Sports

Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen suspended for 5 games over Fidel Castro comments

The Miami Marlins announced Tuesday morning that the team has suspended manager Ozzie Guillen for five games effective immediately after his comments about Fidel Castro.

In a news conference on Tuesday during which he began by speaking Spanish, Guillen said he felt like he had betrayed the Latin American community, especially Cuban Americans, and repeatedly asked for forgiveness "with my heart in my hand and on bended knees."

"I'm very embarrassed. I'm very sad," Guillen said.

"I let the ballclub down."

Guillen said his published statement about Castro was misintrepreted.

"It was misintrepreted by what I mean in Spanish," he said. Guillen said he was trying to say that he couldn't believe that someone who has hurt so many "is still in power" and added he did not share Castro's ideology.

Regardless, the Marlins acknowledged the "seriousness of the comments" attributed to Guillen.

"The pain and suffering caused by Fidel Castro cannot be minimized, especially in a community filled with victims of the dictatorship," the team said in Tuesday's statement.

Guillen said he accepts his five-game suspension and added he would not resign.

"Now I'm just going to focus on winning games."

People gathered outside Marlins Park to voice their protest to Guillen’s comments, some carrying signs expressing their disgust. Scores of protestors shouted, "Liar, liar," after the news conference.

"There are so many good people in the country. We could get anyone," said Elena Soutullo, 60. She says that five-game suspension isn't enough "because the offense is too big."

"We don't need a guy like that teaching our children that kind of behavior. I won't allow my children, grandchildren, to watch the games if he stays."

Before Guillen started speaking, one turned his body into a two-sided billboard, writing “No excuses – Fire him now” on one placard and on the other, “Mr. [David] Samson, Do you still keep Guillen if he had said, ‘I love Hitler’?” Samson is the Marlins’ team president. Neither Samson nor owner Jeffrey Loria sat next to Guillen during Tuesday’s grilling by English and Spanish-language media members. More than a dozen video cameras perched atop tripods lined the back of the room, and the 60-some-odd seats Marlins staff set up for reporters were not enough.

Samson said Guillen will be paid for the five games he is missing, but the salary will be donated to charity.

In his nine years as a big-league manager, Guillen has spit out insult after insult in his blunt style, offending, among others, gays, opponents of illegal immigration and even fellow Venezuelans.

Guillen has managed to get away with his polarizing screeds by offering up contrition after the fact.

But not even Guillen could hug the third rail of Miami discourse — praising Cuban leader Fidel Castro — without paying a steep price.

Guillen, the Miami Marlins’ first-year manager, has come under withering criticism locally after saying he has respect for Castro and “I love Fidel Castro,’’ in an interview with Time magazine.

He has since apologized for those comments, but that hasn’t stopped mushrooming outcry from some South Florida Cuban Americans, a group his ballclub hopes will fill the team’s new Little Havana stadium in coming years.

“Ozzie is quick at the mouth; always has been,” said Andy Gomez, an assistant provost and senior fellow at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. “He’s a great manager, but he should stick to something he knows.”

Gomez offered to give Guillen a private tutorial on Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez (whom Guillen also has previously praised, then later criticized)

At the news conference Tuesday, Guillen denied ever having said "Viva Chavez," as seen in a YouTube video. He said one of his son's friends standing behind him made the statement.

Gomez stopped short of demanding the coach’s job. Others feel otherwise about them manager's fate.

Miami-Dade Commission Chairman Joe Martinez, harnessing the outrage in the middle of a heated election year, said Monday he wants Guillen to resign — a statement that snowballed as a string of politicians and others echoed the sentiment.

A small, hardline exile group, Vigilia Mambisa, organized a protest for noon Tuesday at the stadium and plans to boycott the team.

Guillen, 48, is taking the extraordinary step of flying home in the middle of a six-game road trip to offer an in-person apology. He will face his critics at a press conference at Marlins Park Tuesday morning.

His comments were the latest in a string of recent public relations stumbles for the Marlins, who just last week opened their new, $634 million ballpark — funded mostly by taxpayers — in Little Havana.

But it was Guillen’s comments on Castro that prompted the swiftest backlash.

Spanish-language radio stations popular with older Cuban Americans — a coveted local voting bloc — were inundated with calls from listeners offended by Guillen’s reported remarks.

