Peace, politics and paranoia
By John Riordan
A piece of advice if you ever get the chance to visit Miami: avoid the F-Word at all costs.
Every culture has its own version of Hitler and for many Cubans or Americans of Cuban descent, Fidel Castro is evil incarnate. In the tropical, deeply eccentric southern tip of Florida, where over two million Hispanic or Latino people make up almost 40% of the total population, anti-Castro sentiment is much more intense than elsewhere in the US.
A piece of advice if you ever get the chance to visit Montreal: don’t mention Jeff Loria.
He took the Expos baseball team out of that proud city in a complex deal that stank of Major League Baseball collusion and one which ultimately led to John W Henry selling the Florida Marlins to Loria, allowing the Liverpool owner to take over the Boston Red Sox.
That all happened a decade ago, the Marlins subsequently ambling along until eventually New Yorker Loria triggered his masterplan over the past off-season: moulding a ball club amidst the white heat of Miami and shaping a team that would reflect its flamboyant environment by building a stadium in Little Havana, right in the city centre, gradually loading the side with Latino talent and satisfying a market long disillusioned by baseball.
The final piece of the jigsaw was manager Ozzie Guillén, the first Latino to ever lead a team to a World Series — 2005 with the Chicago White Sox.
Remarkably, that victory was achieved in just Guillén’s second year as a manager. He had enjoyed a successful 16-year career as a shortstop with impressive hitting. But by now, the Venezuelan’s aversion to diplomacy was apparent, his destiny to one day secure his place in infamy assured.
He ticked many of the boxes: refusing to partake in the traditional visit to the White House after that World Series win; homophobic slurs aimed at a Chicago reporter; vociferous support for illegal immigrants; pitting Asian ball players against their Hispanic counterparts, claiming the former enjoyed greater benefits than the latter.
When Loria et al made the almost inevitable decision to recruit the man who had previously been an assistant coach at the Marlins, the reasoning was sound but the potential for damaging headlines was high.
It wasn’t a case of ‘if’, the question was when would Guillén bring his new team into disrepute. But nobody could have predicted that within 10 days of the Miami Marlins launching the new season against the World Series champions the St Louis Cardinals (with the help of fireworks, fanfare and Muhammad Ali), he would utter the unthinkable: “I love Fidel Castro ... I respect Fidel Castro. You know why? A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years, but that motherfucker is still here,” he told the online section of Time magazine.
Condemnation was swift and vicious and for the first time in his colourful career, Guillén’s ashen faced apology was as remorseful as you’d expect from someone who had veered dangerously close to dynamiting his dream job.
He flew home from Philadelphia during a day off between games against the Phillies and pledged to apologise properly in front of the people of Miami. Minor scuffles broke out at the entrance to the brand new stadium as he spoke to media inside, the images beamed out on a large screen. This shiny new theatre of dreams, built for $515m (€420m) had been intended to become the home of a new baseball force. Instead it was a sudden lightning rod for outraged Cuban-Americans, some of whom had lost relatives to firing squads and many of whom were forced to leave the land they loved.
Guillén’s five-game suspension ended on Tuesday night with a win at home to the Chicago Cubs. Although he accepted his punishment with relieved enthusiasm, the unavoidable debate arose about what defines freedom of speech, so dear to this nation. Surely, many asked, his right to take leave of his senses equalled that of those he offended to write him off as a buffoon. Or worse.
Mercifully, sporting success (or failure) will give this fast-moving episode the clarity it needs. Only one protestor turned up on Tuesday proving Guillén was convincing in his contrite response. Apathy was a factor beyond the turnstiles too, the seats were mostly empty and they’ll be slow to return. But if this team of mostly Latino players finally manages to click and put a title challenge together, this unimaginably ill-advised faux pas will be soon forgotten.Home