Much Ado About Guillen

There’s been a big hullabaloo surrounding the comments made by Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen in a recent Time Magazine piece . The article begins with a direct quote from Guillen. “I love Fidel.” The maelstrom of reaction that followed was to be expected.

In a market where political passion and hatred of Castro rages greater than a category 5 hurricane, Ozzie’s comments were incredibly careless and irresponsible. Add to that the fact Ozzie is a public sports figure who works in an environment of 24-hour news cycles and public relations management, his quote was downright stupid. Never mind the fact the Time Magazine article went on to explain how Guillen pondered his comment and amended it to, “I respect Fidel” (in the context of him still being alive after all these years), it was, in the end, the mother of all brain farts.

There is one aspect of me that applauds Ozzie for being – as he always has been – brutally honest. There was no malice intended with his comment. There was no hidden agenda or point to prove. He was asked a question about a topic and he answered it. That being said, Ozzie’s honesty pales in comparison to the sheer stupidity he displayed. Whereas most people in Miami want to file this under “Ozzie is a communist sympathizer” and want him gone as Marlins Manager, I think it more properly belongs in the category of “Ozzie is a moron who knows better.”

Of all the things to say and of all the markets in which to say it, that you love – or respect or admire or ANY other positive comment – Castro is categorically and undeniably the wrong thing to say. And given Ozzie’s contrite and public apology, one that was visibly different from other sports apologies we’ve become accustomed to seeing, it’s clear he understands how stupid he was, too.

In 2009, Bob Griese, of ABC Sports and Miami Dolphins fame, got into trouble for making a tongue-in-cheek comment about NASCAR driver Juan Pablo Montoya. I said then as I say now; it was not a racist comment but rather a stupid comment. Ozzie Guillen’s faux pas falls under the same category. The difference, however, is that his verbal diarrhea has been amplified by a million because of his current role as Miami Marlins manager. The fan base of the Marlins is mostly Hispanic, and of those Hispanic fans, the largest percentage is Cuban or of Cuban decent. The stadium in which the Marlins play is situated in a part of Miami known as Little Havana, so the fact Ozzie didn’t catch himself as he was shedding praise to Fidel Castro is what I find truly shocking. To me, what makes me shake my head at all this is not the words he said, but the lack of filter he applied when saying them.

And that is what separates me from others, including family members of mine, who’ve been vocal during this fiasco. I respect their strong position against Ozzie and his comments. I don’t agree with some of their subsequent views as a result of this incident (Ozzie supports communist leaders, Ozzie’s apology was cowardly, Ozzie should be fired), but I understand why they feel that way. My uncle was incarcerated for non-violently protesting the Castro regime. My grandparents did not join the rest of their children in fleeing Cuba in the early 60’s so as to stay behind and wait for the release of my uncle. That pain and anger is still very real and very current to my family, and anything that even remotely smacks of support for the murderer that is Fidel Castro is unacceptable. I get that.

Yet at the end of the day, what made Ozzie Guillen qualified to be manager of the Marlins when he was hired last winter still makes him qualified to be their manager today. And at the end of the day, Ozzie Guillen being an employee of the Marlins – or not – will do nothing to change the fact Fidel and Rafael Castro are still in power in Cuba.

I am not of the mindset that public figures should lose their jobs for brain fart comments. People make mistakes and I think the punishment of public shame and ridicule should suffice when the idiot in all of us decides to make an appearance.

I like Ozzie. I think he’s a dynamic character that brings attention to both the Marlins and Major League Baseball in much the same way Earl Weaver did with the Orioles, Tommy Lasorda did with the Dodgers, and Lou Pinella did with the Yankees/Cubs/Devil Rays. He deserves the suspension he received from the Marlins as well as the pounding he’s taken (and will continue to take) from the media and fans. Still, I look forward to watching him manage this season, and as a fan, I am excited about having him as skipper of the new-look Marlins.

What he said was stupid, but when looked at through a prism of non-Miami cultural bias, what he said is really not that big of a deal.

Such a Sell Out

As the NFL regular season draws to a close, the NBA season kicks off, and the NHL season is in full swing, I find my thoughts meandering ahead to the 2012 Major League Baseball season. Dolphins, Heat, and Panthers notwithstanding, as a Miami fan, I hold a continuous and giddy anticipation for the new ballpark of the new look Miami Marlins.

There’s been much talk – mostly negative – about the new stadium in Miami. An SEC investigation into the issuance of bonds for the stadium, controversy over property taxes for the parking garages built for the venue, and the ad nasueum discussion about Marlins fan apathy; it makes you wonder if any positive energy can be generated in South Florida next Spring. The answer, simply, is ‘yes’.

I’m calling it now. The Miami Marlins will sell out every home game of the 2012 season.

I know you think I’m crazy. I know you think the Marlins have an apathetic fan base, a notion that is only partially true. I know you’re going to fall back on the data and the games in the past where literally only hundreds of people attended.

