Major League Baseball's Marlins franchise move to Miami, Florida is off to a rather bumpy start.
Just one week after an opening day loss to the World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals in their newly minted ballpark, the Marlins' front office suspended manager Ozzie Guillen for five games in reaction to pro-Fidel Castro comments.
Publicly expressing one’s “love” and “respect” for former Cuban leader Fidel Castro as Guillen did in a recent Time Magazine interview is not only uncommon in Miami; it is career suicide. The backlash from Cuban-American exiles came down swiftly, the cheers from the crowd turned into boos, protests, and even calls for Guillen’s dismissal.
Having enraged the Marlins’ fans with so few words, Guillen addressed the media red-faced, shamed, and puffy-eyed to extend his apologies, “I feel like I betrayed my Latin community. I am here to say I am sorry with my heart in my hands and I want to say I’m sorry to all those people who are hurt indirectly or directly.”
Though Guillen’s gaffe could easily be dismissed as a reason why athletes should not mix sports and politics, his statements reveal the complex and interwoven relationship of baseball, U.S. foreign policy, and the polarizing and dichotomous image of Fidel Castro as tyrannical dictator and revolutionary hero.
Quietly, America’s past time has been one of its more effective tools of pushing U.S. foreign policy agenda and American values since the Spanish-American War of 1898. The United States boasted a double victory against Spain — triumph in the army and the arena as American baseball overtook Spanish bull fighting in popular winning ideological and military war on the island.
Cuba, which today stands maligned by American baseball fans, was in fact the first Latin American nation to embrace the sport.
As the United States’ military dominance spread across the world, ballparks were built as quickly as military bases. Bases and baseball fields in Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Panama, and the Dominican Republic reflected U.S. dominance in Latin America over the next century. Theodore Roosevelt’s Corollary extended President James Monroe’s Doctrine and American economics and militarism were bound together in Reagan’s Washington Consensus.
“Every other building in DC is named after Pinochet/Mujahideen/Contra supporter Ronald Reagan, but say you ‘respect Fidel’ and watch out,” wrote sports writer Dave Zirin in reaction to Ozzie Guillen’s suspension.
It was President Ronald Reagan’s Central American wars that fed fodder to the ever-growing popularity of playing baseball and living the American dream. The Latino population of the United States and the Major Leagues boomed during the Reagan years and for those not granted amnesty baseball seemed one-way ticket to America. Bases, ballparks, and now baseball camps sprang up throughout the region and prospects honed their skills in the hopes of a professional baseball future.
Except in Castro’s Cuba, where Fidel denounced organized Baseball and forbade Cuban players from entry–a move that author Robert Elias alleges angered the MLB and increased support for the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba.
For a region marked by U.S. militarism and ideological imperialism, they took pride in besting the Yankees the sport they created, but only Cuba beat the Americans in politics and play.
Herein lies why Castro himself is a threat, a man whose very life stands in defiance of the CIA’s strategies to overthrow his regime along with various assassination attempts. Equally oppressive as he is kind, two strong narratives of Fidel Castro co-exist.
Miami’s Cuban-American community suffered loss of family and homeland in their escape from communism many leaving behind love ones that remain incarcerated for decades with no charge. Yet for others Cuba’s consistent opposition and refusal to adhere to American foreign policy coupled with their goodwill abroad through endeavors such as their global health and literacy initiatives have endeared Castro to many particularly President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Guillen’s native country.
While Guillen’s thoughtless quip about his respect for Castro may have been insensitive to many Cuban Americans, it also encapsulates love felt for Castro in the Americas and its aftermath hints at love/hate relationship between Cuba and Major League Baseball. Commissioner Bud Selig who harshly criticized Guillen for praising Castro also sat next to the dictator during a 1999 exhibition game between the Baltimore Orioles and the Cuban National Team, a game that baseball fans overwhelmingly supported.
Support? For Cuban baseball? So why the 180 now?
Ozzie Guillen, as manager of the Miami Marlins, created a national buzz that most likely would have been ignored had he coached in any other baseball city.
But Miami’s location 90 miles away from Cuba’s shores and its large Cuban-American population are a constant reminder of Castro’s heroic defiance and harsh cruelty.
The Miami Marlins like all franchises have a social and fiscal responsibility to appease its consumers/fans. Though it may be made smart business decision to suspend Guillen’s, it highlights the link between American foreign policy and baseball that has long existed and shows us that free speech is not necessarily free.
Jamila Aisha Brown is a freelance writer, political commentator, and social entrepreneur. Her entrepreneurship, HUE, provides consulting solutions for development projects throughout the African diaspora. You can follow her on Twitter and engage with HUE, LLC.