No one has ever accused Ozzie Guillen of thinking things through but the remarkable championing of Fidel Castro by the Marlins manager was as startling as Sarah Palin authoring a book about geography or, perhaps, providing us with an insightful analysis of the New York Times.
In the world of public relations, Guillen's gaffe is one of the grand disasters ranking right up there with the Chicago Tribune's Dewey Defeats Truman.
Highly creative writers of satire would have to draw upon muses of incredible inspiration to come up with Guillen's bizarre foot-in-mouth classic. Just imagine. Born in Venezuela and a resident of South Florida for the past 12 years, Guillen was a major league shortstop for 16 years, and a manager the past eight. Playing with and managing Cuban players, he is well aware not only of life in Cuba, but, also, the low esteem citizens of Little Havana have for Castro.
Sensationally bumptious, Guillen had worn out his welcome in Chicago while plying his managerial skills for the White Sox and owner Jerry Reinsdorf. Guillen's mouth got in the way of success following a World Series win in 2005 when he called a Sun-Times sports columnist a "fagot." It was not the only time Guillen had demonstrated a lack of sensitivity when involved with the press.
Timing, as we have come to realize, is everything and Guillen's big trouble in Little Havana was astonishing in its essential perversity. At least he didn't resort to sky-writing his declaration although, come to think of it, that would have been a fine photo op.
Take what had been the Florida Marlins and, as Henny Youngman would have put it, "please." The Marlins, in spite of reasonable success on the field, have been box office failures fielding teams on the cheap while unable to connect with South Florida fans any better than Mitt Romney with Tea Party types. What to do?
Starting with a name change, the Florida Marlins became the Miami Marlins and a new state-of-the-art tax-funded stadium was built within the cozy confines of Little Havana. It cost $645 million and the sheer logic of it all was breath-taking. Either by birth, pass along genes, or osmosis, those Cuban-Americans are nuts about what they call biesbol going back to the good old days before Castro, Che Guevara and others turned the country Communist, then invited the Russians to help create those missile-threatening 10 days in May that gave John F. Kennedy his finest moments in office.
Little Havana, once described as a Disney version of a displaced Cuba, is a unique place--so much so that U.S. policy toward Cuba is based upon the feelings of a minuscule percentage of this country's population. A piece of Miami has the kind of clout envied even by Chicagoans who pioneered in such matters.
The Marlins needed a manager and Guillen was more than available. Owner Jeffrey Loria signed him to a four-year contract figuring that a Latino leader, admittedly a little loony at times, would captivate the fans of Little Havana with stream of consciousness rants accompanied by legendary accomplishments on the diamond. Ah, the anticipated joys of genuine verbal linkage to the baseball fans of Little Havana.
As far as subject matter for those intemperate moments, such a possibility as the manager's love for Castro could not possibly have entered Loria's mind. Castro's popularity in Little Havana is roughly that of a KKK Grand Dragon in Harlem.
It's worth noting that Chicago's press gave Guillen a lot of slack during all eight years of his responsibilities positioning him somewhere between aldermen on the take and Wrigley's latest chewing gum. Time magazine's Sean Gregory, unaware that Ozzie is Ozzie, reported off-the-cuff flippancy leading with the manager's love for Castro. The Chicago press would have turned a deaf ear but the guy from Time failed to play the game with dire results for Guillen. Guillen, who has a heart-on-his-sleeve for anything Latin American, had expressed earlier devotion to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Two of the very strange aspects of the Guillen contretemps is Castro's "role" in baseball and Guillen's stupidity in not offering a reasonable explanation of why he loves Castro. There exists a reason.
