Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen told Time magazine: "I love Fidel Castro." (Photo: Flickr.)

By Howard Goodman
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

The fan-starved ball club, reinventing itself as the Miami Marlins, had dreamed of becoming the talk of Little Havana.

But not like this.

In as flat-footed a debut as can be possibly imagined, the Marlins’ high-profile manager, Ozzie Guillen, has proved that his famous mouth is not just unstoppable and ungovernable. It is also capable of uttering the most staggering of stupidities.

Less than a week after the team opened its flashy state-of-the-art Marlins Park in Little Havana — the neighborhood of Cuban exiles that is noteworthy for the enduring ferocity of its hatred toward one man, Fidel Castro — Guillen exploded all the goodwill that owner Jeffrey Loria had hoped to buy* by saying the One Thing You Must Never Say in Little Havana.

[*Note: largely with taxpayer money.]

“I love Fidel Castro.”

The quote was from an interview with Time magazine that appeared online Friday, along with this elaboration: “I respect Fidel Castro. You know why? A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years, but that [expletive] is still here.”

The response has been apocalyptic. Miami-Dade Commission Chairman Joe Martinez demanded that Guillen resign. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez urged the team to “take decisive steps to bring this community back together.” A small, hardline group of exiles, Vigilia Mambisa, plans to protest at noon today at the stadium and called for a boycott of the team.

As writer Dave Zirin said in his blog for The Nation: “We haven’t seen outrage like this in South Florida since butterfly ballots and hanging chads.”

Guillen, whose winning ways with the Chicago White Sox and Venezuelan background were supposed to draw a larger Latino fan base to the perpetually struggling Marlins franchise, was suspended for five games, the Marlins announced today.

Guillen apologized for his remarks over the weekend and again this morning, flying back from Philadelphia on an off-day to meet the local media at Marlins Park.

He said he had meant to express his surprise that Fidel, who “had done a lot of bad things,” had stayed in power so long — but he messed up his own thought in translation: “I’m not saying the journalist was wrong. I was wrong. I was thinking in Spanish and I said it wrong in English.”

“I’m sorry that I hurt the community without any intention,” Guillen said in Spanish. “I’m here to say I’m sorry.”

“You learn from mistakes. And, I hope, this is the biggest mistake so far in my life I make,” Guillen said in English and with evident sincerity. “And when you make a mistake this big, you can’t sleep, you constantly think about for four days. If I don’t learn from this, then I will call myself dumb.”

Can a contrite Ozzie fix the public-relations disaster created by the uninhibited Ozzie? Are the Marlins, and the taxpayers who are on the hook with them, in the midst of a colossal flop right at the start?

UPDATE 1 pm:

” ‘I love Fidel Castro.’ You want to translate that? It’s basically, ‘I hate Cubans,’ ” said sportswriter Dan Le Batard in explaining the impact of Guillen’s remarks.

The Miami Herald sportswriter and son of Cuban-exile parents appeared on ESPN’s SportsCenter shortly after Guillen’s morning press conference.

Just as in the Elian Gonzalez child custody case, LeBatard said, most Americans will find it hard to understand how the Cuban-American community could remain so adamantly opposed to anything that smacks of pro-Castro sentiment.

“But if you grew up in my household,” Le Batard explained, “and you sat at the knee of my parents and my grandparents, and you saw the tears in their eyes when they told the stories of the atrocities that they had happen to their family in Cuba. They fled to this country to get away from those oppressions and that tyranny. They got here — and Ozzie Guillen stirred all that stuff up again.”

Miami-Dade County is 62 percent Hispanic or Latino (by the 2008 Census), one of the rare cases where an American minority is the majority. And it was in hopes of capturing Latin American baseball fans that the Marlins renamed themselves after Miami, went shopping for Latino on-field talent and, yes, hired Guillen. Now the high-profile manager has flung the worst possible insult at a major segment of that market — the 856,000 Miami-area Cuban-Americans.

Despite the hurt Guillen caused the exile community, Le Batard said he felt bad for the manager as he watched him get beat up like a pinata at the news conference.

An early test of whether the Marlins recover will come Friday, when the team returns for its first home game since last week’s one-off opener. They’ll be playing the Houston Astros in an night game.

Not that the team needs any worse luck, but it will be Friday the 13th.