CARACAS, Venezuela, Oct. 27 – In this baseball-crazed country, the Chicago White Sox’ first championship in 88 years belonged to one man, Ozzie Guillen.
He is the first Venezuelan to manage a World Series-winning team and a national hero here. People from the poorest slums to the offices of President Hugo Chávez say they are proud of Guillen because he has never forgotten his roots.
“The best baseball player in the world is from Venezuela, our Oswaldo Guillen,” said Luis Alberto Martínez, 38, who sells clothing on the street. “He’s the best of the best.”
On Thursday, the country’s principal daily newspaper, El Nacional, ran a nearly half-page picture of the jubilant White Sox with the headline “Oswaldo Champion.” The paper called Chicago’s 1-0 victory over the Houston Astros in the Game 4 clincher “the most important in the history of Venezuelan baseball.”
Though Caracas went about its routine on Thursday after bursting into celebration the night before, fans across the city were still ebullient in their praise for Guillen, a 41-year-old former shortstop.
“Guillen is a proud Venezuelan, and he has dedicated his victory to the people of Venezuela,” said Bernardo Álvarez, Venezuela’s ambassador to the United States, who spoke to Guillen before Wednesday night’s game to wish him luck.
For at least a day, Guillen has united a nation still divided between supporters and critics of Chávez, whose seven years in office have been marked by political tumult and a failed coup. Guillen was pulled into Venezuela’s political whirlwind in early October when Chávez, during his weekly talk show on state-run television and radio, called to congratulate Guillen on making the playoffs.
“Congratulations, Oswaldo,” Chávez said on the show. “All of us here in Venezuela are so proud of you.”
The chat spurred rumors that Guillen was a supporter of Chávez, who frequently mentions curveballs or stolen bases in his lengthy speeches. Domingo Fuentes, 50, a radio producer who works closely with Guillen, said that the conversation sparked a flood of unfriendly e-mail messages from Venezuelans saying they would root for the Astros in protest. Fuentes said that Guillen neither supports nor opposes Chávez.
“But by the time the White Sox had won the first two games, those same people were again cheering for Oswaldo,” Fuentes said in a telephone interview. “It just goes to show that Venezuelan pride in Oswaldo’s achievements was able to beat out political fanaticism.”
In 1997, Fuentes helped create the Oswaldo Guillen Foundation, which has raised more than $200,000 by auctioning baseball paraphernalia; the proceeds have been used to finance social projects directed at poor Venezuelan children.
Those who know Guillen – and many who do not – say his down-to-earth style is reflected both on and off the baseball field.
“Ozzie’s managing style is not to build a team of all-stars looking to hit home runs,” said Angel Vargas, president of the Venezuelan Professional Baseball Players Association. “His philosophy is one of teamwork and making sure everyone does their part.”
Jacobo Villa, 39, an accountant who was having lunch in a Caracas shopping mall, said he met Guillen 10 years ago in a bank.
“He was humble and personable even though he was already a famous major league player,” Villa said. “He’s the greatest man in Venezuela.”
But Guillen’s comments on television after Game 4 served as the best reminder that his homeland was an inescapable part of the 2005 World Series.
“I feel very happy,” he said in Spanish, his voice cracking as he held back tears. “Viva Venezuela.”