Commentary

Ozzie Guillen's wake-up call

The offense in his remarks about Fidel Castro goes far beyond Cuban-Americans

Originally Published: April 10, 2012
By Israel Gutierrez | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- I'm not Cuban.

I'm of Dominican descent, born and raised in the U.S.

I'm not a big fan of politics, either domestic or foreign; so despite the fact that I've lived in South Florida for almost my entire life and know the history of Fidel Castro and the pain he has caused Cubans and Cuban-Americans, I don't really know the history of Fidel Castro and the pain he has caused Cubans and Cuban-Americans.

So to be perfectly honest, when I first heard that Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen was getting more than just heavy criticism for his comments regarding Castro, and that there were some calling for his job because of them, it sounded to me like an overreaction. Guillen, after all, has been known to make blunt -- and frankly, dumb -- comments before he processes how the words might affect other people.

[+] EnlargeOzzie Guillen
Drew Hallowell/Getty ImagesOzzie Guillen's comments about Fidel Castro alienated a critical part of the Marlins' fan base.

It probably didn't help that I was far away from home on the day the news broke and the subsequent days when the reaction starting bubbling to its current level.

But as soon as I landed at the Fort Lauderdale airport late Monday afternoon, I began to understand the situation better.

All I had to do was read some tweets from people I respect and turn on the radio to hear some voices I respect, and it hit me.

This isn't about Ozzie Guillen offending Cuban-Americans.

This is about Ozzie Guillen offending human beings.

It's about Guillen bringing up a man who long ago took over a country and, ever since, has oppressed, tortured, even murdered its people. It's about evoking the emotions that, for many, come along with the simple mention of Castro's name. And it's about Guillen telling everyone that he has "love" and "respect" for that man.

That shouldn't bother only Cubans.

That should bother anybody and everybody. At least, anybody and everybody who has the basic human ability to empathize with other humans.

There's a wide range of reactions to this enormous Guillen error, from those who believe he should be fired by the Miami Marlins, a team that now plays its home games in the heart of Little Havana, to those who believe a mere case of Ozzie being Ozzie requires the standard apology and nothing more.

Those who lean toward the latter aren't necessarily to blame for their naiveté. Heck, I'm a Hispanic-American living in South Florida, and that was my initial reaction as well.

The problem, if you can call it that, is that the emotion that comes from the subject of Castro is almost too confined within the Cuban-American community.

The plight of Cubans under Castro's rule isn't as widely understood across this country as, say, the injustices experienced by African-Americans in the U.S. for so long, or the horrors Jewish people suffered during the reign of Adolf Hitler.

It's known, of course. But it's not felt as deeply by non-Cubans, as evidenced by the simple fact that the reaction wouldn't be this divided had Guillen made a similar comment that offended Jews or African-Americans.

Guillen, apparently, is among that group that doesn't entirely get it. Maybe that has something to do with his own nationality -- his native Venezuela is under the rule of a strong leader with close ties to Castro, Hugo Chavez. (Guillen has seemingly flip-flopped over the years in his public comments about Chavez, saying once that he does "like the president," and then insisting last September that he doesn't support him.)

[+] EnlargeOzzie Guillen
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesGuillen has a history of speaking first and thinking later, but the Castro remarks take his outspokenness to a new level.

Everyone should be offended by what Guillen said, not just those with Cuban backgrounds.

And Guillen should have to suffer a consequence for the remarks.

It should be said here that Guillen's comments, while clearly insensitive, don't appear to be in support of Castro.

They weren't based on Castro's politics, nor on his inhumane treatment of the Cuban people, nor on the cruelties that have occurred in Cuba.

They seem to have been based simply on the remarkable and frustrating perseverance of a man who has fought off all kinds of threats not just to his reign but to his life.

Ozzie's a baseball manager. He's also outspoken and divisive and headstrong. He has spent a good portion of his life fighting off detractors, and he has an extreme competitive spirit that tells him he needs to win at all costs.

That's apparently where his "respect" for Castro comes from, as misplaced as it is. And that's what he was saying, without much thought at all, which, sadly, is how he makes a lot of his more controversial comments.

That said, Guillen's "official" apology during Tuesday's news conference, for which he's flying from Philadelphia to Miami, should not include a single ounce of explanation in it. He should not defend his stance, or his words, one bit, even if in his heart of hearts he stands by them.

Guillen should simply be sincere. He should look in the face of the people he has offended and speak directly to them, displaying his remorse that he caused them any sort of emotional distress, even if he can't truly relate to where that pain comes from.

And he should openly accept any penalty Marlins management or Major League Baseball hands him.

[+] EnlargeMarlins park
Tom DiPace/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesThe Marlins, with a brand new ballpark near Little Havana, have invested heavily in marketing to the Latino community in South Florida.

Guillen should suffer for this in some way -- more than just the sleepless nights he claims to have experienced and the inconvenience of publicly addressing his mistake.

He should be suspended by the Marlins for a significant number of games (how to define "significant" should be up to them). Because to dismiss this -- and allowing Guillen to get away with only a heartfelt apology is dismissive for a situation like this -- would be saying to your fan base, and to an entire community of Cuban-Americans, that your sport is more important than their deep-seated emotions based on decades of pain caused by a murderous oppressor.

But to fire Guillen would set a different precedent. One that doesn't allow for mistakes, even ones this explosive in nature.

Some have compared Guillen's comments to those of the late former Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott, who was twice banned from day-to-day operations for a full season for insensitive or discriminatory remarks and faced a third suspension before eventually selling her majority share of the Reds.

That comparison is made to suggest that there is precedent to either suspend Guillen for an entire year or to fire him altogether, which is what protestors apparently plan on insisting the Marlins do on Tuesday morning in Miami.

But this case is nothing like that of Schott. She was continually and all but unapologetically offensive to multiple minority groups, including African-Americans, Jews, Asian-Americans and gays.

While this isn't Guillen's first offense -- in 2006, he was fined and ordered to undergo sensitivity training by MLB for a gay slur -- it is the first of this magnitude, which is saying a lot considering his history of verbal errors. And not only has he shown remorse, but he is going well out of his way, as he should, to directly address those who have been offended by his comments with this news conference.

In a perverse way, this might be the incident that finally creates a filter for Guillen. The one incident that makes him more willing to consider his words before blurting them out -- at least when it comes to issues outside of baseball.

He directly insulted thousands of people in the heart of his team's fan base, and thousands more who couldn't care less what the Marlins do on the field.

It should be the most alarming of wake-up calls.

The whole matter has certainly been a wake-up call for me.

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Israel Gutierrez is an NBA writer for ESPN.com.