Ozzie Guillen: Dumb Luck or Just Plain Dumb?

There are thirty teams competing in Major League Baseball, but only one has just inaugurated a state-of-the-art, taxpayer-funded ballpark in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. There are thirty Major League managers leading those thirty teams, but only one was dumb enough to recently offer fawning praise of Fidel Castro to a Time reporter. If I told you that the man who said such things has to field a team for 81 home games in front of an audience of escapees from Fidel’s Caribbean gulag and their children, you probably wouldn’t believe anyone could possibly be that dumb. And yet it happened.

In Ball Four, his groundbreaking memoir about life in the big leagues, Jim Bouton explains what it’s like to be a thinking man in a sport that has a dearth of them. And that explains Ozzie Guillen, the Miami Marlins manager, and why he’s now public enemy number one among many Cuban Americans: he’s old school dumb.

The furor began when Time magazine quoted Guillen as claiming to “love” and “respect” Fidel Castro because of his longevity, in spite of the fact that there are many who wish him dead. The piece in Time was about Ozzie’s outlandish personality, and I’m sure that he got carried away trying to live up to his well-earned reputation, except that this time it was really, really dumb.

In the same piece, Ozzie asserts that he gets drunk after every game, win or lose. It’s probably not true and it’s kind of a dumb thing to say, but praising a brutal dictator who has repressed, imprisoned, tortured, and exiled more than a million of your neighbors breaks the dumb-o-meter.

No doubt that many who hear about this episode will wonder what the big deal is. But as ESPN’s Dan Le Batard, the son of Cuban exiles himself, said, Guillen could not have said anything worse given the fan base of the Marlins, because “he’s our Hitler. … Just understand that. Let that marinate for a second. For Cuban Americans, Fidel Castro is our Hitler.”

Most people know little or nothing about the dictatorship that is just 90 miles from our shores. And that’s not Ozzie Guillen’s fault. For that we can thank a biased and, yes, dumb media that has made a Faustian bargain with the Castro regime. Cuban-Americans are patriotic, hard working, and — for the most part — politically conservative, which naturally makes them the only ethnic minority the American left feels comfortable ridiculing; Cuban-Americans’ feelings on such matters are routinely discounted by those in the media and those on the left.

No doubt it’s difficult to be an athlete or coach nowadays. Say too little and you’re branded as stiff and boring, but say too much and you can end up in hot water. Ozzie Guillen is for the most part the type of manager that fans love. He’s outspoken, passionate, funny, enthusiastic, and he can make a losing team entertaining. As a Marlins fan, I have fond memories of him as a coach on the club’s 2003 world championship squad. But I knew when he was named manager that his mouth would get him into trouble in Miami as it did in Chicago, where he managed the White Sox until last season. In the past, Guillen, who is Venezuelan, has offered schizophrenic praise and criticism of his country’s president-cum-dictator, Hugo Chavez. It’s notable because Chavez became the benefactor to the Castro regime when he came to power in 1998. Venezuela provides 100,000 barrels of oil to Cuba daily, most of which is sold on the world market to keep the repressive government in business. So Guillen was already on a short leash when it comes to dumb statements that affect Cuban-Americans.

The problem in this case is that Ozzie Guillen was, in my view, making a joke about a matter that is deadly serious to many of the fans of his team. Ozzie should know better by now. He has Cuban-Americans on his coaching staff, there are Cuban-Americans on the broadcast team, and he’s even managed Cuban defectors like Jose Contreras. Did he stop to think about them before he blurted out his dumb comment? Probably not.

Guillen has since apologized for the remark and is flying down to Miami on the Marlins’ off-day to address the controversy head-on. This is admirable. As a Cuban-American and a fan of the Marlins, I’ve personally chosen to accept his apology. I never expected my team’s manager to be a diplomat. Hopefully he’s learned his lesson and can concentrate on helping his 2-3 club win.

Let me be clear about one thing. In our country Ozzie Guillen has the right to say whatever he wants, no matter how dumb. What he doesn’t have is a right to be popular. If you make unpopular statements or jokes that are in poor taste, you can’t expect to be loved. If you repeatedly make such statements and alienate your boss’s customers, you can’t expect to keep your job for long. That would be just plain dumb.

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