“It’s so outrageous, they have to start by buying a new brain for Guillen because every time he opens his mouth, he offends somebody,” said Ninoska Pérez Castellón, an activist and radio host with Radio Mambí.

Guillen said he has lost sleep over what he said. Yet an apology may not be enough for some politicians gearing up for contested elections.

Martinez, who is running for county mayor, wrote to Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria on county letterhead calling Guillen’s comments “a slap in the face of those who have fought oppression in this community and everywhere in the world.”

Martinez’s foray into the controversy prompted Mayor Carlos Gimenez to issue a statement Monday afternoon condemning Guillen’s remarks, but stopping short of asking for his resignation.

“For too long, the Marlins organization has been the source of controversies in our community, and I now challenge them to take decisive steps to bring this community back together,” Gimenez said.

Miami City Commission Chairman Francis Suarez also pushed for Guillen’s ouster, while the Florida Legislature’s Hispanic Caucus called for “punitive” action.

Meanwhile, calls streamed into WQBA-AM (1140)’s evening drive-time show, which spent an hour addressing the controversy. Most listeners said Guillen should leave his job. Bernie Navarro, president of the influential Latin Builders Association, said his organization hopes Guillen will be fired.

But not everyone was calling for Guillen’s head. A handful of callers said Guillen’s comments were off-base but did not warrant his termination.

Longtime Spanish-language Marlins announcer Felo Ramirez said he met with Guillen in Philadelphia and heard his heart-felt apology. Ramirez and fellow Marlins broadcaster Yiki Quintana did not wish to speak about the situation Monday, but Ramirez said he felt Guillen was doing the right thing by returning to Miami.

“Obviously it’s something that was going to affect people a lot and [Guillen] realizes that,” Ramirez said. “I think he will answer everything [in Miami].”

Uva de Aragon, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, agreed that Guillen’s remarks were insensitive, but added that many people have fueled the controversy to suit their own motives. She expects it won’t take long for the firestorm to subside.

Dario Moreno, a pollster who has worked for Gimenez, said the Marlins knew what they were getting when they hired Guillen, long known for his colorful personality and tendency to put his foot in his mouth.

“Is what he says important? No,” Moreno said. “He’s not an expert in foreign politics. He’s controversial. He is a manager. This should be about sports.”

Even Chairman Martinez, speaking to radio hosts Roberto Rodríguez Tejera and Helen Aguirre Ferré, said it might be enough to suspend Guillen if he delivers a “sincere” apology.

And Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, who voted against the ballpark deal and has repeatedly criticized the Marlins, said he accepted Guillen’s apology.

“I think it’s a lesson for him, and we should move on,” Regalado said.

Guillen’s talk-first, think-later nature has made him one of Major League Baseball’s most intriguing — and inflammatory — characters. Guillen won the World Series as manager of the Chicago White Sox in 2005, but his tenure in the Windy City may be remembered more for what he said than what he did.

Among his most notable provocations:

Using a profanity-laced gay slur while referring to a local sports columnist critical of the White Sox. Guillen later apologized to the gay community, but not the writer in question.

Speaking out against Arizona’s strict illegal immigration law in 2010. He was quoted as saying that “this country can’t survive without [immigrants]. There are a lot of people from this country who are lazy. A lot of people in this country want to be on the computer and send e-mails to people. We do the hard work.’’

Praising Chávez and appearing on his radio show in 2005, only to deny ever speaking to him when he was introduced as the Marlins manager last fall. He has since criticized the longtime Venezuelan president.

Guillen even admitted Saturday to drinking to excess after every game, claiming he’s done so for more than two decades.

Still, nothing he has said has caused as much trouble as his interview with Time magazine’s online edition.

“I respect Fidel Castro,” Time reported Guillen as saying. “You know why? A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years, but that mother f----r is still here.”

Despite his apology, some irreversible damage may already be done, said Patrick Walsh, a sports management professor at the University of Indiana.

In the past, Guillen’s heresies didn’t much impact his team’s bottom line. This time, they might. A Marlins spokesman said Monday the team would not comment further until Guillen speaks Tuesday.

“It comes at the worst possible time for the Marlins,” said Walsh, a former professor at UM. “In Miami, it’s the worst possible thing he could have said. People in sports are forgiving, but this a pretty damning statement for the fan base.”

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