Published April 14, 2012
MIAMI – Havana-born Isabel Diaz arrived at the Miami Marlins' ballpark two hours before the first pitch Friday, ready to root for the home team but not quite prepared to forget Ozzie Guillen's remarks about Fidel Castro.
"I'm here to support the players," Diaz said, "and to support all the workers at the stadium who are not at fault for what one ignorant person said."
For the first time since the furor enveloping their manager began, the Marlins took the field in their new ballpark in Little Havana, opening a six-game homestand against Houston. Miami won 5-4 in 11 innings.
Arriving fans were greeted with salsa music and samples of mango smoothies. There was no sign of any group demonstrations, but some fans may have protested simply by staying away.
The 36,442-seat ballpark was about two-thirds full, and announced attendance was 30,169. One spectator waved a sign that read, "I hate Fidel but I love the Marlins."
Other fans came reluctantly, still angry that Guillen had said he loved and admired Castro. Nancy Azcuy, who came to the United States from Cuba 43 years ago, said she'll give up her season tickets if Guillen is back as manager next season.
"He earns a lot of money to be talking so much trash," she said. "A public figure has to think about what he says."
Among those absent from the ballpark was Guillen, serving a five-game suspension for his remarks. He offered an emotional apology at a news conference Tuesday, but some local leaders, Cuban Americans and even Marlins fans thought he should have been fired.
One was Lazaro Diaz, a lone protester standing outside the ballpark shortly before the game. He drove three hours from his home in Fort Myers with his teenage son to express his frustration over Guillen's comments.
"I came here to express that I am against him and that they need to kick him out," Diaz said. "He has every right to the freedom of speech, but he shouldn't have said what he did to this community."
Diaz, who wore a T-shirt that read, "Cuba, Si. Castro, No," said two of his uncles were executed in the early years of the revolution.
Edwin Rojas and his 10-year-old son sold shirts that said, "Cuba, Si! Ozzie, No! Marlins Forever." Rojas, a season-ticket holder, said he would keep attending games but understood why people were upset.
"I can definitely sympathize with what my parents went through and what this means to them," he said.
The new retractable roof was closed because of drizzly weather, but even with protection from the conditions, empty seats Friday might not be a fair gauge of any lingering animosity.
The Astros aren't a big draw, and it was a busy night on the Miami sports calendar. The Heat and Florida Panthers both had home games, with the hockey team playing its first postseason game in 12 years.
On the other hand, it was only the second game in the Marlins' new $634 million home.
The Marlins have long struggled with poor attendance, and Guillen's comments antagonized a large percentage of their fan base just as the franchise was enjoying a sense of rejuvenation thanks to the new ballpark.
First baseman Gaby Sanchez, whose parents are Cuban exiles, said the best thing the players can do to help the situation is start playing better. After an offseason spending binge, the Marlins were touted as playoff contenders, but they began the homestand 2-5 and last in the NL East.
"All we can do is go out there and win games," Sanchez said. "If we start doing that, hopefully it will start to turn a little bit. It's not going to truly subside, but hopefully it does a little bit."
Marlins catcher John Buck agreed some success by the team could help defuse the tension — and bring back any fans staying away in protest.
"Winning helps everything, right?" Buck said. "If we put a fun team on the field, people will come."
Marlins broadcaster Cookie Rojas, a former player and a native of Havana, predicted the anger of the Cuban community will die down in the aftermath of Guillen's apology.
"He asked people to forgive him," Rojas said. "You've got to move on. You can't keep bringing it back. Let's get over with it and play ball."
Guillen returns to the dugout Tuesday.
Sanchez said he understood both sides of the issue. He said Guillen — a Venezuelan speaking English, his second language, in a magazine interview — did not say what he meant, but Sanchez understood why his fellow Cuban Americans were so upset.
"It's one of those hot-button topics," Sanchez said. "You have to understand the Cuban community and everybody of Cuban descent and what their families went through.
"Ozzie did a great job in his apology. Hopefully the Cuban community will forgive him and start supporting us. I think time will do the job."
Associated Press Writer Christine Amario contributed to this report.