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Ozzie Guillen’s heart was in the right place

Ozzie Guillen waves fans Monday while leaving U.S. Cellular Field for last time as manager White Sox. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Ozzie Guillen waves to fans Monday while leaving U.S. Cellular Field for the last time as manager of the White Sox. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 2, 2011 2:11PM

The door to the manager’s office was closed. That was the first thing you noticed.

A closed door was the enemy to Ozzie Guillen. It was a barrier to communication. It meant he couldn’t walk out to mingle and visitors couldn’t come in to talk. His door was always open, literally, figuratively and blessedly.

The second thing you noticed Tuesday was the silence. It was there above the noise of the White Sox’ clubhouse at The Cell. There wasn’t even the faintest echo left of Guillen.

He used to be everywhere at once in the White Sox’ clubhouse, here making fun of Omar Vizquel’s wardrobe, there telling a story about an umpire or a player or himself.

Now it was all weird silence. Oh, there were players talking and laughing. TVs were pumped-up loud, as they always seem to be in baseball clubhouses. And there was more media than any Sox-Blue Jays game deserves.

But there was a heavy silence that had its own heft and took up its own space. People talked around it. After eight years, Guillen was gone. He took his surgically implanted microphone with him.

I know many of you are celebrating that silence today. You had grown tired of listening to him. As Ozzie said, a lot of people hated him and a lot of people liked him. But you can’t ignore the silence, can’t invalidate it. It speaks volumes.

“He was unique,’’ second baseman Gordon Beckham said. “He brought something to the table that a lot of people didn’t, and that was his charisma.’’

It wasn’t all roses, or else Guillen would still be here. But he’s not, and a large part of that falls in his lap. He’s the one who pushed for a contract extension beyond 2012, and when team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf declined, Ozzie was the one who knew a big, fat payday was waiting for him with the Marlins. Nothing wrong with that. It’s the American way.

It’s not the baseball way to go to the media with your contract demands when your team is at a potential turning point in a pennant race. In late August, the Sox were getting ready to face the first-place Tigers in Detroit when Guillen said he wouldn’t return next season without an extension.

Whether that was the reason the Sox fell apart against the Tigers — including a blown 8-1 lead in one game and an 18-2 loss the next — is impossible to say. But at least one of the players didn’t like the timing.

“I don’t think in a situation where you are trying to make a move to first place or second place or whatever you really want to hear stuff coming out about managers’ contracts or anybody being involved in any kind of contract,’’ Vizquel said Tuesday. “I think everybody was pretty focused on the job that we needed to do on the field. Most of the guys here are veteran players, mature, and I don’t think that could be some kind of distraction.
. . . But obviously you needed to focus on the baseball side.’’

That will be forgotten, with time. What will be remembered is that Guillen cared, a lot. He played 13 years with the Sox and managed another eight. He invested a lot of himself in the team. He wanted the best for the organization and for Reinsdorf.

There’s a decent chance the next manager or the 10 after that won’t care as much as Guillen did. So what? Well, Sox fans could rip Ozzie up and down, but they couldn’t say they cared more about the club than he did. His effort was always there. Let’s try to remember that during the honeymoon phase of whoever his replacement will be.

You can describe Guillen any way you want and probably not be wrong. Funny, loud, opinionated, obnoxious — he’s all of that. Add “departed’’ to the list.

It’s too bad it ended this way. It didn’t have to. But it did.

On Monday night, when the Sox announced they were releasing Guillen from his contract, general manager Ken Williams sat in an interview room at The Cell and talked about his surprise at the turn of events.

“When the season started, never did I imagine I would be sitting in this room talking to you guys about failure to accomplish the goal No. 1, but certainly, that Ozzie would no longer be here,” he said. “That would have been the furthest thought from my mind. It’s disappointing.’’

Pitching coach Don Cooper filled in as manager Tuesday and will again Wednesday for the last game of the season. Mark Buehrle pitched what might be his final game of his Sox career Tuesday night. A small crowd took it in on a drizzly night.

That’s what happens when a team with high hopes and a $127 million payroll doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. It goes out quietly.

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