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July 20, 2012
Inside The Park
Ozzie Guillen and His Big Mouth
Pure as th' expanse of Heav'n; I thither went
No one knew it at the time, but the feeling had been circulating among us for weeks: The Ozzie Show was drawing to a close, and this September night, an innocuous Monday pregame before a meaningless late-season clash between the White Sox and Blue Jays, was to be the final performance.
We could all read the tea leaves. Guillen had driven to the United Center earlier that day to meet with Chicago owner Jerry Reinsdorf. Everyone knew that. No one knew what was said, or what was decided. White Sox GM Kenny Williams wasn't around, and Reinsdorf had ceased talking to the media years before. Even for major team developments, the long-time owner spoke only through statements released by his media staff. A shame. Those who had covered his teams for a long time spoke of how you used to be able to pick up a phone and call Reinsdorf at home.
So we asked Ozzie if he would be back for the 2012 season.
"That's none of your business," Guillen said. "I'm just being honest like I always do."
You always question a person that is always telling you how honest they are. A more discreet person would have left it at that, would have said something about just focusing on that night's game, or perhaps other matters pertaining to the action between the lines. But we knew Ozzie wouldn't leave it at that. He's not capable. We just had to wait him out. So someone asked him the same question, slightly re-phrased.
"We have two more days to decide what's going on," Guillen said. "Nothing was (settled). The problem is not resolved. I told him I don't like to come here with the same contract I have for next year. I think I earned a little bit more than that.
"Right now, I hope we meet again before I go back—people get mad at me because I'm going to Spain, but that's my vacation. People think I give up on the team because I was talking about Spain."
Ah, Spain. Guillen is an aficionado of bullfighting and was looking forward to catching Hemingway's favorite sport after his team's underachieving season ended. He talked of bullfighting often. Cock fighting, too, something that is apparently popular in his native Venezuela. He talked about a lot of things. The filter between Guillen's brain and mouth long ago withered away.
"Fuck more years," Guillen went on. "I want more money. I don't work here for years. No, I want money. Years what? I'm going to die with the White Sox poor? Hell no.
"Listen, this is my job. This is the only thing I can do. I have to make money at it somewhere. I'm not a doctor or a lawyer where you're going to have a job for the rest of your life. Life is about money. People don't believe that. People are happier after they make money. Fuck it."
Someone asked him about the Marlins.
"You never hear me talk about that," Guillen said. "I never said the Marlins out of my mouth. That's their problem. If they want me, they should. Fuck it, I'm good at what I do. Everybody can want me. It's one thing if they can get me.
"It's not easy to say I'm going to come here and do it now. It's a process. If the Marlins are interested in me, good for them. I'm open to anything. (But) I moved to Chicago, bro. I live here, I bought my house here."
On and on it went, and it was all bullshit. We asked if he would really be willing to walk away from his contract. Since he had a year left on his deal, he had vowed to sit out a season and forfeit his salary rather than return for a lame duck campaign.
"I have to talk to my wife," Guillen said. "She'll have to stop the shopping process. (Son) Ozzie (Jr.) will have to quit drinking a little bit. (Son) Oney will have to go to work. There's a lot of shit going on, man. (Son) Osny has to go to public school, hopefully get a scholarship somewhere. A lot of shit. My mom has to cut back a little bit. My dad has to get healthy. My sister find a rich man. There's a lot behind the scenes.
"If you don't like it, it's not like walking away. It's 'I'm better than that.' I have pride. I want to live better."
After Ozzie finally quit talking— my audio file from that session is nearly 25 minutes long—we scrambled up to the press box to transcribe and write our "Ozzie is in limbo" stories. Three innings into the game, the reporter who had for years functioned as Ozzie's personal mouthpiece started to leisurely stroll around the box with a Cheshire cat's grin on his face. The news began to circulate: Ozzie was already gone.
Twenty minutes of deception, when a simple "no comment" would have sufficed. But, then again, that would have deprived Ozzie of the chance to hear himself talk. After the game, we had to go through it all again. This time, thankfully, it was for the last time.
Had not a voice thus warnd me, What thou seest,
The controversies stemming from Ozzie's verbal diarrhea are well documented. He once called the despicable columnist Jay Mariotti a fag, which was not only offensive, but put Guillen in an apologetic position when there were so many piquant sobriquets he could have tagged on Mariotti. He once protested Arizona's immigration law by calling Americans lazy. He called out an umpire in-game on Twitter. He was suspended for that.
The amazing thing about Guillen is that he hasn't been suspended more often. The Ozzie Show usually consisted of two parts. The first part was the standard pregame presser, or as close as you can get to one with Guillen. When the microphones were on and the cameras were rolling, he seemed to be aware that there were limits to what he could, or should, say.
