Does Ozzie Guillen Deserve His Suspension?

MIAMI, FL: Protesters rally outside a press conference held by Miami Marlins Manager Ozzie Guillen for comments made about Fidel Castro at Marlins Park in Miami, Florida. The Marlins suspended Guillen for five games over his pro-Castro comments. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Who speaks for the victims of Fulgencio Batista?

That was the first question that popped into my head when I read of the outrage among Miami's Cuban-American community over Ozzie Guillen's flippant comments about Fidel Castro in TIME.

Everybody's heard of Fidel Castro. Not nearly as many have heard of Fulgencio Batista, who preceded Fidel Castro as dictator of Cuba.

Batista's regime, which began with a coup in 1952 and ended in early 1959 when Batista fled the country with hundreds of millions of dollars, was incredibly corrupt, oppressive, and beholden to foreign corporations and American gangsters. According to one source, "The U.S.-supported Batista regime killed 20,000 Cubans."

The U.S. finally withdrew its official support for Batista in 1958, and later imposed an arms embargo that facilitated Castro's takeover a few months later.

Batista wasn't the only Latin-American dictator responsible for the violent deaths of many thousands. Rafael Trujillo, Anastasio Somoza, Manuel Noriega, Papa Doc Duvalier ... These are just the more famously brutal dictators who ruled for many years. Who, today, speaks for their victims?

Castro's regime, of course, has also been brutal and oppressive. It's difficult to balance that oppression against Cuba's indexes of life expectancy, literacy, and infant mortality, all of which rank among the highest in Latin America. In fact, Cuba's infant-mortality rate is reportedly lower than that of the United States; Cuba boasts the highest doctor-to-citizen ratio in the world.

Which isn't to excuse Fidel Castro. He might, though, have a tough time making the Top 10 list of Latin America's Worst Monsters of the 20th Century if he hadn't lasted so much longer than the rest of them. Despite the C.I.A.'s best/worst efforts.

You really can admire some things that Castro has done -- surviving all those assassination attempts, yes, and also bringing at least a modicum of health care to nearly all of his countrymen -- without lionizing him.

Maybe that's what Ozzie Guillen was doing. Only Ozzie Guillen knows.

There is a history here. I don't mean Cuban history. Enough about that already. A baseball history. As near as I've been able to tell, Ozzie Guillen is the fourth baseball person to get suspended purely for something he (or she) said.

The first was Yankees outfielder Jake Powell, suspended for 10 games in 1938 for using a racial slur on the radio, and with violent overtones. The second was Reds owner Marge Schott, whose indiscretions were numerous; ultimately, she drew a (nearly) three-year suspension for professing admiration for Adolf Hitler -- the German version of Fidel Castro, according to Dan Le Batard -- which (theoretically) kept her away from the franchise's day-to-day operations (the suspension was so lengthy because that was hardly Schott's first offense).*

* Before Schott, Al Campanis wasn't suspended so technically doesn't belong on this specific list. But the Dodgers' general manager was forced to resign in 1987 after getting drunk, then going on TV and say all sorts of outlandish things about black athletes, managerial roles in baseball, and natural buoyancy.

Next came a lovely young gentleman named John Rocker, who was suspended for 14 games -- dropped from 28 games upon appeal -- after Jeff Pearlman's profile was published in Sports Illustrated. If it's been too long since you've seen an early episode of All in the Family, here's a selection from "The Best of Rocker":

The biggest thing I don't like about New York are the foreigners. I'm not a very big fan of foreigners. You can walk an entire block in Times Square and not hear anybody speaking English. Asians and Koreans and Vietnamese and Indians and Russians and Spanish people and everything up there. How the hell did they get in this country?

Rocker didn't get suspended for any one insult (and there were many others); rather, he was suspended for the totality of his idiocy, including his words but also (and maybe especially) his willingness to unload his id with a Sports Illustrated staffer riding shotgun in the pickup truck.

In 2006, Rocker defended ... Ozzie Guillen, who was fined and compelled to attend sensitivity training after calling Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti a number of unfortunate things, "including a derogatory term that is often used to describe someone's sexual orientation."

Then, Guillen wasn't suspended. I don't remember if I defended Guillen, as I had defended Rocker. Generally speaking, I'm not a big fan of punishing people for saying (or writing) things. I worry that once you start down that road, it's difficult to know where to stop. I think the world's a more interesting place when people speak their minds, regardless of how ridiculous their minds might be.

There are limits, of course. If Ozzie Guillen ran around on the field, exhorting fans to storm to the field and assault the umpires, he would deserve not just a suspension, but a lifetime ban. One might even draw a line between directing words generally considered slurs at specific people, and saying something that some members of some group might find offensive.

Marge Schott was suspended for, among other things, suggesting there might have been something admirable about Hitler. Ozzie Guillen has been suspended for suggesting there might be something admirable about Castro.

But that's not really right, is it? This isn't about Ozzie Guillen's historical acumen. If he'd expressed his love for Batista or Somoza or another of those dictators, it wouldn't have been a story. This is about Guillen's judgment. He might have guessed that managing a baseball team that plays its home games in Little Havana means treading lightly on the subject of Fidel Castro.

Which doesn't mean he deserves a suspension. This is simply a business move; the Marlins hope they will save money by suspending Guillen for a while, that a suspension will soothe Guillen's Cuban-American critics, and eventually get some of them into Marlins Ballpark.

How much psychological damage has Ozzie Guillen inflicted on Cuban-Americans? How many hurt feelings?

As Grant Brisbee wrote Tuesday, most of us just can't know. But Juan C. Rodriguez presumably has some idea; his parents are Cuban natives. Here's Rodriguez on forgiveness:

My cousin, Camilo, was 8-years-old when his family escaped. Unlike me, he is an exile. I asked him if he forgives Guillen.

"I don't accept Guillen's apology," he said.

To him, whether Guillen loves or respects Castro is irrelevant. He's dumbfounded as to how anyone can associate those words with as he put it, "a man who has murdered and imprisoned countless Cubans and has changed the lives of many others, forcing them to leave their homes and try to start new lives under harsh conditions in foreign lands."

Do I forgive Guillen? Yes, while acknowledging I do so from a much easier place than most. Do I think he should be suspended? No. He didn't say anything racist or sexist, only unjustifiably insensitive.

Ah, but insensitive is a matter of opinion. So are "racist" and "sexist". Can a word itself be racist? Not really. All a word can do is suggest racism. The rest is interpretation.

Insensitive is also a matter of degree. Somewhere, there's someone who would be offended by the last sentence that came out of your mouth. Whatever it was. Should you apologize? Maybe. But life's probably too short to apologize for everything that someone, somewhere, finds insensitive.

Ozzie Guillen's not been suspended because he's insensitive; that's been in the public record for some time now. He's been suspended because his employers think suspending him will improve their bottom line; or rather, that not suspending him would hurt their bottom line.

I like to think that if I owned the Miami Marlins, I would not punish Ozzie Guillen for his slip of the tongue, which included not an ounce of venom. But really, I just can't know.

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