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.
It seems that Venezuela has never been without All-Star representation at shortstop. Concepcion later starred for the Cincinnati Reds and inspired yet another generation of shortstop wannabes, kids like Guillen, who now wears Concepcion's number, 13, and copies his hosiery style—stirrups worn low so there is little white showing. But Guillen does not trace his success to Concepcion; rather he is another product of Ernesto Aparicio.
When Ozzie's mother, Violeta, a school principal, was moved to Los Teques from the town of Ocumare del Tuy, Ozzie, too, fell under the sway of the great teacher. Ernesto noticed him at play in the streets and encouraged him to take some instruction, before and after school. Ozzie was 11 at the time and in appropriate awe of the education he was about to receive. When Ozzie took a grounder in the lip early in his apprenticeship, Ernesto found he could barely persuade him to leave the game for his seven stitches. Ozzie was not yet a teenager, but Ernesto realized he had the makings of another big leaguer on his hands.
As for Ozzie, he also realized what was taking place. "Ernesto was building another shortstop," he says. "Grounding balls to me every day before school, teaching me little tricks. He was the only one who believed I could be shortstop at the professional level."
Ernesto was apparently more inspiring than any of Ozzie's other teachers. When Ozzie was in high school, some of his teachers addressed the principal, a certain Mrs. Guillen, about the matter of Ozzie's schoolwork. "Ooh, my mother, she tough," says Guillen, as if to this day he remains astonished by what happened. "She tells the teachers, 'Flunk him.' " They did, and that was the end of school for Ozzie. Anyway, there was the impending reality of professional baseball. At 16 he continued his shortstop education by playing with a Venezuelan winter league team, coached by—who else—Luis Aparicio. "He tough too," says Guillen. "Never played me."
He had a little more to learn, a little more to grow. But Chico, Ernesto and Luis saw something already in place that they could never teach. Ozzie's love for the game was impressive even for a Venezuelan shortstop. "He worked hard," says Carrasquel. "When he started as a pro, and the games started at 7:30, he would be in the ballpark at 2:00, taking grounders."
That anyone could not love this game is baffling to Guillen. "Not too many people can be a baseball player," he reminds you. "A professional baseball player is the luckiest guy to be there. And that's why I enjoy the most I can and have more fun than anybody in this game. I love it."
There is nobody within earshot who would guess otherwise. Guillen's happiness with the game, with his life, is one big verbal experience for anyone who runs into him. Take his wife. Ivis Cardenas Guillen is a striking woman who happened into Ozzie's tremendous range of patter one day. They were still teenagers when she met him while riding a bus home from Caracas, and he treated her, whether she wanted it or not. to a little state of the union address. "The whole bus trip I talk about my girlfriend, my friends, everything," says Ozzie. "I am not shy. But I never tell her I play baseball. She asks what do I do, I say, 'Oh, I work in a bank." I make it up. She says, 'Me too.' And she wants to know exactly what I do at the bank. I get away with it, but I'm wondering why I don't tell her I'm a fireman."
That was the last time he had to pretend to be anything but a baseball player. Within four years he was the second player coached by Ernesto to become Rookie of the Year. "Maybe," suggests Guillen, "he will have two Hall of Famers, too."
If so, it will be because Guillen worked at it. This spring the man with the golden glove was taking extra grounders, working with weights for the first time and generally behaving like a desperate rookie. Herm Schneider, the White Sox trainer, says that no other big leaguer he knows has this kind of attitude. "He's like a little kid playing sandlot ball," Schneider says. "I see all these guys, and I know they like baseball, but I don't know if everybody really enjoys it. Ozzie just loves it."
As much as he adores his work, Guillen is nevertheless beginning to think there is life beyond baseball. The White Sox media guide notes that Guillen has appeared in a Venezuelan soap opera. Actually he starred in two TV miniseries that have aired, with two more yet to hit the tube. "He was pretty good in the ones I saw," says Dodger catcher Carlos Hernandez, a Venezuelan. "No bit part; he was the Number One actor. Everybody loved him in those shows."
Guillen loved doing them, although they had to be done on his terms. "The first one, I read it, I don't like it," he says. "I gotta kiss some ladies, sleep with another. I talk to my wife about it, she doesn't like it at all. But I already signed a contract. What I do is, instead of being on top of a lady, I pretend to be asleep. And instead of being a beer vendor, I'm a soda vendor. See, all the kids in Venezuela look up to me. But I still kiss the ladies."
Still to air is his starring turn in La Raya de Cal (translation: Foul Line), a three-hour miniseries about a kid who gives up his girlfriend to date the team owner's daughter just so he can play professional baseball. "I would never do that," Guillen says, reminding you that art doesn't necessarily imitate life. The better (according to Ozzie) of his two impending TV productions casts him as the good son, the one who takes the rap for his brother's drug abuse. Says Guillen, "I cry for him, they take me to jail—it's all there."
The ease of his acting experience is breathtaking to him. "If you kiss the lady," Guillen says, "and the director doesn't like it, he just says, 'Cut,' and you do it again. I would like to strike out once and say, 'Cut,' and do it again."
He is plainly intrigued by show business, which is different only by degree from what he does now on the diamond. He could reach people beyond the infield, he wouldn't have to wear a funny hat, and nobody would line baseballs at him. He could just be talking about something.
Still, nobody who knows Guillen believes he would really leave his spot in the infield for a talk-show desk. One day in spring training, following an afternoon workout, Ventura was examining Ozzie's posse, which included seven-year-old Ozzie Jr. and six-year-old son Oney (two-month-old Ozney was waiting with his mother in the car). "Look at those kids," Ventura said. "He's got them dressed in their little White Sox uniforms and their little spikes. They're in here all the time after games, and they're exactly like him, talking all the time. But just look at them." They were pounding oversized gloves and getting underfoot and jabbering away. "They love the fact that their dad's a ballplayer. The thing is, their dad loves the fact that he's a ballplayer too."
RONALD C. MODRA
RONALD C. MODRA
Guillen is the latest and perhaps greatest of Venezuelan shortstops.
RONALD C. MODRA
Umps are frequent guests when Ozzie is onstage.
As his dad did, Oney grabs grounders at an early age.