I LOVE FIDEL CASTRO.
Those four words, spoken by the very colorful baseball manager of the Miami Marlins, Ozzie Guillen, created an immediate, intense outcry in the U.S. this week, especially among Cuban Americans. Guillen was suspended as manager for five days and he apologized profusely for his pro-Castro remarks in a highly anticipated press conference in Miami. Cuban Americans, however, were not impressed, coming out by the hundreds in protest at the sparkling-new, multimillion-dollar Marlins baseball stadium in Little Havana. Many are calling for the manager to be fired.
But is the reaction an over-reaction? Can’t Guillen speak his mind, however inflammatory or un-American those remarks might seem to be? Guillen, not known for his sense of subtlety, has gotten in trouble before. He made anti-gay remarks while manager of the White Sox (whom he took, by the way, to the World Series in 2005, making him the first Latino manager to win it all) and he famously told Playboy magazine in an interview several years back that he respects the controversial president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez.
Of course, Guillen is Venezuelan. He struck out on his own from Ocumare del Tuy, Venezuela, coming to the U.S. as a scrawny teenager with nothing but his own youthful gumption and his dream of making it big in baseball. His childhood hero was Dave Concepcion, a phenomenal shortstop with the Cincinnati Reds who came from a little coastal town in Venezuela.
A Venezuelan at heart
And, despite becoming an American citizen in 2006, Ozzie has kept close ties to his homeland. He writes a regular sports column for the Caracas newspaper El Universal (a journalist who covers Latin American baseball tells Latitude News his columns can be “rambling”). Guillen says on his Marlins website bio that he has become a cultural and philanthropic icon in his home country. “He is a very popular person here,” said Caracas journalist Maria Eugenia Diaz.
“Baseball is big” in the Latin American country, said Girish Gupta, another journalist based in Venezuela, who said U.S. oil workers brought it here in the 1920s. He notes that President Chavez left his hometown when he was 17 in order to play baseball at the military academy in Caracas.
Big-time in baseball
The first Venezuelan to make the Major Leagues debuted with the Washington Senators in 1939. Since then, hundreds of Major League Baseball players have hailed from Venezuela. There are nearly 100 Venezuelan players who are active in the league today, including Bobby Abreu and former Marlins shortstop Alex Gonzalez. The Marlins currently have three players from Venezuela, including star pitcher Carlos Zambrano, on their roster.
“In Venezuela Guillen is known first and foremost as part of the country’s baseball pantheon (the manager who won a World Series) rather than for running his mouth,” Dan Rosenheck, a sports columnist for the Economist, told Latitude News. “Needless to say sympathy for Cuba is much higher in Venezuela than it is in the U.S., so I would presume he’d be portrayed as a victim of big bad U.S. imperialism,” Rosenheck said.
And, there has been an explosion of Latin American players in the MLB. They now make up about 28% of the Major League roster, up from 13% in 1990.
Don’t forget Castro …
As for Cuba, the home of that Castro guy that Ozzie “loves” (or, doesn’t love), baseball is a major pastime there as well. Nearly 200 players in the MLB are Cuban-born. One of the most famous, or infamous (thanks to the steroids scandal), is Jose Canseco. Fidel Castro himself is a huge baseball fan, having played the game when he was young.
So Ozzie loves Castro, and Chavez. So what? One commentator noted that Ozzie, despite his embrace of all things American, does a great deal to support the immigrant community in the U.S. He also has taken strong issue with the anti-immigration tone that has taken hold in Arizona. He is proud of his heritage, even if it includes such unpopular figures as Castro and Chavez.