For the best team in baseball the handwriting was on the wall: anthem--5:54. Along with times for pregame stretching and batting practice, the start of the national anthem was duly noted in block letters on a grease board in the Chicago White Sox' clubhouse. Ozzie Guillen was hired to manage this team because he is genuinely committed to a franchise that hasn't won a World Series since 1917 (and infamously dumped one of its two subsequent appearances). Guillen, who has so much energy he makes amphetamines jumpy, thinks his Sox should stand for some things, and one of them is The Star-Spangled Banner. The most prized items in Guillen's office are the twin American and Venezuelan flags that hang on the wall behind his desk--he hopes to obtain his U.S. citizenship by the end of the year--and he has one important rule: Don't miss the anthem. The fine is $500.
"That's the thing that pisses me off the most," Guillen says, thickly accented words spilling out of his mouth and merrily chasing each other around his office. "Two reasons. If you're not from this country, you should respect the anthem even more than Americans because you should feel pleased you're here. And if you're from this country, you should have respect for people who are dying for it. This is a great country. It has the right of free speech. That's why a lot of countries have problems, because [people] can't speak for themselves."
Guillen, whose White Sox were a major-league-best 24-7 at week's end, speaks enough for everyone. He likes his water cold, his language blue, his communication direct. "He says what he feels," says Eduvigis Polidor, the widow of former big league shortstop Gus Polidor and a close family friend in Venezuela to whom Guillen gave his old house after her husband was murdered in 1995, one of his many gestures of compassion. "It's his way of being. He's very sincere." At the end of his weekly column in El Universal, a respected Venezuelan newspaper, Guillen includes his e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to contact Oswaldo Guillen, as he's known back home, feel free. But there's a good chance he'll respond with something you don't expect to hear.
The man was born without a mute button. Guillen exercises free speech the way Arnold Schwarzenegger once flexed his delts, grabbing listeners' attention with observations and Ozzie-isms that are wry and sometimes ribald. Last month he described White Sox star designated hitter Frank Thomas, still rehabbing a surgically repaired left ankle, as "a big part of the bad attitude" that used to haunt the Sox. (He later mentioned veterans Mark Buehrle, Joe Crede, Jon Garland and Paul Konerko as part of those old selfish Sox.) Guillen also tweaked micromanaging Texas Rangers skipper Buck Showalter last September, saying "to compete against the guy that invented baseball, and beat him, that's something you should feel good about as a rookie manager." Guillen says he subsequently made amends to both Thomas and Showalter, but he has not offered an apology to former Sox outfielder Carlos Lee, who, the manager said at the team's winter fanfest, slid into second base during a critical game against the rival Minnesota Twins last season "as if his wife was turning the double play." Certainly no apology will be forthcoming to ex-White Sox outfielder Magglio Ordo√±ez, the injured Detroit Tiger who accused Guillen of meddling in his negotiations to remain with Chicago last winter. After Ordo√±ez called his former manager "the enemy" last month, Guillen launched an unexpurgated rant hardly befitting someone who spent four years as an altar boy. To quote it precisely would require more dashes than the Penn Relays.
General manager Kenny Williams, who in November 2003 made Guillen the first Venezuelan major league manager, is unfazed by the verbiage from a man who stands up for the team as tall as his players stand for Francis Scott Key's anthem. "If this were a tension-filled environment, then maybe people would have cause for concern or I'd take a second look," Williams says. "But the bottom line is I didn't hire someone for Hewlett-Packard, IBM or any other FORTUNE 500 company. I hired a baseball manager. This team needed some toughness and someone with pride, someone with a love of the organization. And if that gets in the way of being politically correct, so be it. I got his back on those times."
