[On Hugo Chavez]
What I say about Chavez, I don’t say I like his ideas, I don’t say I like the way he is. I just said I like the man because he works hard and he says what he thinks. Some people don’t like it, but I don’t say I like the man, he’s a governor. I don’t say I like the man, he do great things in the world, in my country. I said I like the man because he loves his country.
— 2005, press conference before second game of ALCS
[Asked to name the toughest person he knows]
Fidel Castro. He’s a bullshit dictator and everybody’s against him, and he still survives, has power. Still has a country behind him. Everywhere he goes they roll out the red carpet.
I don’t admire his philosophy. I admire him.
— 2008, interview, Men’s Journal
[While talking to a reporter in his office]
I love Fidel 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 motherfucker is still here.
— 2012, interview, Time Magazine
One month ago today, Ozzie Guillen returned from a five-game suspension for saying “I love Fidel Castro.” And no one cares. The Marlins have gone 16-11 since he got back; they were just 2-3 under interim manager Joey Cora. The entire controversy, which seemed to suck all the oxygen out of sports television and radio for the week between the publication of his comments and the end of his suspension, appears to have dissipated.
(Well, just about. A little over a week ago, when the Marlins were in Houston for a series, Ozzie cursed out a radio host who asked him about the backlash , and the Astros kicked out a group of fans who chose to lampoon Ozzie by dressing up as Castro by wearing matching beards and cigars.)
The controversy even seems to have dissipated in Miami. “That’s a fact,” says Dr. Andy Gomez, the assistant provost at the University of Miami who is also a senior fellow in the university’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. “The Cuban-American community, we’re going to judge him based on how many games he wins, not on how he feels about Fidel Castro.”
That’s a good thing for Guillen, who was badly misunderstood. It’s also a good thing for the Miami community, which has come a long way since the 1970s and 1980s, when paramilitary elements had a habit of bombing people they perceived as pro-Castro. Max Lesnik, a pro-Castro journalist, had his Miami offices bombed 11 times, as Wright Thompson wrote for ESPN.
Guillen was clearly misunderstood. Considering that he refers to him as a “motherfucker” and a “bullshit dictator,” it’s fair to conclude that he doesn’t actually “love” Castro. Rather, I think that what happened in this case is an instance of the severe misuse of the common ironic usage of the phrase “I love,” which actually implies, “I love the fact that” rather than “I love the thing itself,” and is commonly is used to mean, “I find it amazing,” or, “I find it perversely amusing.”
In other words, when Guillen said “I love Fidel Castro,” I think he meant that he finds it remarkable that a guy who was Public Enemy No. 1 for a while — whom the United States has tried to assassinate countless times — is still alive. In fact, a source on the Marlins gave a similar interpretation to the Miami Herald after the Time interview came to light.
It isn’t surprising that Guillen was misunderstood. Ozzie Guillen is famous for having a profane mouth that gets him in a great deal of trouble. It has already gotten him in a modest amount of trouble regarding Hugo Chavez, as you can tell from the 2005 quote I gave at the beginning of this article: “I don’t say I like the way he is. I just said I like the man.” In a video that appeared on Youtube taken from the celebration after the 2005 World Series championship, Guillen was seen to shout, “Chavez!”
Indeed, Guillen, a Venezuelan, has talked about Chavez for years. In 2007, the Palm Beach Post reported that Guillen, then-manager of the White Sox, often talked to pitcher Jose Contreras about politics, “comparing Chavez and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and their effects on their respective countries.” The odds are pretty good that Guillen feels about the same way about Chavez as he does about Castro, because Contreras famously has no love lost for Castro, after having defected from Cuba to the U.S. But it would probably be best if Guillen simply stopped talking about politics. Which, to his credit, he has. At least for the past month.
Guillen, obviously, has gotten in trouble for talking about things other than politics too. Back in 2006, he was fined and ordered to undergo sensitivity training for calling columnist Jay Mariotti a “fag.” And he went right on managing the team for the next five seasons. Chicago got used to Guillen’s occasional outbursts; as long as he kept winning, nothing he said could threaten his job. It wasn’t a question of if he would get in trouble for something he said in Miami, it was a question of when.
Ozzie’s charm is tremendous. And in this case, his timing was impeccable. If he had made the same offhanded comment 20 years ago, the Marlins would have been picketed by thousands of fans; if he had made it 30 years ago, he might have had to fear for his life. But in the past several decades, the Cuban-American community has changed.
Gomez, the University of Miami scholar, opined that the change in the Cuban-American community may have had two primary catalysts. First, the Elian Gonzalez case — which demonstrated to many within the community that knee-jerk, anti-Castro sentiment didn’t necessarily lead to a good outcome. And second, the illness that caused Fidel Castro to turn power over to his younger brother Raul: despite great hope that Cuban freedom was imminent, only continuity came.
Miami Cubans didn’t exactly stop hating Castro. They just started caring about other things more. Like a winning baseball team. “I’m a season ticket holder and I wasn’t going to turn back my tickets,” Gomez said. “Now, if this son of a bitch doesn’t win ballgames, let’s see what we do at the end of the season.”
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.