A much bandied-about folklore tale is Castro's involvement with baseball. According to Snopes.com, one odd scenario has Castro awarded a tryout by either the New York Yankees or Washington Senators. The left-handed pitcher was rejected, so goes the story, thus making possible the overthrowing of the Batista regime, the Soviet-aligned government in Cuba, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
It was a Yale historian, professor Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, who researched thousands of Cuban baseball box scores finally finding one of an intramural game between the Law and Business Schools at the University of Havana. It was in El Mundo in November, 1946 when an F. Castro pitched and lost, 5-4. The dictator, of course, added to the quirkiness of his horsehide "career" by dressing in the uniform of a tongue-in-cheek team called Barbudos (Bearded Ones). That was after he came to power in 1959 and he played in just a few games. A photo helps promulgate the myth.
Guillen has reason to love Castro because of pitcher Jose Contreras. As kindly as Castro might look upon a fellow pitcher, Contreras was tired of being the premier amateur pitcher in the world. His fast ball was in the mid-90s, his curve exceptional and, besides, there was money to be made in the major leagues for a guy who said he was 31. Contreras was the sort of fellow who could beat the United States on one day's rest for the championship of the 1999 Pan American Games. He struck out 13 in eight innings. Contreras was tired of amateur scuffling and life under Castro had its shortcomings.
The Yankees, quite naturally, had their usual big bucks to spend on a world class pitcher who finally defected to Gotham in 2002. Contreras got the largest deal ever to run from Castro--$32 million for four years. Guillen began managing the White Sox the next year.
Contreras went 7-2 in 2003 and Guillen was particularly impressed on September 23 of that year when the Cuban pitcher shut out the White Sox for eight innings while striking out nine. The baseball expression that you can't have enough pitching was a canard that year to the Yanks who traded Contreras to the White Sox and a salivating Guillen on July's last day in 2004.
The next year was a singular one for both Guillen and Contreras. The latter started the season slowly reaching the All-Star break with a 4-3 record. Contreras became the White Sox most reliable pitcher winning his last eight starts while gaining status as the stopper of the team's losing streaks. He finished the season 15-7 with a 3.61 ERA getting 154 strikeouts in 204 2/3 innings. Guillen had to love Castro.
He had to love him even more when the Sox beat the Los Angeles Angels for the American League flag, eventually winning the World Series with four straight victories over the Houson Astros. Contreras started game one of every series going 3-1.
Contreras was so sensational that television commentators said that the fire-balling right hander had his name banned from being mentioned in Cuba by order of Castro--no way to treat a fellow pitcher. Further, according to one story, White Sox games were banned from TV and could be seen only by way of illegal television satellites. Contreras was a household name while Guillen had become the first Latino to manage a World Series winner. There was a lot of love on Chicago's South Side.
The following year Contreras won a 17th consecutive game breaking the White Sox team record. The string included eight victories gained the prior season. Injuries impacted losing seasons the next two years and he was sent to the bullpen, then the minor leagues in 2009. Guillen finally gave up on Contreras and he was traded to the Colorado Rockies on August 31, 2009 for cash and a minor league pitcher. Love only goes so far.
The Contreras story continues today. On January 28, 2010, the now 40-year-old pitcher signed a one-year, $1.5 (later upped to $2.5) million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies, one of baseball's better teams. The bad news is that Contreras is pitching relief for far less money although further compensation awaits a World Series winner. The good news is that he finally made it despite years of deprivation in Cuba where, presumably, the beisbol hip hold guarded conversations about that superb pitcher from Las Martinas.
Meanwhile, those with knowledge of Guillen's real raison d'etre for a professed love of Fidel Castro can't figure out the manager's failure to explain the easily explainable and the good fortune made possible when a Cuban pitcher fled his homeland because of appalling conditions, including playing baseball for free. Thank you, Fidel.
Baseball is a sport where brilliance is sometimes hidden by a failure to communicate effectively. Casey Stengel, Yogi Berra, and, yes, maybe, Ozzie will attain their status if he can keep his job with the Marlins following five days banishment.
And, should employment at the major league level continue, perhaps Guillen will learn how to spin a disaster like love for Castro. It shouldn't have been that difficult.
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