Ozzie Guillen returns, changed?

MIAMI -- He sat atop a dugout bench and stared into the microphones, into the cameras, into the flashing lights, just the way he always has.

For eight years, this has been Ozzie Guillen's pregame ritual, his preferred daily means of meeting with the media. So if you didn't know any better, you could easily have thought that, on this momentous Tuesday evening in Little Havana, nothing had changed.

Except, of course, that everything has changed. The man staring into those cameras, the manager of the Miami Marlins, is never going to be quite the same now. He won't be. He can't be.

Ozzie Guillen is marked forever now, marked by four words he would give anything to stuff back into his throat, four words that will follow him around for the rest of his life: "I … love … Fidel … Castro."

He has spent a week trying to explain them, apologize for them and move past them as best he can. But even he doesn't know if that's possible.

"Can I do it?" he said Tuesday, sitting in that dugout on the night he returned from his five-game suspension. "Time will see."

Time will see, all right. It always does. And no one can ever forecast, with any complete assurance, exactly what that time will see.

The manager certainly can't. And he was the first to admit it. Even after spending 50 minutes last week apologizing "from my heart," he still wasn't sure if people -- all the people -- would forgive him.

"I want to be here," he said. "I wanted to be back here. That's the reason why I did it. That's the reason why I faced it. … But are they gonna forgive me? I expect that. I hope that. I want that. But are they gonna do it? Time will see."

So how much time needs to elapse before we know what time has seen? The answer, of course, is: Weeks. Months. Years. But it takes more than one night. Even when it's a night as important as this one.

But if the events of Tuesday night in and around Marlins Park tell us anything, they tell us that Ozzie Guillen does indeed have a shot to survive this mess he has made for himself.

Outside the ballpark, right there in the heart of Little Havana, there wasn't an angry mob, an angry loner or even an angry Carlos Zambrano anywhere to be found. The only policeman we could locate before the game was doing what he always does -- directing traffic. Asked if he'd run across any outraged protesters in his line of duty, he laughed.

"Just a normal night," he said.

Inside the park, there wasn't a sign, a banner or a 3-by-5 card that would have let you know anything was different about this night than any other night.

Marlins president David Samson said the club had heard from only 13 season-ticket holders who wanted to give back their tickets. He then called all 13 personally, "and 12 of the 13 were quite satisfied," he reported. The 13th still wasn't happy -- but kept her tickets anyway. Or so he said.

Samson said not a single sponsor or advertiser had renounced its interest in sponsoring or advertising with the team since Guillen's remarks. Two Cuban-American-owned companies did change their signs inside the park, from touting their own brand to promoting a local charity, the Liga Contra el Cancer. But if there was some sort of massive backlash brewing, it wasn't just latent, it was undetectable.

Oh, there was no hiding the fact that, for the first time in the five-game history of Marlins Park, the stands were only half-full. (The announced attendance was 24,544.) But even that, Samson said, was expected.

Weeknight ticket sales before school lets out have been slow. Weekends not so slow. Average attendance before this night was more than 33,000. The team still expects, based on sales so far, to average at least 30,000. So anyone trying to connect the dots between "I love Fidel Castro" and the empty seats on Tuesday was looking way too hard for conspiracy theories.

But just because this night didn't play out the way Hollywood would have scripted it, or even the way most of us would have imagined a week ago, we would be fools to think life was somehow "normal" again for this team or its manager.

Whatever "normal" used to be, that definition no longer applies now. Thirteen days earlier, on the night Marlins Park opened, it felt like Mardi Gras. Now it feels as though Ozzie Guillen and the team that hired him are fighting to get back to that little slice of Nirvana they thought they'd carved out for themselves just two short weeks ago.

So when he was asked if he was worried that he might have inflicted any sort of lasting damage to the franchise, the fire blazed in Guillen's eyes.

