SAN FRANCISCO – The subject was baseball, which was perfect for Ozzie Guillen. Hard to get into trouble talking about pop flies. No protests when discussing the pitching rotation.
A few hugs, to his pals on the Giants, a few wisecracks, and wasn’t this why the Miami Marlins had brought him in as manager because of his experience in the game?
He may be a lightning rod, a firecracker, or anything else you choose to describe a personality as vibrant as any in the big leagues. But on this first day of the lusty month of May, with the normal spring chill settling in on AT&T Park, Ozzie was as far from controversy as he was from his native Venezuela.
Only a month ago he made comments about virtues of Fidel Castro. That required an apology. That demanded a suspension. It’s over. Let’s move on.
The Marlins, however, hadn’t moved anywhere, other than to the West Coast. “When we play,’’ Guillen said before the first pitch, at 10:15 p.m. Florida time, “the people in Miami will be sleeping. So nobody will see us.’’
What Guillen and the Marlins would see, would earn, Monday night was a taut, 2-1, win over the Giants. Maybe it presaged a change in direction – they had lost two in a row and eight of nine. It didn’t change Ozzie’s skepticism.
“Tonight, I make the right move,’’ he said. In the eighth, with Giants on second and third and one out, Guillen had starter Ricky Nolasco walk Pablo Sandoval to load the bases. He replaced Nolasco with Edward Mujica, who got Buster Posey, batting .342, to ground into a double play.
“The ball is bouncing our way,’’ Guillen insisted, “I make that move in Miami, it’s a double against the wall.
“How many moves I make in Miami was the wrong move. Three in a row?’’
He made a wrong move when he said he admired Castro, mainly because the dictator had survived 50 years. In a city, Miami, with thousands who fled Cuba, Guillen took deserved heat.
Some wanted him fired. Others drawn and quartered. But a few weeks distant his only problem is the ball club.
“In Miami, the fans booed us for the right reason. We were making errors, dropping fly balls. My insurance man told me to pay up, that I wasn’t going to make it to July.’’
If there is proper word for the 48-year-old Guillen it is mercurial. He can charm, as he did during a 10-minute discussion long before the first pitch. Could this be the same man who railed against a Chicago journalist when Ozzie managed the White Sox? Absolutely.
The story is when an organization takes on Guillen, with his fire and knowledge, it takes the entire package, positive and negative. He loves to give opinions. He loves to give praise. Whether he loves to give criticism is debatable, but he provides it when necessary.
“Mental problems?’’ he said rhetorically. “I don’t believe in mental problems. I come from the old school.
“If you have mental problems you cannot play baseball, because this is a mental game and you got to be strong enough to survive when you (are) not performing. This game is just not easy. Everyday there is a challenge.’’
Nothing had gone right for the Marlins at home. They weren’t scoring – never getting more than two runs in any game of their six straight defeats. The 8,000-ton retractable roof of their new downtown ballpark leaks when it rains, and the outfield grass is dying. Literally.
But they fly to Northern California, where the game-time temperature is 52 degrees, where because of the dimensions and size of AT&T very few runs are scored by anyone, and the Marlins win.
Even though they were facing Giants righthander Matt Cain, an All-Star. Even though they got only six hits.
“We had opportunities and we did something with them,’’ said Guillen. “Our starting pitching has been great.’’
Guillen and Giants manager Bruce Bochy were once teammates in Triple-A. But with Guillen previously in the American League they hadn’t been on opposing teams. Now, after those few pre-game embraces, Guillen is one-up.
“We know this game is going to be this close,’’ he said in retrospect. “I know what kind of pitcher Matt Cain is. And Nolasco, great. That’s why I let him hit in the eighth. We like the way he throws. I got a lot of confidence in him.’’
Would you call Guillen engaging? Irritating? Sharp? Maybe all of the above. In 2005 he managed the White Sox to their first World Series victory in 88 years. For that alone, the Wizard of Ozzie could be granted an exemption for all his faults.