When Oswaldo "Ozzie" Guillen met with White Sox GM Ken Williams in late 2003 to interview for the manager's job, Williams immediately let Guillen know where he stood. Williams said that Cito Gaston was the clear front-runner for the job and that the former White Sox shortstop had to really sell himself if he wanted the post. Guillen told Williams to go to hell.
Strangely, that was the start of the unlikely but very successful marriage between the White Sox and Guillen. In a sports world gone increasingly corporate, there goes Ozzie speaking his mind in rat-a-tat fashion, mixing the profane and profound -- though especially the former. Yet just when it might seem the colorful cut-up that owner Jerry Reinsdorf calls the "Hispanic Jackie Mason" is all schtick, his team goes out and plays the kind of hustling, fundamentally sound baseball that would look just as good in black and white.
Like any good marriage, this one has something old and something new, something borrowed and something blue. As much as Guillen might come across as a renegade, in baseball terms he is as old-school as Connie Mack. Guillen manages by gut, not spreadsheet. He emphasizes pitching, defense, baserunning and bunting. In an era when a six-inning start can be called "quality" with a straight face, his White Sox threw four straight complete games during an 11-1 postseason run. When Chicago completed an unlikely Series sweep, Guillen quietly watched his players pile onto the field from the third-base coaching box, not wanting to disrespect Astros manager Phil Garner by jumping into the fray.
Still, the first foreign-born manager to win a World Series is a fitting new face to represent what has become the most international of American pro sports. Latin players now make up nearly a third of major leaguers. Locker rooms increasingly look like a mini-United Nations minus the double-parked diplomats. Guillen can reach these players in several languages -- or none at all. When Guillen first greeted Japanese second baseman Tadahito Iguchi this spring, the manager asked the major league rookie, "You speak any English?" Iguchi replied that he did not. "Me neither," said Guillen, with a big laugh.
In Guillen's case, the something borrowed was the World Series trophy itself, which he took back to his native Venezuela in a jet furnished by President Hugo Chavez. It was the first time that the hardware had visited Latin America. Guillen was treated as a conquering hero, complete with parades, fireworks and a sitdown with the U.S. ambassador.
Hanging with presidents and ambassadors might be the one thing that could make Guillen tone down his typically blue language, though that's no sure bet. Reprinting a verbatim rant by Guillen -- even when he's in a good mood -- in a family publication requires more dashes than if transmitting it in Morse code. There's a method to the apparent madness, however, as Guillen acts as the lightning rod to absorb pressure and attention while his players are free to perform in relative peace.
Like any marriage, there's always the chance this one might end badly. Guillen often seems to be straddling the line between refreshing and outrageous; it's not hard to picture his motor mouth getting him in trouble. But for now, Guillen is a breath of fresh air in a sports landscape that often seems stale. He reminds us that having fun and treating a sport's traditions with respect are not mutually exclusive. For all that, Guillen is my choice as Sportsman of the Year.