Before you completely tune me out, however, here are five reasons why the Marlins will sell out every home game next season:

Location, Location, Location

The new Marlins ballpark sits on the hallowed grounds of the former Orange Bowl and in the heart of Miami’s Little Havana. The empty seats of previous seasons were much more a function of geography and logistics than they were a function of fan apathy. Believe it or not, Miami fans care about their baseball team. They just didn’t care enough to spend ninety minutes in traffic to watch a team that often times didn’t contend.

What makes the location of the new ballpark so special is that it’s in the middle of a residential area. Fans can easily drive to a game, park at someone’s house, and walk to the stadium. Also, public transportation is now a much more readily available option that it ever was in the past, and pedestrian traffic is now possible. With the new ballpark, one can easily walk to the game. As a kid growing up in Miami, I remember walking from my aunt’s house off of Calle Ocho to the Orange Bowl. Thirteen city block and just under a mile and a half. The average fan who before didn’t have the means to get to North Miami-Dade County for a Marlins game now has a variety of transportation options available to him.

Miami Loves All Things New

Remember the buzz surrounding the Miami Heat last season? With perhaps the exception of Los Angeles, no other city succumbs to the irresistible attraction of glitz, glamour, and celebrity quite like Miami. It’s as if the city has collective A-D-D. If it’s new and hot and trendy, everyone in Miami wants to be there and be a part of it. The new ballpark in Miami will be exactly that. The water cooler conversations in mid-April will resemble this: “What do you mean you haven’t been to the new stadium? You definitely have to go, bro.” Add in the fact the new ballpark seats only 37,000 and the limited supply of tickets will only stoke the fires of the demand for access to the newest thing in town.

Weather You Like It or Not

Another contributing factor to poor attendance in the past was weather. In the middle of the summer, fans were reluctant to sit in the blazing South Florida sun in a stadium that provides little shelter from heat and humidity. If the forecast called for a threat of rain, chances are the average fan wouldn’t make the commute to the old stadium.

This is no longer the case. With a retractable roof, the new Miami ballpark will make the elements a non-issue for the fans. It’s nice to know there will be no rain-outs or rain delays for the Marlins. It’s also nice to know that even though it may be ninety five degrees outside, the ballpark will be a very comfortable and cool seventy degrees inside.

Local Sabor

It’s no secret Miami is the gateway to Latin America, and the city houses a vivacious, eclectic, and very large Hispanic community. All throughout Latin America, baseball is the national pastime, and for young, Hispanic males, it’s almost a rite of passage. With all due respect to Dominicans and Puerto Ricans everywhere, it’s been my experience the most fervent, opinionated, and, well informed Hispanic baseball fans are Cubans and Venezuelans. Now you have a new ballpark in the middle of Little Havana that is managed by a rambunctious and un-filtered Ozzie Guillén, who happens to be from Venezuela.

We Hispanics take pride in supporting our own, and with a roster that includes superstar Hanley Ramirez, newly acquired Jose Reyes, Anibal Sanchez, Mike Stanton (he’s ¼ Puerto Rican), and home grown Gaby Sanchez, the Hispanic baseball fan will be drawn to the new stadium in droves.

Even the name change from the Florida Marlins to the Miami Marlins aligns with this new approach. Don’t be surprised if, while watching a Marlins game on TV, you see ads for such brands as Goya, Pilon, and Hatuey plastering the outfield walls. I would go as far to say the naming rights for the new stadium, which are in the works of being sold, will be for a company or brand that caters to the Hispanic market. According to the US Census, minorities are projected to be the majority by 2050. You can expect the new ballpark in Miami to provide an early sample of that future trend.

Show Me the Money

The Marlins have made a big splash this off season with a new name, new uniforms, a new manager, and the spending of lots and lots of money. This shows a commitment to winning not previously displayed by Marlins ownership. Part of that was due to a lease agreement in the old stadium that handcuffed the Marlins from being able to complete financially. With the revenues from the new stadium, that is no longer the case. This translates to increased fan interest that, in turn, translates to increased fan attendance.

Still, in the end, it all comes down to winning. Even with the great location, the new, flashy stadium, the high-priced free agents, and the roster with names that end in E-Z, if the Marlins find themselves ten games back by May 1, it will be hard to keep momentum going with regards to attendance.

I will admit Miami fans are fickle. We practically, and almost quite literally, invented the notion of fair-weather fans. And I’ve always maintained in a city with beaches, beautiful women, trendy clubs, and a plethora of other distractions, the fight for the entertainment dollar is a fierce one. If the Marlins aren’t winning, the typical Miami fan will want to spend his entertainment dollar elsewhere (especially if the Miami Heat are running away with the NBA regular season and playoffs).

Still, I believe every seat at every home game in 2012 will be filled, and I’m really looking forward to helping contribute to that prediction.

