MIAMI (AP) — A contrite Ozzie Guillen sat in the heart of Little Havana seeking forgiveness for what the Miami Marlins manager called the biggest mistake of his life — saying he admired Fidel Castro.
This wasn’t some offhanded insult about a sports writer, the type of thing that got the outspoken Guillen in trouble in Chicago. This was personal to the fan base that the Marlins rely on so much that they built their new stadium in the middle of the city’s Cuban-American neighborhood.
Castro is the sworn enemy of those fans.
So after being suspended for five games Tuesday, the Marlins manager tried to quell the tempest.
“I’m here on my knees to apologize,” Guillen said.
“I’m very sorry about the problem, what happened. I will do everything in my power to make it better. ... When you make a mistake like this, you can’t sleep.”
A chastened Guillen, who has a history of polarizing comments about gays and immigrants, among others, spoke without a script and made no disclaimers. He said he’ll do whatever he can to repair relations with Cuban-Americans angered by his praise of the Cuban dictator, remarks he said he didn’t mean.
Guillen, who is Venezuelan, told Time magazine he loves Castro and respects the retired Cuban leader for staying in power so long. In response, at least two Miami politicians said Guillen should lose his job. Callers on Spanish-language radio in Miami agreed and 100 demonstrators picketed Marlins Park toting signs like “NO APOLOGIES FIRE HIM NOW.”
“He is full with hypocrisy,” said Luis Martinez, who has lived in Miami since the late 1950s. “I don’t accept any kind of pardon from him. They should get him out.”
The team didn’t consider firing Guillen or asking him to resign five games into his tenure, Marlins president David Samson said.
Guillen was hired to help usher in a new baseball era for the Marlins, saddled in recent years with mediocre teams and worse attendance. The team was to rely on South Florida’s large Cuban-American population to help rebuild its fan base with the $634 million ballpark that opened last week.
At the hourlong news conference Tuesday morning, there was little evidence of Guillen’s roguish charm or quick wit, which have made him a favorite with fans and reporters since he became a major league manager in 2004. Speaking somberly, he took full responsibility for his comments, but said they were misinterpreted by Time’s reporter.
“It was a personal mistake of the thing I had in my mind and what I said,” Guillen said in Spanish. “What I wanted to say in Spanish, I said in English in a wrong way.”
Guillen said he doesn’t love or admire Castro.
“I was saying I cannot believe somebody who hurt so many people over the years is still alive,” he said.
Time said Tuesday it stands by its story.
Guillen said the uproar he created has left him sad, embarrassed and feeling stupid. He said he accepted the team’s punishment.
“When you’re a sportsman, you shouldn’t be involved with politics,” he said.
“I’m going to be a Miami guy for the rest of my life. I want to walk in the street with my head up and feel not this bad, the way I feel now.”
Cuban-born Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, a former manager of the Marlins, said he watched some of the news conference and could tell it was difficult for Guillen.
“He came out and faced the music,” Gonzalez said. “It’s going to take awhile, but hopefully he can win those people back somehow.”
Guillen has gotten in trouble before on issues ranging from sexual orientation to illegal immigration. Just last week, he boasted about getting drunk after games.
Those episodes quickly faded. But on South Florida’s scale of political incorrectness, praise for Castro is a home run, and it was unclear how long it would take for anger toward Guillen to subside.
Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said the remarks “have no place in our game” and were “offensive to an important part of the Miami community and others throughout the world.”
“As I have often said, baseball is a social institution with important social responsibilities,” Selig added in a statement. “All of our 30 clubs play significant roles within their local communities, and I expect those who represent Major League Baseball to act with the kind of respect and sensitivity that the game’s many cultures deserve.”
Marlins officials said Guillen still had the support of the organization.
“We believe in him,” said Samson, the team president. “We believe in his apology. We believe everybody deserves a second chance.” He said he expected no further punishment from MLB.
Guillen apologized over the weekend after his remarks were published in Time, then left his team in Philadelphia, where the Marlins were playing the Phillies, and flew to Miami.
The teams resume their three-game series Wednesday in Philadelphia. Guillen said he’ll be there to apologize to his players, but he won’t be in the dugout. Bench coach Joey Cora will be the interim manager.
“The Marlins acknowledge the seriousness of the comments attributed to Guillen,” read a statement from the team. “The pain and suffering caused by Fidel Castro cannot be minimized, especially in a community filled with victims of the dictatorship.”
The suspension, which takes effect immediately, recalled the punishment given to Marge Schott, the late owner of the Cincinnati Reds. Schott so embarrassed baseball in the 1990s with her inflammatory racial remarks and fond recollections of Adolf Hitler that she was suspended from ownership duties for a season.
“After spending years of my life with Ozzie Guillen, I can honestly say he has never been this apologetic,” tweeted former slugger Frank Thomas, who played for Guillen with the Chicago White Sox. “I know he is really hurting inside for what he said. If you really know him this was not his intentions at all.”
In Cuba, a column posted on multiple state-run and pro-government websites said the backlash against Guillen showed Miami has become “a banana republic” that censors unpopular opinions.
“The sensationalist and cowed Miami press, the politicians, have used these declaration of his to raise a scandal and in passing try to win visibility and votes for the upcoming elections,” wrote Edmundo Garcia. “Some want to prohibit thoughts and opinions that differ from theirs.”
About 100 reporters, photographers and cameramen attended Guillen’s news conference, a turnout to rival some late-season Marlins crowds in years gone by.
Guillen sat alone at the podium and began in Spanish, speaking without notes for several minutes before taking questions. Shortly after he started, his voice wavered mid-sentence. He paused to take a sip of water and clear his throat.
“This is the biggest mistake I’ve made so far in my life,” Guillen said.