Williams rebuilt his 2005 team by transforming a muscle-bound lineup centered on the power of Thomas, Ordo√±ez and Lee into one with better balance and speed. "Los gringos call this small ball," Guillen wrote in his April 23 column, "... [but] in my dictionary I call it smart ball, whose tradition is based on intelligent baseball." When asked if he and Williams wanted a team constructed in Guillen's image, the former light-hitting shortstop cackles and says, "No, we'd be bad. I batted ninth [most of] my career." But the White Sox are playing a less static game, hitting and running and bunting and behaving the way National League teams traditionally do. Guillen juggles his lineup, exploits favorable matchups and gets his bullpen up early, preparedness that seemed admirable in the cool of spring but could backfire if his relievers wear down in August. Of course small ball, at its worst, is microscopic. The Sox mustered six singles, a double, 11 walks, a hit batter and two Detroit errors but stranded 16 runners in a dreary 3-2, 11-inning loss on April 29. At its best, however, small ball is sublime; witness the two eighth-inning runs Chicago scored on a walk, a sacrifice, a hit batter and three more walks in a 2-1 win over the Kansas City Royals last Thursday. Given the Sox' .323 on-base percentage (ninth in the American League), a measly .223 average with runners in scoring position and a fielding percentage in the middle of the league, their torrid start seems like a high-wire act. In fact, 13 of their 24 victories have been by one run.
"If we were outslugging everybody, I'd be saying, 'Wow, it's going to be tough to keep this up,'" Konerko says. "But our pitching's good, and it has a track record."
Chicago's starters--Buehrle, Freddy Garcia, Jose Contreras, Orlando Hernandez and Garland--are indeed a sturdy safety net. The five had a combined earned run average of 2.96 through Sunday, almost a run lower than that of Boston's starters, the AL's second-most-effective rotation. White Sox starters had allowed one or no runs in 13 of 31 games. Buehrle has been the workhorse--in championing the 26-year-old lefthander, Guillen has blasted the national media, wondering why his guy doesn't get as much ink as Mark Prior and Kerry Wood--but Garland has been the revelation, a nominal fifth starter who at week's end was 6-0 with a 2.42 ERA. The 25-year-old righty has not added a pitch, just subtracted the little insecurities that once rattled around his brain. For the first time in a stuttering six-year career Garland has been given opportunities to pitch himself out of jams. "Ozzie's definitely shown faith in me," he says. "He's let me find out a lot about myself by giving me my chances. It's fun playing for him. It's almost like having another rowdy player on the team who keeps everybody going. He makes you laugh."
Indeed, the problem can be knowing when to take Guillen seriously. Chris Widger, the backup catcher who played in the independent Atlantic League last year, was reading a newspaper in the clubhouse before the April 27 game in Oakland when Guillen approached and said, "Widge, you're playing third." Says Widger, "I kept waiting for the punch line because he's always joking. There wasn't one." Because of injuries Guillen played Widger at third for the first time in his career and started Crede, a third baseman, at shortstop. When Crede was ejected in the ninth, Guillen filled in with outfielder Jermaine Dye. (All fielded their new positions flawlessly.) After the 2-1 loss, in which Guillen also got the thumb, the manager turned up the clubhouse music and held a team meeting to thank his players for their unselfish efforts. "If he has a style, it's, Do whatever the hell you have to do to win on a given day," Williams says.
"I've only been with him 11 weeks and there's a lot of fun, but I think some people have gotten the impression that this is a big joke," Widger says. "That's wrong. No manager has more of a passion for seeing that the game is played right. And everyone's treated the same. There aren't a lot of managers who have the guts to stand up to superstars."
Guillen and Thomas, not particularly close when they played together, will surely reach a détente whenever the slugger returns. When the prickly Thomas suggested last month that Carl Everett might have to play the outfield to accommodate his return as DH, Guillen waspishly reminded everyone that the manager makes out the lineup. Thomas promises to roll with the punches. "The only thing I haven't done is win a ring, and I want to be part of that," he says. "Hopefully when I come back, I'm not going to disrupt anything. I'll do whatever Ozzie wants. Sit on the bench some days, that'll be fine."
A humble, helpful Thomas backing the league's best rotation on the first-place White Sox. Run that up the flagpole. ‚ñ†