The Chicago White Sox rejected all canons of accepted logic in 2004 and named Ozzie Guillen as their manager. The elite of America's newspaper oracles tried to be generous in their predictions. One gave Ozzie four weeks.
Another thought it was a coin flip whether he would get sued for libel or ostracized by the Friends of Peace and Quiet. Conversationally, Ozzie is a spluttering firecracker, and professionally a self-confident nonconformist.
But Saturday night, when the Sox square off against the Houston Astros, he will be the first non-American to lead his team into the World Series. He will be dramatically cast: the potential liberator of the White Sox from nearly a century of mediocrity, from their last World Series triumph in 1917 and from the Black Sox shame two years later, when the team's stars deliberately lost the Series for gambling money.
That is a load. Guillen takes it on without the usual gloom and rising agony so common on the benches and in the dugouts of today's managerial masterminds who are on the verge of something big and possibly immortal.
He is a combat-loving, hardball-playing imp from the sandlots of Caracas, Venezuela. He was educated only to the eighth grade. Nothing else was available. When he got to the big leagues he knew he couldn't be bashful about it, because that would have choked his natural juices. He blurted out whatever he was thinking, both as player and manager. A few weeks ago he snarled expletively at preacher Pat Robertson's suggestion that it was time to assassinate Hugo Chávez, who, despite his unpopularity in official Washington, is still the president of Ozzie's native land.
But with the same four-letter scorn, Ozzie calls most politicians liars and thinks elaborate baseball scouting reports are a waste of time. Even without statistics and projections in hand, Ozzie is convinced that he is smarter than some of the Ivy League types he meets in the business. If you put some of those smart guys in the middle of Caracas, he said, they wouldn't survive.
"We play Minnesota 100 times," he said. "Why do I have to read a scouting report every day?"
He holds no enthusiasm for the technical developments in baseball such as the use of film and graphics in analyzing bat swings and arm angles. He confines his knowledge of computers to reading e-mails. "All you need to know is where the delete key is," he has said.
Guillen was handed a team of home-run clubbers and marginal pitchers and fielders in his first year, and they faded in the stretch run chasing the Minnesota Twins. In 2005, with a faster team less dependent on power than on the cherished baseball mantra of "get 'em on, get 'em over, get 'em in," the Sox flourished, scoring a run at a time and turning the game over to a dominating pitching staff. With Guillen's supportive yammering setting the tone, the Sox raced to a long lead in the American League's Central Division, nearly squandered it in September, but then dug deep proving they were for real. They have now won 12 of their last 13 games.
"That last week of the regular season, his team came together," says former pitcher Bert Blyleven, now a radio analyst. "It was his leadership more than anything. He played that way. Pick yourself off the ground. Compete. Win."
Mr. Blyleven loves the guy. It may be the old-school bias asserting itself. Today's pitchers are nursed by some hypnotic devotion to "the pitch count" - the number of pitches thrown by the starting pitcher. In the American League Championship Series he watched Ozzie Guillen refuse to remove his starting pitchers - Mark Buehrle, Jose Contreras, Jon Garland, and Freddie Garcia - for four consecutive games.
"He took his team into the World Series doing that," Blyleven says.
Blyleven is hardly alone in his professional admiration. It's shared by players, owners, and writers like Mike Nadel of the Copley News Service. In baseball, Nadel wrote, "I've covered all manner of clowns and creeps, clubhouse cancers and locker-room lawyers, egotists and eggheads, winners and whiners. Ozzie Guillen, a 42-year-old Venezuelan living the American Dream, stands alone."