I hurt a lot of people, and I’m aware of that.”