Marlins try to put focus on the field
PHILADELPHIA -- Marlins interim manager Joey Cora sat in the visiting dugout of Citizens Bank Park, surrounded by more than a dozen outstretched hands bearing microphones and tape recorders, and estimated that he's "never had this many people try to get me to talk." Cora is the quiet foil to manager Ozzie Guillen, the sharp bench coach who's often overshadowed by his boss' bluster.
Cora has filled the interim role before during previous Guillen suspensions when the pair were with the White Sox, but the circumstances surrounding this one -- Guillen's well-publicized comments about Fidel Castro earned him a five-game ban and generated a firestorm in Miami -- are, Cora said, "definitely different." He spoke about how difficult this has been on Guillen, even admitting he wanted to give his friend a hug while watching Tuesday's televised press conference and apology back in South Florida.
Speaking with his hand resting on an upright bat, Cora said he suspected Guillen would no longer publicly address political topics, adding matter of factly, "We are baseball people."
Therein lies the predicament -- that a baseball coach should discuss, much less appear to respect, anything about a tyrannical dictator -- but also the team's coping mechanism, the full immersion in the single purpose of baseball.
Before and after Wednesday night's 7-1 Miami loss to the Phillies, the first of the five games Guillen will miss, Marlins players made a clear distinction between their manager and the controversy he created.
"Baseball is baseball," closer Heath Bell said, "and outside stuff is outside stuff."
The players said they supported Guillen personally and professionally -- "He's our manager," reliever Mike Dunn said, "We back him 100 percent" -- while simultaneously stressing that their focus was entirely on the field. Such a party line is essential to avoid making the quote flap a colossal distraction to a team with a strong chance to contend for a playoff spot.
"We're worried about winning games like we would be if he were here," left fielder Logan Morrison said before the game. "I don't really see this as an adverse time for us. It's absolutely tough for him, and we feel for him. We stand behind him. Other than that the only adversity we're facing is Roy Halladay."
Indeed, Wednesday was a poor litmus test for how the Marlins will fare in the aftermath of the recent ordeal because they opposed Halladay, the perennial Cy Young candidate who shut them down for one run over seven innings. Miami ace Josh Johnson didn't finish the fourth inning, but he also wasn't sharp in his first start and insisted after the Philadelphia loss that the rollercoaster week had no bearing.
Miami concludes its series with the Phillies on Thursday before returning home for a three-game weekend set with the Astros. Those four games, not to mention the first week or more after Guillen returns, will be a better indicator whether the Marlins are as impervious to this potential distraction as they claim.
Asked if a losing streak now would be particularly troublesome, given the additional scrutiny that might be placed on this ordeal, Morrison responded, "If we go ahead to win 10 games, is that the reason that we won 10 games? You're damned if you do, you're damned if you don't, I guess."
Guillen spoke to the players in the clubhouse for about 10 minutes before the game, apologizing in person after saying mea culpa in Miami the previous morning. Though his new charges were sympathetic to his plight and declined to reveal the content of Guillen's pregame message for the sake of his privacy, they also stressed that their focus was entirely on the baseball in front of them.
"He was really upset," Bell said, "This is a hard time for him and his family. We feel bad for him.
"The best thing that he's doing is owning up to what he did, and he feels really bad. We're going to go out and play baseball right now."
The hope, Bell added, is that the club's high number of veterans -- as major leaguers, even if they lack long tenure with the Marlins -- ought to mitigate the distraction Guillen's comments could have caused the on-field personnel.
The Marlins knew whom they were hiring. Guillen has gotten in hot water with his commentary before. Even his mlb.com blog is called "Ozzie Speaks / Listen up, I've got a lot to say!" But his ability to grab headlines was thought to be a positive for the club, which never expected something this extreme.
But now it is action that's required to quell the firestorm in Miami. Guillen's suspension will end after four more games, allowing him to return to the dugout bench Tuesday at Marlins Park, but it's possible the protestors may return, too.
"He knows, definitely, that he made a mistake," Cora said. "He's very sincere. He's going to do anything -- anything, I'm telling you guys -- in his power to make it right. He knows it's going to take time, but eventually he's going to be all right.
"He's going to be the same guy like he's always been, as far as managing the game and being with the guys, but I think he learned a lesson from this one. I'm pretty sure that he is a better man today than he was yesterday."
The Marlins certainly hope so, while wondering whether the team will be any better tomorrow than it was today.