When the cameras were off, that's when the second part of the show began. It was an Ozzie standup routine that might go on for a half hour. He might joke about the news of the day, make fun of one of his players, or offer up some off-color jokes about his family. Nothing was sacred. And there was never any clear boundary between what was on record and what was off. Visiting media would wander across the field to listen, always amused by a spectacle they had to see only now and again.
Not everyone who has a media credential really knows what they are doing. There are often people on one-day assignments, even bloggers who have dedicated themselves to writing about the White Sox but don't have any practical journalism experience. They'd stand there like the rest of us with digital recorders rolling. The wonder of it all was that no one ever published a full transcript of one of the more off-color of Ozzie's off-the-record performances. It surely would have landed him in a fresh batch of hot water.
A tepid example, one that wont' get him in trouble: In late May of last season, with his team struggling, Guillen offered up one of his classic rambles. I'm pretty sure it was on the record, even though much of it would have been necessarily cleaned up by mainstream outlets.
"The only award we freaking have in this stupid-ass career is winning," Guillen said. "When you're not winning, you're miserable. That's my life, that's my job. That's my passion for the game. The only thing after the game I get rewarded is when we win. That's it. That's all we get.
"Things happen quick and they aren't going to change. (Fans are) never going to change. Are they going to feel sorry because we going to get fired? Fuck no. They only remember 2005. In 2020 when we come here in a wheelchair and they say, 'Oh yeah. Thank you.' As soon as you leave the ballpark, they don't care about you anymore. They don't. The monuments, the statue they got, they pee on when they're drunk. That's all they do.
"Thank you for coming, bye bye. All your life you suffer like a fucking idiot every day. I wish I didn’t feel anything for this game. I wish I didn't care about the White Sox. I wish I didn’t even care that the general manager, the fans, the media … I wish could say (that) I don’t give a shit. I can't. Even when I try to put in my mind 'who cares', I do care. I love baseball. I love this organization. This is the job I want to do.
"Sometimes you just want to say fuck it, I don't care about baseball. I'd be lying to myself. I do care about this shit. That's why I have to think harder than that. I get paid, I've got a contract for next year. I can get dressed, go home, have dinner with my wife. What's the worst thing about it? Well, I wish I was having dinner with somebody else."
He was joking about last part, of course, but you'd never hear another baseball person say such a thing in front of a gaggle of reporters.
That was an epic rant, but there were smaller ones on a daily basis. More than you wanted to hear. Often illogical, often mean-spirited. Always with his eyes scanning around him, to see who was listening to the mouth that never stopped, to the child-like leader of men. I once saw him divert his path back to the White Sox clubhouse after a post-game presser in order to mess with the mirrors on the truck being loaded outside the visitor's locker room. I'm not sure what prank he was trying to pull, but there was a load BANG and the passenger-side rearview mirror was dangling, useless, as he scurried away laughing.
For all the entertainment value of his words and actions, his insights often held little substance. Once when he was offering up one of his many tirades defending the daily presence of Juan Pierre in left field, I pointed out to him that the problem for many was that Pierre had a center fielder's offensive game (which itself is a stretch) but played a power-hitting position. As often happens, Guillen went off about a question that wasn't even really asked. I think it was an anti-stats rant.
"A lot of people bitch about him because he's a horseshit left fielder, now they want him in center field," Guillen said. "I don't understand that. All the computers, all the bullshit. Fucking agents. They come up with some numbers to make money.
"OPS? On-base plus slugging percentage? That's to make more money. That's a bunch of shit. How about a fucking save? I've got one guy save 30 games. Maybe 18 times he faced one hitter. I don't know what people ask about fucking Juan Pierre. Juan Pierre is third on the team in RBIs, and he's a fucking leadoff man. Thank you."
I covered Ozzie for only two years. At first, like most, I was enthralled. But day after day it got old. As much of anything, it was a pain to transcribe such long interviews, especially when you were constantly having to keep in mind what you think he meant as opposed to what he said. Often times, because of the language barrier, Ozzie would contradict himself or say the opposite of what he meant to say. For someone that talked so much, he was a hard man to quote. That night in September, when he left his team and joined a new one—a club with which he supposedly had not talked—I was glad. Whatever. Good riddance.
Beware, my friend, of crystal brook
Guillen was back in town this week for the first time as a visiting manager. He was wearing one of those oddly-colored Marlins uniforms that seem to try to integrate every color of the spectrum. The numbers were bright orange. It was perhaps a more fitting outfit for a peacock like Guillen than the simple black-and-white scheme of the White Sox.
Guillen's penchant for senseless controversy followed him to Florida, of course. It's never going to stop. He earned the ire of much of his new fan base by telling Time, " "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 was suspended for that and damn near lost his job. On the field, the Marlins have underachieved. After investing heavily over the offseason in free agents Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle, Miami is three games under .500 and struggling to hang in a playoff chase that includes just about every team in baseball within sniffing distance of break-even.
