When I heard that Ozzie Guillen had praised Fidel Castro, and that this had created a major controversy for baseball, and especially for the Miami Marlins where a large portion of the team’s fan base are said to be anti-Castro, my first thought was: who cares? He is a baseball manager known for saying controversial things – why do his political opinions matter anymore to the American public? Well it seems that for some reason baseball cares, the mainstream media cares, the American public cares, and Cuban immigrants living in Miami care a lot! Initially one might think this is all a very good thing; that Americans value capitalism, freedom and human rights around the world, and therefore cannot ever support a communist tyrant such as Fidel Castro. And to have a major figure in America’s favorite pastime defecting from that traditional belief is the most outrageous insult to our culture. But then I remembered that baseball has been at the helm of American-Cuban relations for decades, and that Major League Baseball (MLB) has many times in the past partnered with Castro’s Cuba to promote the sport both in America and in Cuba, and that American culture is still trying to define itself. Heck, quite a few star players in American baseball are Cuban immigrants so MLB has good reason to support Cuban baseball – business-wise. But then does baseball really object to Fidel Castro’s regime? Does baseball really stand for the rights of Cubans and for the values of Cuban immigrants?
I’ve heard that Castro’s childhood dream was to play short-stop for the New York Yankees. As a Red Sox fan that is not really all that surprising. (Snicker) In all seriousness, some may take offense to that idea. But Cuban politics aside, I really have a hard time accepting any sort of idea that baseball even has the ability to still take any sort of morality stance on ANY issue. For one, racial segregation was accepted in baseball, as part of the gentleman’s agreement, for more than half a century. It wasn’t until the public demanded desegregation, and until baseball saw dollar signs, that any team dared to cross the color line. All Red Sox fans have been indoctrinated on the franchise history since our birth. And prior to 2004, the season that all Sox fans have most admired in the franchise history was the 1967 season, often referred to by many as “The Impossible Dream.” In a rematch of the 1946 World Series, the Red Sox played against the St. Louis Cardinals. Armed with Stan “The Man” Musial and a famous mad dash, the Cardinals pulled off a hard-fought win. But for Sox fans it was still a great season and one to remember forever. But most importantly there were also significant notable differences between 1946 and 1967, and even between 1966 and 1967, that Red Sox fans were proud of. Prior to the 1946 season, the Red Sox had refused to consider signing a player that later became very famous in Major League Baseball, his name was Jackie Robinson. Owner Tom Yawkey (still honored at Fenway Park today where even the road leading to Fenway Park is called “Yawkey Way”) had maintained a segregation policy throughout the 1950s, even rejecting Willie Mays at one time, and therefore shrinking their talent pool. Because of this the Red Sox consistently struggled to win games, even with baseball’s greatest player of all time, “Teddy Ballgame”, on the roster. The team lineups during the 1950s became known as “Ted Williams and the Seven Dwarfs.” But finally, after their ninth straight losing season in 1966, Dick Williams was brought in to lead the team. And with him Williams brought some players who were black. The Impossible Dream was due in part to his leadership and in part to the dignity that came with desegregation. But after Williams was fried, the Red Sox slowly fell back into their old groove of overlooking talent based on race until eventually in 1983 they had but one black player on their major league roster, Jim Rice. For 86 years the Red Sox franchise was plagued with bad Karma yet die-hard fans, including myself, never considered the idea of ever rooting for any other team. I doubt that fans have forgotten the fact that the Red Sox franchise was the last major league team to integrate other races, or that baseball was segregated for as long as it was, but we’ve tried to move on just as most people in all other aspects of life have tried to move on from those days of segregation in hopes that the future may bring brighter days and an opportunity to redeem the sport. And today it seems that the Red Sox have been not only redeemed by most Americans but even admired and respected. This may have more to do with their new winning ways than anything, but nonetheless it seems that racism is no longer a part of the Red Sox organization, thankfully.
Fast forward 40 years from The Impossible Dream and we now have a league that generates high grades for its racial diversity despite a declining rate of minorities in recent years. However, a whole new level of controversy has risen and there is no better example of it than in a Venezuelan baseball manager named Ozzie Guillen. Known for his off-the-cuff remarks, Guillen has year-after-year since becoming manager of the Chicago White Sox in 2004, found a way to offend not just umpires and baseball executives, but people everywhere by insulting, both within baseball and outside of it, gay people, Asian people, political activists and many others. Most baseball managers have a knack for the use of profanity, especially in a full count situation, but Guillen has expanded his choppy use of the English language into extracurricular profanity by using racist, or sexist or homophobic slurs even in front of major news reporters and cameras. Anyone who follows baseball knows that when you are watching Guillen do an interview its ‘R’ rated. Politically correct is not his forte, winning a baseball game is. But the problem is that Guillen’s offensive nature is not only allowed by baseball, it’s cheered by baseball fans. Guillen is still a MLB manager, and the teams he manages still have a lot of fans. Unlike any other business in America, baseball tolerates this type of vulgarity and never risks losing its fan base. His personality sort of fits what we expect from baseball I suppose, whereas we would never tolerate his personality in other venues. Guillen would never last as a bank manager for example, but for some reason we hold baseball – and other sports for that matter – to a much lower standard. As long as he wins games, fans are happy, and once in a while he gets a small fine or a short suspension as baseball’s way of saying that they don’t support discrimination that day. So what does this mean for modern baseball? Have we simply traded one form of discrimination for another? I think it’s time we took a good hard look at what we are celebrating if we care at all about the impression we are giving to the next generation of baseball fans, and if we want to live in a dignified society. After all, baseball is a game, played and watched by kids, and if games are meant to teach us anything it shouldn’t be Ozzie Guillen’s daily derogatory thoughts.
