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War of the Words
February 20, 2006
From the mouth of White Sox manager and new U.S. citizen Ozzie Guillen comes a verbal barrage. "I will tell the truth," he says, "whether you like it or not." And nothing stirs him like the memory of a tragedy in his native Venezuela
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February 20, 2006

War Of The Words

From the mouth of White Sox manager and new U.S. citizen Ozzie Guillen comes a verbal barrage. "I will tell the truth," he says, "whether you like it or not." And nothing stirs him like the memory of a tragedy in his native Venezuela

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What's the manager's move here? Pay somebody and have the man beaten? Crippled? Killed? This is a Venezuelan prison, after all; two hundred bucks should do it. Or maybe Ozzie Guillen himself should confront the man who helped murder his best friend--get in his face and ask the question he has choked back for more than a decade: Why? � It is Nov. 5, 2005. Guillen, the Chicago White Sox manager, has just seen a face that stopped him cold. A prison guard asks him what's wrong, but Guillen waves him off. Instead he turns to his 21-year-old son, Ozzie Jr., and rasps, "That's the motherf----- who killed Gus"--Gustavo Polidor, the major league infielder who was gunned down at age 33 in Caracas a decade earlier. Guillen had wondered then what he would do if he ever met either of the two men responsible for the crime, and now that time has arrived. With options.

Guillen, who has come to the correctional facility in Los Teques, 13 miles southwest of Caracas, to see a jailed friend, didn't anticipate such a moment. But as baseball's preeminent avatar of the unexpected, maybe he should have. As last season proved, the combustible Guillen, now 42, will do just about anything: tweak fellow managers, publicly rip--or kiss--his own players, threaten to resign. Narrating each step with the rat-a-tat rhythm of his hyperbolic, profanity-laced Spanglish, he defied conventional thinking in everything from player relations to roster moves to game strategy, leading his team to the best record in the American League before making a smashing run through the postseason and ending the Curse of Shoeless Joe Jackson. In only his second season as manager he took the eternally overshadowed White Sox to their first World Series title since 1917.

Back in Venezuela his countrymen found Guillen to be just as unpredictable: On any given day he might call Venezuela's bombastic leftist president, Hugo Ch�vez, "an idiot" or yell "�Viva Ch�vez!" His weekly column in the sports section of the Caracas newspaper El Universal sometimes veers from baseball into religion or culture, but it's always delivered in a take-it-or-leave-it voice best exemplified by the title of his recently published anthology, Se los dije. I told you so.

Yet nothing explains the mercurial world of Ozzie Guillen better than his first days back in Venezuela last fall, an emotional whipsawing that managerial icons such as Bobby Cox and Tony La Russa could hardly imagine. On Nov. 4 Guillen, the first Latino ever to manage a major league champion, became the first man to take the World Series trophy to Latin America. He couldn't step outside his house without being asked for a picture or autograph or hug. People told him he had achieved the greatest feat in Venezuela's recent history; a nation scarred by violence, including kidnapping and extortion threats against beloved ballplayers, finally had something to celebrate. There was a three-hour press conference in Caracas jammed with hundreds of reporters; a public embrace with the childhood coach who had taught him how to play ball; a festive reception at the U.S. Embassy. Then came a ride in an open truck around the field at Estadio Universitario, his old ballpark, with Guillen, wrapped in a Venezuelan flag, showing off the trophy. Fifteen thousand people stood and cheered and wept.

The next morning Guillen; his wife, Ibis; and Ozzie Jr. drove to Los Teques to see former Philadelphia Phillies reliever Ugueth Urbina, who was there awaiting trial for attempted murder. On Oct. 16, at his cattle ranch in Valles del Tuy, Urbina is alleged to have led a group of men who attacked five workers with machetes, then doused them with gasoline and paint thinner and set them on fire for allegedly stealing a gun belonging to the pitcher. One victim was burned over 50% of his body; another needed 300 stitches to close wounds on his shoulder, back and hands; and the others suffered injuries from bruises to broken bones to a perforated eardrum. Urbina proclaimed his innocence, but Guillen isn't sure what to believe. The two men have year-round homes in the same housing complex north of Miami Beach, play golf and fish together, and in recent off-seasons Urbina has been a constant presence in the Guillens' house. Ozzie had to go see Ugie in prison. "When you go to jail in Venezuela," Guillen says, "you go to hell."

Guillen was ready for the stink of urine and sweat, the dank heat of a cell built for 10 men but crammed with three dozen; he had visited friends at the prison before. But then he walked in and glanced up a flight of stairs and saw a short, skinny, dark-eyed man descending. The two locked eyes. The man turned around and walked back up. It was Hern�n L�pez Ortu�o, one of the two men convicted of murdering Polidor, a former shortstop for the California Angels, Milwaukee Brewers and Florida Marlins, in a botched carjacking attempt in April 1995. Guillen and Polidor had been best friends--more like brothers, really--for 14 years, ever since Polidor had taken the 16-year-old Guillen under his wing in the Venezuelan winter league.

L�pez and an accomplice, Marco Tulio Quintero Flores, had marched up Polidor's driveway in Caracas and tried to steal his car. Polidor's wife, Eduvigis, was standing next to the vehicle with their one-year-old son, Gus Jr., in her arms. When Polidor, who had been nearby taking out the garbage, began to argue with Quintero, L�pez threatened to snatch Gus Jr. from Eduvigis. Then, as Polidor protested more heatedly, Quintero put a bullet in the ballplayer's brain. The killers fled in a waiting station wagon.

Guillen, who had just built a new house in Caracas, moved Eduvigis and her three children into his old house. Polidor, he says, would have been a coach on his White Sox staff, "no question."

Now Urbina passed L�pez on the way down the prison stairs. After hugging Guillen, Urbina said, "You see him?"

Guillen said yes. What to do? After Polidor's death Guillen hated his country. He doubted God; he couldn't sleep; he wanted to hurt the men who had killed Gus. Guillen is a man who claims he never forgives--a man who says about a mere war of words, "You throw me rocks, I've got an F-16 ready to go, because I'm going to shoot you"--and now here was his chance. Amid the cacophony of the prison, with Guillen's mind racing and his blood up, the manager and his son heard Urbina say, "Don't worry."

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