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 hadn'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 one another 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 finished the regular season with a 99-63 record, best in the American League, 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. (Guillen gave his old house to Eduvigis 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 April 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 Chicago. Thomas's performance in his brief stint off the disabled list between May 30 and July 20, before re-breaking his left foot--12 home runs in 105 at bats--went a long way toward repairing relations with his manager. (Guillen 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 in September 2004, 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 White 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 during the '04 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 the 31-year-old rightfielder called his former manager "my enemy" last April, Guillen launched a profane 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 of the 41-year-old Guillen. "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 Chicago is 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. Of course small ball, at its worst, is microscopic. The White 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 on May 5. Given the White Sox' .322 on-base percentage (which ranked 11th in the American League) and a measly .259 average with runners in scoring position, their style of play seems like a high-wire act. In fact, 61 of their 99 regular-season victories were by one or two runs.
"If we were outslugging everybody, I'd be saying, 'Wow, it's going to be tough to keep this up,'" says Konerko, who hit 40 home runs and had 100 RBIs during the 2005 regular season. "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. As starters, the five (with late-season call-up Brandon McCarthy) had a combined earned run average of 3.75 in the regular season, tied, with the Angels, for first in the AL and fifth in the majors. 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 or Kerry Wood of the Chicago Cubs), but Garland has been the revelation, a nominal fifth starter who was 18-10 with a 3.50 ERA. The 26-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 in 2004, was reading a newspaper in the clubhouse before the April 27 game in Oakland when Guillen approached him 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 inning, Guillen filled his position 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.
"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."