Elmer Smith: Guiltless Guillen: Castro-loving manager exercises 1st Amendment right to be stupid

APPARENTLY, when Ozzie Guillen was studying for his citizenship test a few years ago, they forgot to cover the part about his God-given right to say stupid stuff.

It's right there in the First Amendment, one of the inalienable rights that our forefathers fought, bled and died for. It won't let you yell fire in a crowded theater. But it has provided constitutional cover for some of the stupidest statements ever uttered in the long and storied history of this great nation.

Yet, poor Ozzie spent an agonizing hour before the people's tribunal Tuesday, slowly twisting in the windstorm he set off with his intemperate praise of Fidel Castro. Guillen, first-year manager of the Miami Marlins, lurched out of his lane and into oncoming traffic when he told Time magazine that he "loved," "admired" and "respected" Castro.

This would be considered curious in much of America. In South Florida, the use of Castro's name in the same sentence with the words "loved," "admired" or "respected" is akin to telling a Christian that Judas was your favorite apostle.

The reaction was predictable on all sides. The Cuban-exile community demanded his pelt. Marlins management issued a hasty disclaimer. Then they summoned Guillen back from Philadelphia, where the Marlins are playing the Phils, for that rambling apology broadcast live on ESPN.

No telling how many lashes he took before the cameras rolled. But when they let him out of the woodshed, he knew the difference between the right to free speech and the realities of the baseball business.

It was hard for me to watch. I don't think anybody looks good in sackcloth and ashes. But this public flogging went down harder than most for me.

Guillen is admired as a man who speaks his mind whether there is anything in it or not. So, to see him groveling like that was, well, sad.

He was contrite in English and Spanish. But he still blamed his clumsy English for making him sound as if he were admiring Castro in the magazine interview that was made public this week. He didn't bother to share whatever he really meant to tell the magazine reporter.

He renounced all previous references to Castro, Hugo Chavez, Che Guevara or any Latin leader living or dead who may be hated by any potential Marlins fans living or dead.

"I felt like I betrayed my Latin community," he said. "This was the biggest mistake of my life."

He literally said that he had come begging for forgiveness "on my knees." That he was speaking "from the bottom of my heart" and holding "my heart in my hands."

"I'm very sad," he said at one point. "I let the club down."

Actually, management brought the club down on him. He was suspended for five games, fitted for a muzzle and told to go and sin no more. He pledged to speak only baseball from now on.

His epiphany was prompted in part by time spent in re-education camp. An anti-Castro protest group called the "Women in White" gave him a thumbnail history of the suffering and deprivation that they and their loved ones suffered under Castro. He was duly chastened.

I think that U.S. policy toward Cuba is hypocritical, illogical and inconsistent. We do business with China, the most powerful Communist regime ever, and have opened trade and diplomatic relations with Vietnam, where tens of thousand of our sons died fighting Communism. So, what are we trying to do by enforcing an embargo that is choking the life out of the Cuban economy?

But I don't work for a baseball team that is in hock up to its nostrils for a new stadium after years of failing to fill a smaller stadium. Next time Guillen exercises his right to free speech, he won't work for that team, either.

"If I don't learn from this mistake . . . " he said at one point.

What he learned is that free speech can be expensive.


Elmer Smith is a former Daily News columnist.