‘”I love Fidel Castro,’ blurts Ozzie Guillen, the new manager of the Miami Marlins, in his Jupiter, Fla., spring-training office before an early-March team workout.”
And with that spontaneous utterance, quoted in a Time magazine feature, Guillen, who was hired during baseball’s off-season to lead the long-languishing Miami baseball franchise to elusive community popularity and on-the-field success, suddenly found himself at the epicenter of a career-threatening controversy. Cuban groups in the Miami area were horrified, and demanded that Guillen be fired. Guillen immediately went on an apology tour, arguing that he had “mistranslated in his head from Spanish to English,” and that he emphatically did not “love” the Cuban dictator, but in fact hated him. Even though he said he loved him. That’s some bad translating.
“I feel like I betrayed my Latin community,” Guillen said to one Miami group, according to ESPN’s translation of his comments in Spanish. “I am here to say I am sorry with my heart in my hands and I want to say I’m sorry to all those people who are hurt indirectly or directly. I’m sorry for what I said and for putting people in a position they don’t need to be in. And for all the Cuban families, I’m sorry. I hope that when I get out of here, they will understand who Ozzie Guillen is. How I feel for them. And how I feel about the Fidel Castro dictatorship. I’m here to face you, person to person. It’s going to be a very difficult time for me.”
He got that right. Today the Marlins suspended their manager for five games, saying in a statement,
“The Marlins acknowledge 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.”
My friends over at Fark headlined this story thusly: “Miami Marlins fail to realize that the cold war ended decades ago. Suspend Ozzie Guillen for pro-Castro remarks. Guess the Marlins support the brutal military dictatorship of Batista and old system of racial serfdom instead.” Fark goes out of its way to be politically incorrect, so anything they say should be taken with generous shovels of salt; nonetheless, Fark’s comment this time isn’t funny enough to justify its studied cluelessness. The end of the Cold War didn’t suddenly render Castro’s half-century of oppression meaningless and acceptible. There is a large community of Cuban refugees in Miami, many of whom had to flee the island leaving their families behind. “He is our Hitler,” one Cuban commentator said to explain the impact of Guillen’s remarks. Saying “I love Castro!” in Miami is like saying “I love William Tecumseh Sherman!” in Atlanta, “I love George Wallace!” in Harlem, ” I love Bin Laden!” in Manhattan, or “I love Bucky Dent!” in Boston. The closest recent incident was when Gilbert Gottfried, the comic who was then employed as the original voice of the Aflac duck, issued a series of tasteless jokes on his Twitter feed about the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Japan is one of Aflac’s largest markets—Gottfried was promptly fired. Ozzie is lucky to still have his job.
Battista, Castro’s brutal predecessor, is completely irrelevant: “I love Battista!” would have been equally offensive, but less damaging since most people don’t remember Battista, who had been dead for over 60 years. The Marlins action in suspending Guillen wasn’t just fair but necessary, a matter of survival. The man they had hired to be the face of their franchise as part of a multi-million dollar public relations effort that includes a new ball park and pricey new players just viscerally insulted their target market. The team had to repudiate his comments; it had to discipline Ozzie. The only question is whether this was enough.
I, for one, hope so. Ozzie Guillen has a big mouth, and is accustomed to sticking both feet in it, but he is a genuine character, a fiery, exciting manager, and by most reports, a good guy. It would be unfortunate for him to have permanently soured his new city on his team and his management with four stupid words, but he might have done it. Only time will tell.
The lesson of this sad, completely unnecessary episode is that when an employee alienates his employer’s market and threatens its business viability because of reckless words or deeds, the employer has every right to take action against that employee. It has nothing to do with political correctness or freedom of speech. It is unethical to harm an employer by not recognizing that you have a duty not to embarrass the organization, or make customers wonder about the organization’s competence and judgment to hire a jerk like you in such a prominent position. That’s what Ozzie did.