Guillen warmed up for his return to Chicago by getting into a bewildering tiff with 19-year-old Bryce Harper, reportedly because of something to do with pine tar. No one is quite sure what got Ozzie so rankled, but the end result was to put his name in the headlines on the eve of the Marlins' trip to Wrigley Field. Was that a coincidence? One would think so, I guess.
He also did a pre-series interview with his personal mouthpiece in a Chicago Sun-Times piece in which he said:
"I was in Chicago last week for the All-Star break, and I heard the (bleep) that people are talking," Guillen said. "I hear the backstabbing comments. I said when I took the job with Miami that if (the Sox) played like they were capable of, Robin will be manager of the year. They didn’t play well for me, and I take that blame.
"But the media is all of a sudden angry with me? I answered every question I was ever asked. They don’t have the balls to say (bleep) when I was there. Tell the people in Chicago to look up and see who I blamed when we lost. I’m not a chicken (bleep), like the media there."
Guillen pledged to confront those who had disrespected him and, sure enough, before Tuesday's series opener, Guillen dressed down a veteran beat reporter in the clubhouse, in front of his players and other reporters. The reporter had had the audacity to suggest that the White Sox were better off without Ozzie. Chicago, as you may have noticed, is in first place under the understated guidance of first-year manager Ventura. By all accounts, it was a truly shameful spectacle.
But here's the thing: outside in the Marlins' dugout, every media outlet in Chicago was represented. Every columnist, every television station, every sports radio outlet and, yes, even Baseball Prospectus was stationed in the visiting team dugout. Sure, former Chicagoans Buehrle and Carlos Zambrano were trotted out, but we knew what that headline event was. We were there for the Ozzie Show. We can't help but give him exactly what he wants.
It was blisteringly hot, and with so many media hacks packed into such a tight space, it was stifling. The combination of heat and claustrophobic settings has given me panic attacks in the past. Anticipating this, I popped a Xanax before heading downstairs. It turned out to be a wise decision.
Guillen finally emerged and took his place at the center of the horde, his trademark towel draped around his neck. Before starting, he slowly scanned all the faces peering at him so intently, assessing his audience like any good performer. A sound guy from Showtime stood at the rear, his boom hovering a big, fuzzy microphone directly over Ozzie's head. I reached into this inferno, digital recorder on my fingertips, as strangers' sweat dripped on me from all directions.
"It’s not fair when I see a couple idiots compare the (White Sox) played better because so and so is not here," Guillen said. "I think that’s not fair because when I was here, I was very clear with the media, very honest, and you see my record. Don't say they're winning because I'm not there. That's not fair."
It's not fair, but then again he hasn't exactly been missed. Ventura is a frustratingly boring interviewee, who delights in keeping his answers and his press conferences short. When he's finished, he'll often ask, "How long was that?"
"Too long," he'll say. It doubtful Guillen has ever answered a single question in under three minutes.
"Whatever people say about me and the White Sox, I am a true White Sox," Guillen said. "Nobody can say shit about me in the White Sox organization. Nobody. I am a true White Sox. I spent more years in the White Sox than anybody out there."
Guillen looked around at the crowd straining to capture his words.
He said it like a complaint, but more likely it was an affirmation. He spoke of being more guarded with the Miami media because he doesn't know the reporters there yet. But as always, the talk spun back around to the White Sox. Or, more precisely, Ozzie Guillen and the White Sox. He tried to deflect credit for a millisecond, but the perpendicular pronoun is too deeply embedded in his vocabulary.
"I think we did pretty good stuff here," Guillen said. "I don't say 'me'—I say 'we' did pretty good stuff. I think we made this town happy for a couple days. I think I was a hero for a month. You know, not eight years, nine years, I was only hero for a month. They going to boo me? They going to boo me everywhere."
He was speaking of the short attention span of the public mind, but of course he's not going to let anyone forget. Guillen is a skilled manager, a favorite of sabermetric types, even though he often brags about his fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants style of leading a club. After all, he did manage the White Sox to the only World Series title a Chicago team has won in the last 94 years.
Outside the main gate of U.S. Cellular Field is a monument to that championship, an ostentatious art piece that combines post-modern forms, classic statues, a plaque, and faint action shots, the most prominent of which depicts Guillen holding the World Series trophy high over his head. The White Sox love to erect statues of their most popular former players, but Guillen doesn't yet have one of his own.
"I (do) already have a statue there," Guillen said. "Every time you walk to Cellular Field (sic), the first fucking you see is me holding the trophy."
And that is undeniably true. For all his bravado, immaturity and talk of testicular fortitude, Guillen delivered the goods, at least once. And the latter-day Leo Durocher is never going to let us forget it.