Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen praised Cuban leader Fidel Castro. For a club based in Little Havana and desperate to get back in the city's good graces, it was a massive mistake.
“This is the biggest mistake so far in my life,” said a tired-looking, slightly perturbed Guillen, who conducted the hour-long press conference mostly in Spanish. “If I don’t learn from this, then I will call myself dumb.”
The Marlins “hired me to manage a ball club, not talk about politics,” he added. “I’m very guilty, very sad, and very embarrassed.
The fracas started over the weekend, when Time magazine published an interview on its website in which the Marlins skipper said he “loved” Castro. "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."
The comments might not have caused too much of a stir in many other cities. But Guillen coaches a team with a pricey new ballpark in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami, densely populated by Cuban-Americans who fervently dislike Fidel Castro. What’s worse, he’s the face of a massive rebranding effort by the club, which hoped to use him as a tool to attract a potentially sizable Hispanic fan base.
The Marlins quickly distanced themselves from Guillen’s remarks, releasing a statement saying, “There is nothing to respect about Fidel Castro. He is a brutal dictator who caused unthinkable pain for more than 50 years. We live in a community filled with victims of his dictatorship and the people in Cuba continue to suffer today.”
Those potential fans are now loudly calling for him to be fired.
Leaders of Miami’s Cuban community have come out in force against Guillen and the Marlins. Miami’s city commission chair released a statement saying Guillen should lose his job for his “admiration for a dictator who has destroyed the lives of so many and who has violated the basic human rights of millions.”
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Giminez, while not explicitly calling for Guillen’s removal, condemned the Marlins manager’s remarks and urged the Marlins to take “decisive steps to bring this community back together.”
The Cuban-American group Vigilia Mambasa, a virulently anti-Castro organization, picketed outside of Marlins Park Tuesday and plans to boycott the Marlins organization until Guillen is removed.
Guillen’s five-game unpaid suspension won’t be enough for these groups, and it’s comparatively small potatoes in a 162-game Major League Baseball regular season. If the suspension holds as-is, he’ll be back to work next Tuesday, when the Marlins host the Chicago Cubs.
There is some precedent for the MLB doling out punishment for insensitive remarks: In 1996, Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott was banned from day to day operations of the team for two years for saying in a Sports Illustrated interview that Hitler did some good things for Germany but “went too far.”
Nor is Guillen any stranger to his words getting him into trouble, though this is the first time he’s really been punished for it.
In 2006, he came under fire for calling sportswriter Jay Mariotti a homophobic slur. In 2010, he said that the MLB treated Japanese players better than Hispanic players, and that America couldn’t survive without illegal immigrants. In just the past week, Guillen suggested to a Miami radio station that he has sacrificed live animals as part of Santeria rituals, and that he regularly gets drunk after games.
Still, his reputation around the league is as a mostly harmless firebrand – always entertaining, sometimes offensive, but essentially a good guy.
But since the Castro remarks stand to alienate a huge swath of customers for the Marlins, damage control is essential for the club’s commercial success as well as rebuilding goodwill in the Miami community after years of little success, especially in a crowded market for professional sports teams.