"I hope not," he said. "If that happens, I'll walk away. Oh, God. I don't want to ruin this team for [his owner] Mr. [Jeffrey] Loria, for [his president of baseball operations] Larry [Beinfest], for the players, for the community. So no. I hope not."

So whatever damage he may have done, he was asked, was he confident it could be fixed in time?

"The only thing I can promise you is, I'm gonna do my best," he said. "Is that gonna work? I hope it does. … A couple weeks ago, this franchise was the happiest franchise. And I don't want people talking about this franchise the way we were talking the last couple days. From now on, let's talk about winning and losing, how good we play or how bad we play. I hope it's the last time we talk about this situation.

"And it will be the last time," he said, emphatically. "It will be. I don't care if we go to New York or Atlanta. This will be the last time I talk about this issue."

Until the last week, we hadn't seen much of this Ozzie over the years -- an Ozzie who had discovered he does have a filter, that he does have a stop sign, that he actually has the ability not to answer every question … on every topic … to anybody who wanders up and asks. But now times have changed. And Ozzie has changed.

Well, he'd better change. He needs to change -- for the sake of self-preservation.

Will there still be many episodes to come of Ozzie Being Ozzie? Of course there will. But …

"You just be careful what you talk about," he said. "You [talk about] what is your business, and my business is baseball."

So you want him to weigh in on Angel Hernandez's strike zone? Hey, step right up and ask away. But you want to ask about Iran's nuclear program? Ask the Department of State, not the manager of the Marlins.

That's one lesson he seems to have learned for sure in the past week -- to stay in his lane, to leave world peace to the U.N. peace-keeping forces. But he still has a delicate balancing act ahead of him.

How will he ever know for certain what topics are clearly off limits and what topics are not? Truth is, he can't. And if he is now always going to err on the side of trying to keep himself out of trouble, is that going to be good or bad for his team?

After all, he wasn't hired to be the second coming of John Boles. He was hired, at least in part, because he's a show unto himself in a showtime kind of town. So how can he remain the colorful, charismatic, impossible-to-ignore figure that attracted the Marlins to him in the first place if he's going to be afraid to weigh in on half the questions that come floating his way?

Well, his bosses think he can. But he's going to need help with that juggling act. And they're trying to help him.

"I said to Ozzie, in a very personal moment, 'We want you to not change -- the way you manage, the way you are,'" Samson said. "I said, 'We want you to think about anything other than baseball [as a topic] is probably not funny. But everything baseball, even if it's negative, can be funny.' And he agrees, that focusing on baseball is a smart thing to do."

Guillen is fortunate, after all that's transpired, that his job isn't in jeopardy, that they haven't placed him on high-level double-secret probation. But just because they haven't, it doesn't mean he thinks he has gotten off easy. Oh, no. He knows what's at stake here. So no one else has to put him on notice. That's his department.

"I put myself on probation," he said. "Me. Nobody else. My probation is about: Grow up and be better. And be careful. Don't trust too many people. That was my problem.

"You know what?" he went on. "To be honest with you, I don't think I want to put myself in the same situation again in the community, beginning with the Latino people. Man, I'm Latino. That was the worst feeling ever. I don't want to go through that feeling again. That's why I put myself on that probation. Nobody else."

How long will that probation last? How long will he have to go tiptoeing through life, watching every word, watching every step? Time will see.

On the night Ozzie Guillen came back to the ballpark, however, he returned a different man than the Ozzie who spoke with Time magazine. Will those lessons he has learned lead him and his team to a better place some day? Time will see that, too.

"But so far," said the manager of the Marlins, "so good. And that's all I can ask."

"You know," the manager of the Marlins would say after this endless day was over, "from my house to here is only 12 to 15 minutes. Today, it seemed like it was two hours, thinking: 'How was I going to handle this?' But I just know one thing: Just be honest. Just be honest and face it like a man.

"Thank God this day's over," Ozzie Guillen said. But he'd better not exhale too deeply -- because, for the man in the middle of this storm, his journey into life after "I Love Fidel Castro" has only just begun.

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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