Commentary

Lessons in Ozzie Guillen's mistake

It's time to see what the team, the manager, the public and the media have learned

Updated: April 11, 2012, 9:16 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

So, it is done. Ozzie Guillen was suspended five games by the Miami Marlins for conduct detrimental to Jeffrey Loria's wallet. He was guilty of being both foolishly impolitic and either dangerously unaware of or insufficiently sensitive to the sensibilities of the community in which he works.

[+] EnlargeOzzie Guillen
AP Photo/Dick DruckmanOzzie Guillen hasn't been afraid to say what he thinks or to play to the crowd.

Now, over the coming weeks and months we will find out what Guillen, the Marlins, the public and media have learned from this latest public collision.

The least difficult point of view to consider is that of the Miami Marlins. The Marlins are a company, and one at a critical juncture in its history. Finally, the team has a new stadium. Finally, it has energy and the attention of a fan base that despite two World Series titles in 20 years of existence, has never quite committed to the franchise. Finally, management has built a team that doesn't have the look of a rebuilding project or a one-season free-agent, all-star team.

Suspending Guillen was the prudent, image-conscious reaction for the Marlins, but now we'll find out just what kind of crisis manager Loria is. Few issues evoke as many emotions in Miami as Cuba, and Fidel Castro specifically. Loria's decision to suspend his manager may not be enough to soothe the hurt feelings of his prospective customers. Perhaps the conservative Cuban exile community will not forgive Guillen, causing the Marlins to suffer financially. If that proves true, Guillen will not survive as manager, regardless of apology or contrition.

If he chooses, Loria has ample cover to fire Guillen, but he also must be prudent within his own clubhouse. Guillen is a popular, energetic, World Series-winning manager whose hire made the Marlins more attractive to Mark Buehrle and Jose Reyes. Loria must also take his share of the blame for this episode; unplanned explosions are the price for hiring Guillen.

The 2010 Rangers were in a similar position to the Marlins, a team that had been down but had an exciting team and respected manager. Then it was revealed during spring training that Ron Washington had made a colossal error in judgment the previous summer and had tested positive for cocaine. Like the Marlins, the Rangers had the perfect cover to fire Washington, either if the public would not forgive him or if the team underperformed. President Nolan Ryan and general manager Jon Daniels both said publicly they supported Washington and that the Rangers would handle the crisis "as a family."

Like Guillen, Washington was publicly contrite, was not defiant, and promised to be better. The Rangers did not panic, did not overreact on Washington. They survived the scandal, have won consecutive pennants and are considered one of the more stable franchises in the game. Now we will see whether Loria cares to handle this episode as a family -- especially should the Marlins struggle -- or as a business.

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AP Photo/Tony GutierrezRon Washington acknowledged his mistake and continued to do his job.

When Guillen returns, he must decide how his humiliation will affect him, whether he will remain affable and unpredictable, potentially explosive, or whether this experience will beat him down into a company man who won't offer his opinions for fear of repeating Tuesday's enormous backlash. Guillen's explanation of the published comments that sparked this storm is that he was expressing respect for Castro's stunning resiliency and longevity, remaining defiant in the face of a nuclear superpower for a half-century. Guillen's words, in that sense, were not unlike those of military adversaries admiring one another's most dangerous qualities. This is not an uncommon or stupid sentiment, but it was inappropriate to say on the record both within the framework of Cuban-American relations and especially in Miami. Guillen was not a victim of so-called political correctness. He did not show respect for the community where he lives and is paying a serious price.

Now, more than ever, he must win. As long as he still has the team to manage, the fastest way to heal is to bring a community together through a common love. In this case, the commonality is baseball. The summer awaits and the Marlins are expected to make the playoffs. Guillen has now exposed himself to criticism -- over a slow start, over new controversies, over any suggestion that he is unfit for the job -- and winning baseball games is his only shield.

Perhaps most importantly, however, the Guillen aftermath will challenge the public and media once again to ask themselves what they truly want from their athletes and sports figures. People want what they want when they want it ... –until they don't. The Marlins wanted Guillen the firebrand, he of the bizarre, sometimes inflammatory comments and tweets– ... until they didn't, until he embarrassed them. The media and public loathe the canned, brown-and-serve cliché and crave the great quote, the quirky original –... until they don't, until Guillen went off message.

Through the country's most challenging issues -- school and public desegregation, wars and racism -- both sports editors and fans were conflicted between wanting to enjoy the games without political complication and wanting to hear the perspectives on world events from athletes. An old newspaper refrain was "no news on the sports page," and it is a conflict that the Guillen controversy revisits.

A dozen years ago, I went to Cuba. As an American, I knew I wasn't supposed to be there -- Americans illegally entering Cuba have long been subject to five years in jail and a $10,000 fine -- but I wanted to see it, see it before McDonald's and Burger King, Hyatts and Marriotts arrived. It is a difficult, complicated place, a Cold War relic with warm breezes and warmer people who love their country yet are trapped by the politics of their dictator. They would love the freedom -- to get on a plane and travel, to speak freely, to not be spied upon by authority -- that people in the U.S. take for granted as much as oxygen.

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Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesProtesters had their say outside Ozzie Guillen's news conference Tuesday.

The people I spoke with were fascinated with the United States and baseball but also well aware that life and history are complicated. They knew that over the past century, government corruption and U.S. influence indirectly created and then strengthened Fidel Castro and that the U.S. government's 50-year full nelson with Castro in the form of economic embargoes has made their individual lives worse. Yet Cubans made the distinction between American foreign policy and American people.

A highlight related to that trip came a year later, when Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, the clutch Yankees pitcher, and I sat in the dugout at the Ballpark in Arlington, talking baseball -- he was a legend on the great Industriales -- and Cuba and Castro. Hernandez became a national hero but was subsequently destroyed when he refused to betray his friends during a Castro tribunal. That night in Texas was one of many conversations about Cuba filled with emotion and, for him, wrenching homesickness.

There is a full, human discussion to be had, if people truly want to have it. Such discussion, clumsy as it was between Guillen and his Time interviewer, conflicted with running the business of the Miami Marlins.

These are not easy conversations and this controversy again raises a question: Does the stamina exist within the framework of sports to have them, whether the topic is Cuba, the cultural impact of Jeremy Lin, football and basketball players wearing hoodies to protest the Trayvon Martin shooting, Muhammad Ali protesting Vietnam, or athletes' public expression of religion? Tim Tebow is a divisive figure because he cannot make NFL throws, but mostly because he is unafraid to make his faith a part of his personal and public dialogue. Doing so is offensive to many sports fans, and he does not apologize, nor has he been asked by his employers in the National Football League to do so.

What is unacceptable is the public wanting it both ways, demanding conversation then expecting apologies when things get uncomfortable. Teams will always be corporate, given to deflecting controversy in order to protect their businesses. But the public and media have to accommodate sporting personalities who speak with candor and originality and thought. And when athletes and managers fail to communicate clearly, like Guillen, they will face the backlash being felt in Miami today.

Occasional discomfort is far preferable to no dialogue at all.

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