So instead of booting Guillen from the league, a move that would’ve been unprecedented for MLB I suppose, Guillen was traded to the Miami Marlins. It should be safe to say that the Marlins knew exactly who they were getting when they hired Guillen. A winning manager, yes, but a manager with a reputation for being a loose cannon as well. And certainly it should be safe to say that part of the reasoning behind the Marlins’ decision had to do with Guillen’s Venezuelan descent and the fact that the franchise had just erected a brand new stadium in Little Havana of all places, the heart of Miami’s Latin community, which they desperately needed to sell tickets to pay for. So it was no surprise to me when I learned that Guillen had yet again offended someone. This time it was the fan base the Marlin’s so desperately needed to attract. By praising Fidel Castro, every Cuban immigrant forced to leave their homeland after Castro’s regime brought oppression to Cuba had been offended. But what was surprising, and what was different this time, is that the backlash Guillen received for his offensive remark was enormous. Marlins ownership suspended Guillen and even discussed firing him, baseball executives demanded an apology, and mainstream media portrayed him as someone worse than Castro himself. Per usual, the American public followed the media’s instructions in persecuting Guillen, and the riots began in Miami. Lost in translation was the fact that once again baseball was somehow being redeemed again undeservingly. Even though MLB teams have chosen to make Guillen a member of their organization, and even though MLB has chosen to allow Guillen to represent the game, nobody is demanding the league’s termination, or the league’s suspension, or the league’s apology, and baseball has hardly lost any fans or sponsors. Baseball is too much a loved sport for any of that to happen. So instead, we are attacking Guillen. Granted his remarks are insensitive and ignorant, but he is a baseball manager – not a major political figure. He is not a legislator and so his view on politics means no more than the next Joe Shmoe. Certainly it is important to dispel political views that go against our Constitutional beliefs, but that usually happens in a debate room, or over a cup of coffee, or in a chat room – a little less confrontational than what Guillen is experiencing. Furthermore, Ozzie is just being Ozzie so can anyone really claim to be surprised? So I wonder what has stirred up all this resentment. Has American patriotism hit an all-time high? I doubt it. Just ten years ago the same Bud Selig who renounced Guillen’s praise for Castro was responsible for organizing two exhibition games between the Baltimore Orioles and the Cuban all-stars, one in Havana and one in Baltimore. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter have supported Cuban-American relations for many years. And there has even been talk of a possible minor league team being located in Cuba where U.S. college baseball players will play this year! If anyone has shown admiration for Fidel Castro, it’s baseball’s long time commissioner Bud Selig. What makes all of this so gross is that the true meaning behind the resentment is its impact on the Marlins’ ability to sell tickets. The truth is that if Guillen had made his remark in any other city, nobody would care. In fact, nobody did care when he made the same remarks a few years ago. But this time it’s different because this time it hurts profits. Baseball has officially sold out. And American values have been traded for American pastime, at nobody’s fault but our own.
So let’s face it, baseball doesn’t care about Cuban immigrants, or Fidel Castro, or about racial or sexual discrimination, unless those people are buying tickets. Baseball only cares about the dollars they can collect from each person. And I don’t blame baseball for it; I blame myself and all of the baseball fans who have given them a pass for doing so for the last 100 years. It is our job as Americans to fight for freedom and to stand up for human rights. But in my opinion, the entire backlash that Guillen has received in the past few days is all very insincere – too little too late. There is no dignity in attacking Guillen this time around because doing so is proof that more could’ve been done, and should’ve been done, in the past when his comments were just as, if not more, offensive. The only true concern for the Marlins’ franchise is their ability to sell enough tickets to pay for their brand new stadium in Little Havana. And any sports fan in Miami with any sort of decency would be better off recognizing that than to forgive the game yet again. The question remains, how long will it be before Cuban immigrants have forgiven Ozzie Guillen? Will the 5-game suspension suffice? Or will it take 5 months, or 5 years? Or will it never happen? Only time will tell. My guess is, as long as Cuba continues to export great baseball players to America, baseball will always be on the fence for human rights. And the true shame will be if we, as Americans, continue to support this inhumane organization known as Major League Baseball.