What does Ozzie Guillen want most? How about a talk show with a proper time slot? "Not 6:30 in the morning, when everyone going to work," he says. "And not 12 o'clock at night, when everyone sleeping. You gotta give me a good hour. And I will talk about politics, what is going around Venezuela, problems. Not just about catching a ground ball. Yes, I am available for that. And when I open the show, what will I say? I will say"—he extends a bony forefinger a la Arsenio—"I will say, 'Let's talk about something!' "
You think this won't happen? The stretch of dirt between third and second is already a sort of cross-cultural Tonight Show whenever Guillen is working at shortstop for the Chicago White Sox. There are interviews, observations, monologues being spun out there. Chicago third baseman Robin Ventura, a frequent guest on the Ozzie Guillen Show, says his teammate is Geraldo and Sally Jessy and Phil rolled into one. "He's nonstop, never shuts up. Not one unspoken thought. He's talking about something he saw on TV, about the batter, about how some event here might translate in Venezuela. He's talking to me, he's talking to umps, he's talking to fans, he's talking to base runners. I've seen it so bad out there that the third base coach is beside himself trying to get the runner's attention."
And Guillen can work a bad crowd, too, just like the greats. Because he often performs in the heat of competition, his yak attack can occasionally be more irritating than amusing. Every once in a while a runner may cover his ears, or an ump will turn his back. Ventura might visibly plead for some sonic relief. Look for this to happen sometimes. And when it does, Guillen will stare into his glove for a second, disappointed, and then suddenly he'll have a thought. It's the same thought every time; you can actually watch this develop. I'll visit the pitcher! The Ozzie Guillen Show—and this is definitely a plus in the talk-show world—is willing to go on location.
For the moment all this entertainment is available to a relative few. Although he is a star of TV movies back home in Venezuela and could reasonably expect to become the next Johnny there, where he could talk about something, Guillen (pronounced GEY-un) is still most appreciated in this country at shortstop, where he catches everything. He hits pretty well—.267 lifetime, and improving—but he is best known for extending the defensive legacy of Venezuelan shortstops, some of whom he trained under. He flops all over the field, not necessarily with the elegance of his mentors but with the same wonderful effect, and he fills the gap as if it were silence. A three-time All-Star, he finally and deservedly won a Gold Glove in 1990 (he has the vanity plates to go with it: GOLDGLV) and, at 28, has become his own man. He is no longer the other Ozzie.
He is no longer another Chico or Luis or Davey, for that matter. He is in the prime of a career that could conclude with his becoming recognized as the greatest Venezuelan shortstop ever, which is sort of the same as being the greatest shortstop in the world. Phillies manager Jim Fregosi, who managed Guillen from 1986 to '88, says, "There's no question. Defensively he's the best I've ever seen. I have never seen him get a bad hop. Nobody reads a ground ball better than Ozzie."
Fregosi always wished that offensively Guillen would be more disciplined and not swing at every pitch. But because Guillen is so eager for instruction, Fregosi gives him room for improvement at the plate. "Take base-stealing," he says. "I think he had eight the year I got to Chicago. We concentrated on that, and he stole 25 the next year." If Guillen applies himself equally with the bat—he has hit .279 and .273 the last two seasons—he can expect to gild that piece of equipment as well. In time he will no longer be appreciated only by comparison with countrymen Chico Carrasquel, Luis Aparicio or Davey Concepcion—never mind Alabama-born Ozzie Smith.
"Already I am beyond compare," he says, off on a minimonologue. "This is how I rank them: Carrasquel, nobody can forget about him, he is Pops; Luis, he is the best, just the best there ever was; Davey is my hero; but Ozzie, he is the richest." And he laughs that talk-show-host laugh.
Just to be among their company is distinction enough for a lifetime. Venezuela is baseball crazy, sure, but more than that, it is shortstop specific. Shortstop is where all the real athletes go. "First thing I ever remember doing was taking grounders," Guillen says. He guesses that this tradition is a matter of national genetics: "We are built to be shortstops—small, with quick hands, always wanting to take ground balls. When scouts come to Caracas, they naturally ask to see the infielders."
More likely it is simply a tradition established when Carrasquel made the big time. Carrasquel himself suspects this is so. "From 1950 to 1955, when I played with the White Sox, I was the only Venezuelan in the major leagues," he says (overlooking the brief sojourns of countrymen Yo-Yo Davalillo, a shortstop, and pitcher Ray Monzant). "I was in the newspapers [in Venezuela] every day. Every time I went back, they would follow my car like a parade. After that everyone there wanted to play shortstop."
Aparicio was next in line, thriving under the tutelage of his uncle Ernesto, a lifetime coach of youth baseball in the town of Los Teques. Ernesto did his job well enough that when Carrasquel was traded by Chicago after the 1955 season, Luis was able to step right into the White Sox lineup. He was American League Rookie of the Year in 1956; he became a Hall of Famer in 1984.