Let Guillen be Guillen

July 26, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

Whenever Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen gets in trouble for being brutally honest or for shooting off his mouth before he thinks about what he is saying, I think of the preview I witnessed almost a decade ago.

In 1998, Guillen was in the Orioles' spring training camp in Florida at age 34, trying to extend his playing career, which would last 16 years. One morning after a workout, he plopped down beside me in the dugout and, without prompting, just started talking.

"I'm just a piece of junk now," he said.

I wasn't sure how to respond, so I said, "Excuse me?"

He said again, "I'm junk. Just junk." (And to be honest, he didn't say "junk.")

A longtime starting shortstop for the White Sox, he obviously was disappointed in his play and not afraid to say so.

The Orioles released him early that season, and although he caught on elsewhere and lasted another two years in the majors as a backup, he was, in fact, no longer the player he'd been.

That same penchant for speaking his mind, regardless of the circumstances or the fallout, is getting Guillen in trouble now. After leading the Sox to their first World Series title since 1917 last year, he has been involved in a series of controversies that originated with his mouth.

He called a Chicago columnist a derogatory term for a homosexual. He said he wouldn't go to the sensitivity class commissioner Bud Selig ordered him to attend. (Then he did go.) He blew up at a young White Sox pitcher for not retaliating after a teammate was beaned, then blew up at 10-game winner Jon Garland for the same reason last weekend.

There's no defending his use of a slur, and he lets his old-school baseball machismo get the best of him when he orders pitchers to retaliate. It used to happen routinely and still does more than anyone knows (Guillen was just being honest when he confessed), but Earl Weaver cared less about proving his manhood than winning games, so Orioles pitchers didn't retaliate because -- duh -- a beanball war increased the risk of injury to a star player.

Guillen, who will be at Camden Yards when the White Sox and Orioles play this weekend, would be wise to heed Weaver's lesson.

But don't misunderstand: While I might find fault with some of what Guillen says or does, I'm on his side. I'm pulling for him to make it.

It's obvious he is especially good at what he does, and it's exciting to watch him spend an entire game on the top step of a dugout, looking as if he wished he could hop the railing and play. Plenty of winning managers sit back impassively (Joe Torre is Exhibit A) and that's fine, but the energy Guillen brings to the job is infectious and fun.

The public sees less of his pre- and post-game interviews, when he jumps rapid-fire from topic to topic, spewing volleys of commentary and news seemingly as quickly as the thoughts come into his head. It's a fascinating show for the reporters around him, and the vast majority of what he says ranges from insightful to hilarious. His recent rant about the beauty of old-school baseball would draw applause from many fans.

You don't have to agree with what he says, and sometimes he obviously veers into places where he shouldn't go, but it's refreshing to see someone being honest and unvarnished instead of insincere and manufactured; someone who is willing to expose his real feelings instead of being so concerned about ramifications.

Sports would be a better place with more people like that. Guillen, 42, is anything but tight-lipped and beholden to spin. He just lets it fly.

The problem with being that way now, of course, is this is the age of athletes who are carefully managed and manufactured (and manufactured in more ways than one), and anyone who just lets it fly is almost certain to wind up at odds with various superiors. Bosses. Umpires. Commissioners. That tends to shorten tenures.

I would like to think Guillen is settling in for a long and entertaining run as a major league manager, hopefully learning from his mistakes as he goes along, but I fear he might just be too honest, too blunt, too opinionated. Sox general manager Kenny Williams has warned that his days could be numbered if he doesn't stay out of trouble, and that sounds ominous so soon after a World Series triumph.

Maybe things will blow over, but I'm guessing Guillen will start more controversy before 2006 is over. He just can't help himself. He is who he is, for better or worse. john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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