Ozzie Guillen tries damage control

PHILADELPHIA -- When you hire Ozzie Guillen to manage your baseball team, you know what you're getting yourself into. Right?

You're not getting John Russell. You're not getting Art Howe. You're not getting Luis Pujols. You're not getting six relaxing months of peace, quiet and kumbaya on the journey from April to October. No, no, no, no, no.

You're getting a man who just might speak his mind. Possibly. Theoretically. Sometimes at 3 in the afternoon. Sometimes at 3 in the morning. Sometimes at every hour, minute and second in between.

About 98 percent of the time, when Ozzie Guillen opens his mouth, it's a blast to be around him, and his employers think it was quite the awesome brainstorm to hire him. You get smarts. You get energy. You get a laugh track that "How I Met Your Mother" would be proud of. And who wouldn't want a manager who could provide all that?

But then there's that other 2 percent of the "Life With Ozzie" extravaganza.

That would be the portion of our program where Ozzie's mouth moves just a mite too swiftly for that little voice inside his head to scream "DON'T SAY THAT!" -- until it's too late.

And then The Trouble starts.

Which brings us to where the Ozzie Guillen and the Miami Marlins find themselves today. Dealing with The Trouble. This time around, it isn't just any old kind of Trouble. This time, it's TROUBLE. With a capital EVERYTHING.

This is about Ozzie expressing his "love" and "respect" for Fidel Castro, a man so despised and reviled in the market where Guillen's team plays baseball that "despised" and "reviled" are words way too gentle for the occasion.

So it's safe to say this isn't the kind of Trouble that the Oz has gotten used to over the years. Not even close. This isn't Ozzie ripping Dan Iassogna's strike zone. This isn't Ozzie dumping on Wrigley Field. This isn't even Ozzie taking on his favorite former general manager on the South Side of Chicago.

For all of that stuff, there might possibly have been some rationalization. Some context in which it made some sort of sense. Some scenario in which he at least could explain it away.

But this time? Good luck to him trying to explain this one away.

This time, he'll find no cavalry galloping to his side to surround him with love and support. This time, not even his own front office seems to be even remotely in his corner. This time, within an hour of the moment Guillen's quotes on Castro hit the Internet over the weekend, that same front office was issuing some quotes of its own, officially condemning its own manager. And friends, let's just say you don't see that much in sports.

Then again, what were his bosses supposed to say? Aw, he was just kidding? Aw, he had the guy mixed up with Starlin Castro? Aw, that's just Ozzie being Ozzie, so what's the big deal?

No, no, no, no, no. Couldn't do that. Couldn't say that. Couldn't touch that. This time, no matter how desperately the people who hired him might love to figure out a way to come to his rescue, they know that's impossible right now. The only person on earth who can save Ozzie in this case is Ozzie.

So this time around, his bosses are just staying out of the way and allowing their manager to march to the podium in Miami and say what he thinks he needs to say. Well, here's the only good news: They'll be relieved to know that's exactly the way Ozzie wants it, too.

"You know how a lot of people, when they go to do something [like this], they have their wife next to them, they have their family next to them?" Guillen observed Monday, from the dugout in Philadelphia. "No. I'm going to be there by myself. And I don't want anybody's support. I want the people, the Cuban people, to understand and believe what I say, because what I've got to say, it's going to be the truth, and very honest."

He can only hope, only pray, that the truth will set him free. But deep inside, even he can't be certain of that.

As he sat in that dugout Monday, talking about how he hadn't been able to sleep for three days, he showed a side of himself the world rarely sees. His eyes were moist. His voice throbbed with emotion. The weariness in his face was evidence of just how much pain he had inflicted on himself with these ill-chosen words.

"I've never seen him like that," said the player who has played for him the longest, pitcher Mark Buehrle. "He's been in the media a lot, for some bad stuff. … So if he's not able to sleep at night, it's weighing on him pretty good."

Unlike the other players in Guillen's locker room these days, Buehrle has been there, done this approximately 478,946 times in his career. He spent eight seasons playing for Ozzie in Chicago. So he has seen a few brush fires erupt out of the manager's office over the years. Which means Buehrle was the designated Voice of Experience on Monday, when "SportsCenter" started breaking into its regularly scheduled programming for the latest Ozzie Guillen headlines.

"A couple of guys said today, 'Hey, is this an every-month occurrence?'" Buehrle reported. "I just said, 'Yeah. There's usually something monthly that goes on.'"

Asked if he has learned over the years to tune stuff like this out, Buehrle replied: "I tune it in all the time." But other guys aren't wired that way. So as the Ozzie news kept coming Monday and game time approached, one player wandered over to the clubhouse cable dial and switched off ESPN for, well, less distracting programming.

"Obviously, we were getting ready to play a baseball game," Buehrle said. "So it was like, 'We don't need to be listening to this right now.'"

But they'd heard enough by then to get the drift of a story that seemed to be growing by the minute. Was it true, players asked, that fans in Miami were planning to picket the games? Oh, it was true, they were told. All true.

Asked if he recalled anyone picketing White Sox games over something, anything the manager had ever said, Mark Buehrle scratched his head.

"Not that I'm aware of," he said. "But I guess this is a little more serious than other stuff that he's said."

Yeah, you might say so. To take on Joe West over a balk call is one thing. To take on the Cuban population of South Florida over Fidel Castro is a whole different deal. No need to call Bud Selig on this one. The U.N. Security Council might be a better choice.

So where is this leading? It's hard to say. There is no way for Ozzie Guillen to wave his magic wand and make this disappear, no matter what he says or does. If he could stuff the words back into his mouth and take a mulligan, he would. But it is too late for that. Way too late.

The Marlins have no plans to fire him just five games into his managerial administration. And you can bet your Showtime subscription he won't quit. So you can forget about either of those scenarios.

But here's the problem: One of the big reasons he was hired was his ability to connect not just with his players but with this particular diverse, multicultural fan base -- particularly the portion of that fan base that speaks Spanish. And now he may have irreparably damaged his ability to make that vital connection.

So for Ozzie Guillen, his defining moment as manager of the Marlins may already have arrived -- less than one week into Season 1.

You know, he has spoken about 97 billion words in his never-a-dull-moment managerial career. But here's the one thing all 97 billion have in common: None of them will be as important as the words he speaks in Miami on Tuesday morning, because this time his future, and the future of his franchise, are riding on them.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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