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Looking For Ozzie

It was one of those spring days early in the 1985 season when the air was brisk, optimism reigned, and the ballpark was lively.

On old friend found me walking in the aisle between third and home. His eyes were dancing and his energy was contagious. He said something like, "Have you seen this kid? Isn't he fabulous? I love the way he plays."

Of course, he was referring to 21-year-old rookie shortstop Ozzie Guillen, who had come over from San Diego during the winter in a trade for pitcher LaMarr Hoyt.

The kid started off well enough, sometimes leading off, other times batting ninth in Tony LaRussa's lineup. He had decent - not outstanding - speed and no power, but he made contact and used the entire diamond to drop in his singles and doubles.

Ozzie hit a solid .273 in what turned out to be his first of 13 seasons as the Sox shortstop, and he easily outdistanced all rivals to win Rookie of the Year.

Venezuelan shortstops weren't strangers at Comiskey Park. Guillen modeled his play after Luis Aparicio, who manned the position for the Sox from 1956 until 1962. Aparicio had taken over from fellow countryman Chico Carrasquel, who played the previous six seasons for the Sox, dazzling the American League with his fielding prowess.

Let's just say we had a pretty good idea the new Venezuelan would know how to pick up a ground ball.

Guillen's appeal, however, went far beyond the numbers. He won just one Gold Glove (1990) and never batted .300, although he was a model of consistency both offensively and defensively.

But it was the joie de vivre that he brought to Comiskey that set Ozzie apart. Aside from smiling and laughing and having a genuinely lovely time, Guillen more or less skipped out to his position each inning. He ran out every ground ball. He kept up a constant chatter with players and umpires. Even throwing the ball around the infield after an out was a big deal for him. He simply loved the game, and we all knew it.

Ozzie turning DP.JPG

I much prefer the joyful, talented Ozzie Guillen to the present-day Ozzie who orates about where he'll be in the future. He swallows the writers' bait every time they ask him about his contract or his relationship with Kenny Williams. He keeps telling us that he has his players' backs, even those who hit .161 or .225 and strike out 170 times. But we're not blind; the performances speak for themselves.

This season, more than any other, has taken a toll on this man, who still is young at 47. He appears angry and agitated far too often. He's not the same guy who played shortstop all those years. What happened to the sense of humor?

Going 4-18 early in the season or losing 17 of the last 26 games en route to elimination can do that to a fellow.

Jimmy Dykes (1935-46) and Al Lopez (1957-65) are the only two managers in Sox history with longer tenures than Guillen. With the exception of Connie Mack, who managed the Philadelphia A's for 50 years, few skippers continue with a ballclub much longer than Guillen. (Mack had an excuse - he also owned the team, and he saw little upside in firing himself.)

I'm not convinced that the Sox's fortunes hinge on Ozzie staying or leaving. I'm comfortable either way. The long-term contracts of Dunn and Rios and the impending departure of Mark Buehrle will be barriers to hurdle. What if Gordon Beckham really can't hit? Can Jake Peavy ever return to his previous form?

On the other hand, Brent Morel has had a rookie year reminiscent to Robin Ventura, and we all know what a splendid player he turned out to be. Alejandro De Aza looks like the leadoff man of the future and Dayan Viciedo possesses lots of promise, as do a few of the young pitchers.

Don't tell me that Guillen - or any manager - can shake Rios and Dunn out of their funks. They'll have to do it themselves.

I do think that Ozzie has a positive influence over some young players such as Alexi Ramirez, who played very little shortstop - his natural position - when he first joined the Sox in 2008. Guillen never has received enough credit for developing Ramirez, who is a solid player. Now the question is whether he has reached his peak at age 30.

Conversely, I wonder about Beckham and his problems at the plate. His production was much better when he first came up two years ago.

As far as strategy is concerned, Ozzie is not afraid to start runners, steal bases, both sacrifice and squeeze bunt, and hit-and-run. Guillen becomes very aggravated when the team doesn't execute, say, a sacrifice bunt, and I like that, too.

He also "discovered" Bobby Jenks in 2005 after closer Dustin Hermanson went down with a bum back, and this season he quickly identified Sergio Santos as the answer to the closer vacancy. Along with Don Cooper, I find little to criticize about the handling of Sox pitchers this season, especially after the Edwin Jackson trade. The emergence of Philip Humber the first half of the season would not have occurred without Ozzie's and Cooper's support.

But all the focus on Guillen's status with the club is yet one more disappointing aspect of this painful campaign. The blogs and tweets telling Ozzie to go back to Venezuela or take his vacation to Spain and make it permanent are ugly and racially-tainted.

My guess is that Wednesday will mark Guillen's last night in the Sox dugout. If so, he'll go down to Miami, and the Marlins will be better off with him in command.

If Ozzie somehow survives this most frustrating of summers, let's hope that the sense of humor, positive energy, and joy of the game return with him. The choice is clear: The Sox need the old Ozzie or a new manager.


Comments welcome.

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