Onus on Ozzie to appease Cuban community
Sometimes free speech comes at a substantial cost.
Ozzie Guillen, the new manager of the Miami Marlins, was quoted as speaking the unspeakable given the demographics of the area, saying "I love Fidel Castro" in an interview with Time magazine.
In a lengthy public apology on Tuesday, conducted in both Spanish and English, Guillen said the remark was a misinterpretation but accepted responsibility for the furor it has caused. The Marlins, meanwhile, responded to the controversy by suspending him for five games -- without pay, according to Guillen.
In a statement, the club said, "The Marlins acknowledge the seriousness of the comments attributed to Guillen. The pain and suffering caused by Fidel Castro cannot be minimized, especially in a community filled with victims of the dictatorship."
That is the core problem that Guillen has created for both himself and his club. The Miami area is heavily populated with anti-Castro Cubans, people whose collective identity is defined by their vociferous opposition to the Castro regime. And the new Marlins Park, a facility that was largely publicly funded, is in the Miami neighborhood known as Little Havana.
Guillen, originally from Venezuela, was hired not only for his reputation as a winning manager but as someone who could connect with the Spanish-speaking population of the area. The comments attributed to him could only serve to disconnect the Cuban population in South Florida from the ballclub.
The Time article, which appeared online on Friday, begins by quoting Guillen as saying, "I love Fidel Castro." It subsequently quotes him as saying, "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."
On Tuesday, in the same Marlins Park interview room where he had met the media in triumph at the opening of the park just six days ago, Guillen apologized repeatedly. His only out was that an inexact interpretation had distorted what he had intended to say in the interview.
"The interpretation from English to Spanish did not come out correctly," Guillen said. "From the bottom of my heart, with my heart in my hands, I said it poorly in English. ... How can a person who has caused so much damage, who has hurt his country so much, still be in power? That's what I meant to say to the reporter. In that moment, the first thing that came out of my mouth was a wrong word.
Guillen, who won a World Series as manager of the Chicago White Sox in 2005, has a long history of making controversial remarks, but this one is in a category by itself. Making any kind of comment regarding Castro that could be interpreted as positive could create a problem for any public figure in Miami. Even taking Guillen at his word regarding the misinterpretation, this is a topic better left to someone else -- or no one else, for that matter.
Judging by his comments on Tuesday, Guillen has fully grasped that notion, calling the Castro comments "the biggest mistake of my life." He described himself as feeling "very bad, very guilty, very embarrassed" as well as "very stupid, very naïve."
Some of the anti-Ozzie members of the media are turning this episode into an occasion to paint him as a front man for this hemisphere's most notable leftists, alleging that Guillen has also made very favorable remarks regarding Venezuela's leftist president, Hugo Chavez. I have personally been present during numerous conversations with Guillen in which Chavez has become a topic. The nicest thing that Guillen has said about Chavez is that Chavez is a big baseball fan.
Guillen attempted to put this topic in order on Tuesday by saying, "I prefer to be dead rather than vote for Chavez."
What lesson can be learned from the Guillen/Castro matter? Free speech doesn't end up being free when you offend a large number of people. And this is particularly true in the case of a baseball manager whose comments have alienated a large number of people whom his employers are trying to enlist as long-term fans of their franchise.
The First Amendment does not give us the right to say absolutely anything. Historically, you cannot, for instance, publicly call for the violent overthrow of the government of the U.S. That is sedition. You can be put away for it.
Guillen's comments are protected by the First Amendment, but they have still cost him. The Marlins had to demonstrate that they care enough to take action, and the five-game suspension serves that purpose. This did not have to be a firing offense.
Meanwhile, Guillen is going to have a much longer and tougher task on his hands, re-establishing favorable relations with the Cuban community in South Florida. He believes he is up to the task.
"If I don't learn from this, then I will call myself dumb," he said. "But not yet."
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.