Image via Flickr
Image via Flickr
Presumably, one of the first things that Jeffrey Loria (or at least one of his PR people) did when he traded for Ozzie Guillen last September was to address his new manager’s outspokenness—his “Ozzie being Ozzie.” They probably invited Ozzie for a tour of their beautiful new stadium in Little Havana and might have even mentioned how much the people in that neighborhood resent Fidel Castro. They would have brought up Fidel because Ozzie has spoken in support of him in the past, naming Fidel as the toughest man he knows in a 2008 interview.
Obviously this conversation never happened (or it did but never stuck), because Ozzie has been suspended by the Marlins for five games for having said he loves Castro. On Tuesday, he had to trot out in front of reporters to show just how remorseful he is for saying something he obviously believes. Sweating, vacillating between English and Spanish, constantly backpedaling about his comments, Ozzie looked haggard and defensive. The apology that the media had been clamoring for was finally delivered. But no matter what Ozzie said up on that podium, no matter how much he wished he had those words back, it doesn’t change the fact that Ozzie admires Fidel Castro.
There’s three levels to the issue here: the local, the national, and the international. Locally, what he said was insensitive to Miami’s many Cuban-Americans, who dislike the Castro regime to a point of even boycotting visiting musicians from their home country. Nationally, we are dealing with another story altogether: the continued and sustained attack on Guillen’s willingness to speak his mind on the issues faced by Latin Americans, and especially Latino baseball players.
The rancor that Ozzie’s comments received were not equal to the actual substance of what he said. Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports wrote:
“The Miami Marlins should suspend Ozzie Guillen. A one-month suspension would send a powerful message that Guillen’s thoughtless remarks on Cuban dictator Fidel Castro will not be tolerated.”
To say that Guillen was thoughtless is correct; he didn’t make the smart public relations decision. To not “tolerate” his political opinion is foolish. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that a Venezuelan born of moderate means would have leftist sympathies. Being able to hit and field a baseball really well didn’t make him a free-market-loving American. By playing our national pastime, a symbol of 20th century American exceptionalism, a player does not immediately become a patriot. In fact, the values that immigrant players bring to the game might be completely different than those that we associate with a sport we consider a bastion of capitalist nostalgia. The sport itself doesn’t necessarily belong to one ideology. Mao outlawed baseball as a bourgeois activity, but Castro loved it. The demographics of baseball are becoming Latin, and thereby probably swinging a bit to the left. Owners have long benefited from some socialist options, getting taxpayers to cover the majority of the price of new stadiums (which the club owner then owns and profits from). In the Marlins case, the taxpayers covered $500 million of the $634 million stadium cost. Of course, owners wouldn’t consider it socialism, but rather the price of keeping a baseball team in town.
The “Ozzie being Ozzie” narrative is indicative of a larger diminishment of outspoken Hispanic ballplayers, whose opinions and behavior are often written off as erratic or crazy. Rick Telander wrote in the Chicago Sun Times that “Obviously, baseball lifer Ozzie Guillen was given a mouth so he could put his foot into it.”
When Manny Ramirez would mouth off about something, it was just “Manny being Manny”; when Adrian Gonzalez and other Latino players threatened to boycott the 2011 All-Star game in Arizona, their threats weren’t taken seriously by Major League Baseball. In his press conference this morning, Guillen kept repeating “No soy loco.” With his over-the-top English and broken-English twitter feed, it’s easy to dismiss Ozzie as the classic racist caricature of a feeble-minded South American. When Ozzie brought up the mistreatment of Latino players in 2010, especially in regards to the lack of translators for monolingual players, he was quickly rebuked by the sports world for opening his mouth—but not by Latino players. In an interview with ESPN, Nomar Garciaparra remarked, "It's easy to say 'It's Ozzie being Ozzie' and all that stuff, but at the same time, the stuff he is talking about is something worth talking about."
Guillen looks for opportunities to let his opinions be known. When the All-Star game was held in Arizona this past year, a state considered by many to be openly hostile to Latinos (who, by the way, make up over 30 percent of the league), Major League Baseball risked alienating its largest minority contingent. Guillen threatened to boycott the game in response, declaring, "The immigration [service] has to be careful about how they treat people. … I want to see this country two days without [immigrants] to see how good we're doing. . . . " A few days after receiving flack for the comments, he recanted and said, “I said the only reason I won't go to the All-Star Game is because I don't like the All-Star Game. The only way I go to the All-Star Game is if I'm the manager. That's it.”
How this extends to his leftist politics is obviously another matter altogether. For Cuban-Americans, Guillen’s comments are a reminder that dissent, no matter how unpopular, has its place in the American tradition. As Dan Le Batard pointed out on the Mike and Mike in the Morning, “You can’t say anything positive about Fidel Castro in Miami.” But Cuba is hardly one of America’s top geopolitical rivals these days—Guillen’s Venezuela is far worse, and he’s appeared on Chavez’s radio show (twice!)—which turns the mainstream outrage over Guillen’s Castro comments into a strange Cold War holdover.
It’s also a case of widespread ignorance or cynicism, since Guillen’s politics could conceivably give many Americans pause. Guillen is a long-time committed Chavez-Bolivarian, and thus admires Castro for his North-South battle, a continuation of Simon Bolivar's anti-colonialism that’s taught to every Venezuelan schoolchild. In an international context, Guilen's remarks at home would be ho-hum, but in this Miami/baseball context, they were ill-advised. That’s not the same as stupid, though, especially not when there’s an entire nation to back him up. Are Chinese athletes called fools if they say things that sound like the party line? This was bad baseball politics, but at the same time, it was most certainly legitimate politics. What’s entirely missing from this discussion is a consideration of why Guillen would admire Fidel.
But that would be sports leading out into the world, instead of sports serving as their own frame of reference. So Ozzie is an idiot manager who pissed off his fans without understanding his words or their consequences. Instead of trying to understand him, we decide that he doesn’t understand himself. Instead of reopening a discussion of Cuba (in a moment where a serious discussion of U.S. policy towards Cuba is desperately needed), we’re left with just another round of the news cycle, another man of color who doesn’t speak English like Joe Torre, put back in his place. In his press conference, Guillen admitted that "I was thinking in Spanish and said it wrong in English.” Guillen was thinking about what he would like to say as a Latino, and not what Americans (especially Cuban-Americans) wanted to hear.
Very soon, Guillen will air his opinions again, and we’ll go through this whole ordeal again. And because of this process, Castro will most likely live past the end of Ozzie Guillen’s tenure with the Marlins.