MIAMI — In an effort to revitalize their franchise and attract the Latino fans of South Florida, the Marlins built a $634 million stadium, revamped their uniforms, signed one of the biggest Hispanic stars in the game and hired a brash manager from Venezuela who guided the White Sox to a World Series title. The team even made sure its electronic concessions menus alternated between English and Spanish.
Then the manager, Ozzie Guillen, said the one thing that could repel the Cuban-American community the team had earmarked as its fan base. He said he admired and respected longtime Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
With Guillen and the Marlins under intensifying pressure from Cuban-American organizations and Miami-area politicians, the team suspended its manager for five games Tuesday. Guillen left his team in Philadelphia to hold a news conference at the Marlins' stadium, where he apologized for what he called embarrassing remarks made in Time magazine.
"This is the biggest mistake I've made in my life so far," he said. "I was very stupid, very naive about the comment."
The incident exposed just how enduring and volatile the issue of Castro's reign remains among the nation's largest population of Cuban immigrants, many of whom consider baseball the national pastime here and in their homeland.
For the Marlins and Major League Baseball, Guillen's predicament represented a marketing nightmare. The team opened its season last week in a retractable-roofed monument mostly paid for with public money and built in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood, home to many Cuban immigrants.
The team made several pricey offseason acquisitions, including shortstop Jose Reyes from the Dominican Republic, and was clearly intent on at last tapping into the city and state's enormous number of Latino residents.
About 200 protestors gathered outside the ballpark, denouncing Guillen and the team.
"It's in the heart of the Cuban community," Miami City Commission chairman Francis Suarez, said. "It's quite possibly the worst thing you can say in this community. Every ethnicity in the world has experienced discrimination or oppression or dictatorial regimes. I would ask the people to put themselves in those shoes and to think: What if these statements were made about the group near and dear my heart?"
As Guillen offered his apology, many of the protesters remained angry. Some held signs calling for Guillen to be fired. Others called for a boycott of the team.
The Time article began with Guillen saying, "I love Fidel Castro." It also quotes him saying: "I respect Fidel Castro. You know why? A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years," but Castro is still here.
Guillen said that during the interview, he was trying to say that he could not believe that someone who had hurt so many people was still in power.
"The interpretation didn't come out as I wanted it," Guillen said. "It was an error, a mistake."