MIAMI (Reuters) - The Miami Marlins baseball team suspended manager Ozzie Guillen for five games after he praised Cuba’s Fidel Castro in a magazine interview, the team said on Tuesday.
The outspoken Guillen held a bilingual news conference on Tuesday in Miami - home to a large Cuban exile community - to apologize for a second time and said there were translation problems with the interview.
Guillen, who is in his first season as manager of the Marlins, has come under attack after saying he had “respect” for Cuba’s ailing former leader.
“I love Fidel Castro,” the Venezuelan-born Guillen told Time magazine’s online edition. “You know why? A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years but that mother- - is still here.”
He later apologized for the comments from Philadelphia, where the Marlins are playing the Phillies, saying he was deeply embarrassed by having offended Miami’s large Cuban exile community.
“The Marlins acknowledge the seriousness of the comments attributed to Guillen,” the team said in a statement. “The pain and the suffering caused by Fidel Castro cannot be minimized, especially in a community filled with victims of the dictatorship.”
In an effort to make amends, Guillen, 48, traveled to Miami where he held a lengthy press conference on Tuesday, speaking in Spanish and English to further apologize.
“I‘m here on my knees, apologizing to all the Latin American communities,” said Guillen, who will not be paid while suspended.
He added that he was “very, very, very sorry,” and felt “very embarrassed, very sad.”
Known for making colorful and often controversial comments, Guillen blamed problems in translation in his interview.
“I was thinking in Spanish and said it wrong in English. I didn’t say it correctly,” he said. “What I wanted to say was I was surprised Fidel Castro stayed in power so long, considering what he’s done. It was misinterpreted. I said I cannot believe someone who has hurt so many people is still alive.”
“BIGGEST MISTAKE OF MY LIFE”
Guillen said his Castro comments were “the biggest mistake so far in my life” and that he had not been slept well for three days as a result.
Struggling for words at times and frequently switching between English and Spanish, Guillen said he would learn from his mistake and make it up to the community. He said he planned to make Miami his permanent home, not just for the remainder of his baseball career.
“I‘m going to be a Miami guy for the rest of my life,” he said. “I want to walk in the street with my head up and feel not this bad the way I feel right now.”
Several local Cuban-American politicians and civic leaders called for Guillen’s resignation but Miami’s Cuban-American mayor said he accepted his apology and urged the community to move on.
About 100 protesters gathered outside the Marlins’ stadium waving Cuban and American flags, calling Guillen a “communist,” and shouting in Spanish, “Get rid of him.”
The controversy over Guillen’s comments comes only a few games into a new season and at a particularly sensitive time for the Marlins. The team was rebranded and relaunched this season after leaving behind its old home at the Miami Dolphins football stadium in north Miami for a new life in a $515 million taxpayer-funded ballpark in Little Havana, the historic heart of the city’s Cuban-American community.
Since the team’s inaugural season in 1993, the Marlins have struggled with low attendance and management was hoping the move into the city’s Latin community, plus a new high-profile Hispanic manager, would help build a new fan base.
Guillen formerly managed the Chicago White Sox, leading them to a World Series title in 2005. As a player, he was an All-Star shortstop, playing for five teams in a career that spanned from 1985 to 2000.
The Marlins brought him in from the White Sox in a bid to help turn around a team that had struggled for wins on the field in recent years, after winning the World Series in 1997 and 2003.
Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig issued a statement supporting Guillen’s suspension.
“Baseball is a social institution with important social responsibilities,” he said.
“Mr Guillen’s remarks, which were offensive to an important part of the Miami community and others throughout the world, have no place in our game.”
Nearing the end of his nearly hour-long press conference, Guillen said the experience had taught him a useful lesson. “This is the last time in my life that I will talk about politics,” he said.
Guillen has previously come under fire for his comments, including his use of a gay slur to describe a sports columnist and his acknowledgement that he drinks after road games.
In 2005, he appeared on a Venezuelan radio show and expressed a liking for Venezuela’s leftist President Hugo Chavez, adding, “My mom will kill me.”
He has since criticized Chavez and on Tuesday said he never supported the Venezuelan leader, who is a close friend of Castro.
In Guillen’s absence, the Marlins will be managed by bench coach Joey Cora. Guillen will return as team manager for a series against the Chicago Cubs in Miami next week.
(The story fixes typo in penultimate paragraph)
Additional reporting by Simon Evans, Evelyn Gruber and Joe Skipper; Editing by Bill Trott and Jackie Frank