It’s in the Cards

Destiny is a mysterious thing. In sports, it’s often used to explain the unexplainable.

On August 31, with a month left to go in the Major League Baseball regular season, the St. Louis Cardinals trailed the Milwaukee Brewers in their division by 8.5 games. In the ever important race for the lone National League Wild Card spot, they, too, trailed the Atlanta Braves by 8.5 games.

By September 15, the Wild Card lead for the Braves was down to only 4.5 games. By September 27, the second to last day of the season, the Cardinals found themselves tied with Braves in the standings. With one game left for each team, it was “win or go home” time for both squads.

Destiny has a flare for the dramatic, but it was the Cardinals who took care of their opponent the evening of September 28, the Houston Astros, in clinical fashion. There was nothing dramatic about their 8-0 win over the hapless ‘Stros. They did their job, the way a team that closed out the season winning seven out of ten games should do.

The Braves, on the other hand, found themselves with their season on the line in an extra-innings battle against a Philadelphia team that had already secured both the best record in the National League as well as a spot in the MLB post-season. It seems Destiny was indeed involved, as the Braves lost in 13 innings to the Phillies and missed the playoffs.

Had the Phillies had the gift of clairvoyance and could see that just nine short days later, they’d see their season come to an end at the hands of the Cardinals, I wonder if they would have changed the outcome of that  game against Atlanta. (To be clear, had both Atlanta and St. Louis finished the season tied, they both would have faced each other in a one game playoff, with the winner advancing to the post-season as the Wild card champion.)

The St. Louis Cardinals overcame a double-digit deficit in the standings to qualify for the playoffs. They tore through the post-season by dispatching the best and second best teams in the National League. They faced elimination not once but twice in the same game of the World Series, both times trailing by two runs and down not only to their last out, but to their last strike. In both instances they prevailed, tying the game, extending their season, and perpetuating the idea that Destiny was on their side.

Still, it’s hard to believe that a team lead by a manager with a career .536 winning percentage (.543 in the playoffs), five previous pennants, and two previous World Series titles could be considered a team of Destiny. It’s hard to perceive a franchise that trails only the mighty New York Yankees in World Series victories to have been celestially chosen by the baseball gods to win one more.

Yet there they were, providing a spectacle in sports unlike anyone else had ever seen before. From written off in September to undoubtedly written about ad nasueum these next few days in October, the Cardinals made the 2011 post-season theirs and theirs alone.

If you still question the Destiny aspect when it comes to this team, consider this. If this exact same season – same players on each team, same results for each game – were to be played in the upcoming 2012 season, the Cardinals most likely do not even make the playoffs. Why? Because in 2012 the Florida Marlins move into their new stadium in Little Havana. It’s a baseball-only stadium, designed around a complete baseball experience. This is unlike the previous home of the Marlins, Sun Life Stadium, which was designed for football but also housed a professional baseball team. It was at this stadium, with its non-baseball specific configuration, where Braves third basemen Chipper Jones failed to field a chopping, yet still routine, ground ball that would have ended the game and secured victory for Atlanta. The reason for his error? The lights of the stadium. Yes, a professional baseball player lost a ground ball in the lights.

Rather than closing out the game with a victory, the Braves saw the Marlins win that game with a walk-off homerun. In a playoff race where every game counts, Atlanta’s loss allowed the Cardinals to close the gap in the standings, and it set up the drama of the final game of the season. As we saw with the Phillies-Braves game that went into extra innings, Destiny was working her magic in Miami to keep the Cards on track to the World Series.

Still not convinced? How about the fact Game 6 of the World Series was postponed a day due to rain? The delay allowed St. Louis ace Chris Carpenter to start the decisive Game 7 on short rest. After a rocky first inning in which he gave up a two runs on three hits, Carpenter settled down and allowed only three hits over the next five innings he pitched. Without the rain delay two nights before, Carpenter would not have been able to pitch Game 7, and who knows what the outcome would have been for the Cardinals.

There are probably a million other examples I could cite in favor of Destiny being in favor of St. Louis. Cards fans would take in and embrace each and every one of them. Rangers fans, however, would be less inclined to accept that argument, instead pointing to factors like tiny strike zones, inconsistent calls at the plate, head-scratching moves by Texas Manager Ron Washington, and just plain bad luck. To Rangers fans, Destiny is whore not worth discussing, let alone validating.

Yet taking it all into account, with the unwavering luxury of hindsight, it is indeed seductive to think a team won a championship not because they played hard, kept fighting, and had the bounces go their way, but instead because they were meant to win. Because the ghosts of Rogers Hornsby and Dizzy Dean conspired to make it so. Because the ever strong wills of Bob Gibson and Ozzie Smith found their way into the clubhouse of this 2011 team.

The idea of such a power taking control of the outcome of a sporting event and, subsequently, an entire season is fantastical and illogical. And it is also exactly why we love sports, and why we embrace Destiny with open arms.