Ozzie's comments on Castro misguided
My enduring memory of Havana is watching families stand for hours in a blazing sun to get a spoonful of ice cream for their kids. That one scene spoke volumes about life under Fidel Castro.
There were mass killings, torture and imprisonment. There were families destroyed, businesses closed and lives torn asunder. But beyond those things, after the killings and the oppression and all the rest, Castro's regime was unable to provide its people with the barest essentials.
I used the example of kids and ice cream because that's what I witnessed. But Cubans couldn't get aspirin or basic medical care, either. Meats, fish, fruits and vegetables were in short supply.
There's a corner of Havana where old men gather to discuss baseball. That spring, Mark McGwire was the game's biggest star, and the old men gathered around a reporter wondering if he had a photo of McGwire.
They'd heard of his exploits, but since there was very little American television in Havana, indeed because there were very few families who could afford a TV, he remained something of a mystery.
I'd pretty much erased those scenes from my memory until Ozzie Guillen's comments about Castro got me to thinking about my trip to Havana with the Orioles in 1999.
Our flight landed on a runway ringed, in part, by the rotting hulls of military jets. Those jets were symbolic of what had happened to an entire country under 40 years of Castro's rule.
Along Havana's Malecón, once one of the world's most beautiful streets, years of neglect had made the roads essentially impassable and the buildings on the verge of crumbling.
That's the Havana that Guillen doesn't know. Had he known the truth of Castro's brutality, had he talked to the people who were forced to escape police attacks and sneak out of their country by whatever means necessary, he would not have made such comments.
We'll never know the number of Cubans who died attempting to flee Cuba, but there are hundreds of stories of families in small boats, families who believed they had no choice but to gamble they could make the 90 miles to freedom rather than endure another hour of Castro.
If you say "brutal dictator" long enough, the words become sanitized. In fact, the sons and daughters of Cuban exiles in South Florida don't seem to have the passion for Castro that their parents and grandparents had. They've heard the stories of murder and torture, but they did not experience them first-hand. So Castro's acts of terrorism against his own people become reduced to words.
I know Guillen well enough to know that he would never praise someone as vile as Castro if he only knew the truth. Instead, he was doing what he has always done.
When reporters ask Guillen a question, he feels compelled to offer something more than the usual stuff. He wants to give an answer outside the box, an answer that will shock and titillate.
I promise you Guillen meant no harm. Nor is he stupid. He's a smart man, a funny man, but a man who ventured far outside his area of expertise. Guillen has lived in South Florida long enough to know that Castro's name resonates. But there's no way he understand how deeply it resonates all these years later.
Things would have been different if Guillen had known what he was talking about. If someone had only sat him down before that interview in which he made the controversial comments and said, "Look, Ozzie, here's who Fidel Castro is. He's a mass murderer. He destroyed lives. He starved his own people, kept them from getting the most basic of medical care and shot them if they attempted to leave."
It's not that Guillen's words rang differently in South Florida. Castro should symbolize the same thing to every living, breathing human being. But nowhere is the pain as deep and the wounds still fresh after 50 years than in South Florida.
If Guillen had just had an ounce of understanding, if he had just thought for a moment before speaking, he would have understood that Castro's legacy will never be up for discussion.
When Alex Rodriguez was asked about Ryan Braun during Spring Training, he gave an answer that had to warm the hearts of Yankees officials.
"I try to stick to my circle of competence," Rodriguez said, "and that circle is very small."
One of the reasons some of us love Guillen is because he'll stray outside his level of competence. He'll say outrageous stuff because he likes nothing more than drawing attention to himself.
That's fine when he's talking about his players or his home or a dozen other things. In South Florida, it's still not all right to praise Castro. It's not all right today, and it won't be all right a decade from now.
Guillen may eventually win back the sons of Cuban exiles. Their parents are another story. For them, the wounds are as fresh today as they were in 1959. For them, Guillen's sins were unforgivable.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.