Rick Morrissey book excerpt: With John Kruk as mentor, it’s little wonder Ozzie Guillen is way he is
BY RICK MORRISSEY firstname.lastname@example.org May 18, 2012 7:08PM
Updated: June 29, 2012 9:37AM
John Kruk would like to formally apologize. ‘‘I take 100 percent responsibility,’’ he said, chuckling. Few people in major-league baseball drop more F-bombs than Ozzie Guillen, and none do it with his dexterity. He might have learned the word during rookie ball in 1981, but he learned all of its combinations, tenses, applications and nuances from Kruk, who was his teammate for three years in the minors, starting in Reno, Nevada, in 1982.
‘‘He learned how to use it in a lot of different ways — a verb, an adverb, a noun, a pronoun,’’ Kruk said. ‘‘It was free-flowing. I apologize to people for that part of Ozzie’s life. I feel like it is my fault.’’
So, yes, we have discovered the person who taught Guillen the many uses of the word f---. It’s like finding out who first put a paintbrush in Michelangelo’s hand.
‘‘He taught me all the wrong things,’’ Guillen said, smiling.
Kruk doesn’t really feel bad about being Ozzie’s cursing coach, of course. Guillen without swear words would be like the rest of us without the word the. And it’s not overstating things to say that part of his national reputation is built on four letters. He’s the poet laureate of bleeps.
Kruk took Ozzie under his wing in Reno, and if you were going to be under Kruk’s wing, you were going to swear. That was and is baseball.
‘‘Teaching him that part of it might have been the most fun,’’ said Kruk, who would go on to star as an outfielder and first baseman for the San Diego Padres and the Philadelphia Phillies and become a baseball analyst for ESPN. ‘‘I got him in trouble a couple of times.’’
It wasn’t without provocation, in Kruk’s mind. Ozzie could be as insistent and irritating as a yapping puppy. He wanted to know everything — how to order a meal at a restaurant, how to pay the rent, why the manager made a certain move late in the game. Everything. When Kruk would reach his breaking point, he’d purposely steer Guillen toward trouble, not that the young Venezuelan couldn’t find it on his own.
‘‘He’d piss me off,’’ Kruk said. ‘‘A teammate would do something good in the game, and Ozzie would want to compliment him. He’d ask me, ‘What do I say, Krukie?’ I’d tell him to say something he shouldn’t say, and the guy would get pissed and want to fight him.
‘‘That was just my way of reining him in: ‘Ozzie, you don’t know everything yet. You’re getting there, but it’s going to take some time.’ ’’
That’s pretty much how Guillen remembers it, too, only with more terror and less breathing involved.
‘‘One day, he told me to call a guy ‘honey,’ ’’ he said. ‘‘I didn’t know what it meant. Then another time, he told me to call another guy a name. The guy almost killed me. He was almost choking me. I’m not going to say what Kruk told me to say, but it was bad. Very bad.’’
Kruk was almost instantly taken with the loud and eager Guillen, who was three years his junior. Kruk had grown up in Keyser, West Virginia, population 5,200, and Guillen in Ocumare del Tuy, a city of about 140,000 people in northern Venezuela. Kruk went to junior college. Guillen didn’t get past eighth grade.
But there were similarities: Both were brash and noisy.
‘‘I think Kruk and myself, we were kind of the same,’’ Guillen said. ‘‘He wasn’t a big prospect. Me, either. And then, all of a sudden, we were the best players on the team. It was a fat kid and a skinny kid playing. I think that’s why we had feelings for each other. When I got married, he gave my wife a TV when we went on a road trip so she’d have something to do. We did a lot of things together.’’
Kruk saw something in the kid.
‘‘A lot of Latin players, when they come over here, they’re intimidated by the language and the culture,’’ he said. ‘‘Ozzie embraced it. He wanted to learn. He was eager to learn. He was asking questions — believe me — nonstop.
‘‘I have two young children now. The ‘Why, why, why’ and the ‘Why, Daddy?’ — that was Ozzie to me. ‘Why Krukie? Why this, Krukie? Why that, Krukie? What happened here, Krukie? Tell me this, Krukie.’ I was like, ‘Oh, God.’ It’s like what you do with your kids. You give them some candy, and maybe they’ll be happy for a little while. But I didn’t have any candy to give Ozzie.’’
Even though he was only playing Single-A ball in the Padres’ minor-league system, Guillen was sure he was on his way up. He was certain he would be a big-leaguer. Could taste it. In John Kruk, he saw someone on the same fast track who loved the game as much as he did. And he saw someone who was willing to lend a hand.
It helps to have a mentor in life, to have someone who will show you the ropes, the light, the way. That was Kruk for Ozzie.
Kruk gives Guillen a lot of credit for wanting to learn English, but, really, was there any choice? Depriving him of the ability to communicate clearly was a form of torture to him, even then. Imagine him not having the ability to talk about baseball, girls, politics, food, anything and everything. It’s almost impossible, given the man we see — and hear — today.
‘‘It was his personality,’’ Kruk said. ‘‘He was very outgoing. I think he had a sense, ‘I know I can play in the big leagues. If I do and I want to be successful, I have to learn the language and I have to be able to communicate with people.’
‘‘Believe me, I’m not taking any credit for him being what he is today except for the language part. I played winter ball in Mexico, so I know what it’s like to go to a foreign country and not be accepted — or having it take time to be accepted. I saw something in him, and I thought, ‘You know what? We need to speed up the process with him.’ So I tried to help him all I could.
‘‘I helped him with language. I helped him with getting an apartment, helped him get his electric turned on. I let him know that you can’t eat a hot dog every single day for every single meal. That was basically his language skills then. You try to help. I think besides the bad language, we’ve done a pretty good job, haven’t we?’’
Guillen admits his English was awful when he arrived in Reno. That’s why he became so reliant on Kruk. He said he was the only Latin player on the roster in a league with only a handful of Latin players. The Padres did not provide English lessons, as major-league organizations often do today.
‘‘John helped me to get there quicker, to overcome quicker, because I didn’t have anybody to speak Spanish to,’’ Guillen said. ‘‘Then I had to learn. Bad or good, I had to try to pick it up as soon as I could. It was hard, but I think John helped. When I was looking for an apartment, he made sure I lived close to him. When we went to a hotel, he made sure my room was close to his. When he went on the bus, he made sure I was behind or in front of him. We go to a restaurant, he made sure I sat next to him. All the little things I needed, he was there for me.’’
Guillen caused a stir in 2010 when he complained that Major League Baseball offers privileges to Asian players that it doesn’t extend to Latin players. He had been frustrated when he discovered that the White Sox’ Single-A team his son Oney played on had a translator for a Korean player but none for the seventeen Latin players on the roster. It was a fairness issue, he said.
He’d prefer that Latin players embrace a new culture and language, which would eliminate the need for a discussion about translators. It’s a message he’ll bring to his new post in Miami. In Miami-Dade County, Hispanics make up 65 percent of the population, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, many of them having come to Miami from other countries for the same reasons Guillen came to the United States in 1981.
‘‘I came here to make a lot of money,’’ he said. ‘‘The only way I was going to make a lot of money was to learn the language. It’s what I tell everybody here: You don’t have to learn English, but it’ll be easier for you if you do.
‘‘If you want to have success in this country, you better get better with your English. There are people that have been here for thirty years, and they’ve always had an assistant next to them — do this, do that for me. In the meanwhile, they’re wasting their time when they could be taking advantage of learning another language.
‘‘They tell me they have a translator. I understand that. But in the meantime, try to help yourself to learn the language, just for the off-the-field stuff. It’s more important.’’
Guillen knows the feeling of being trapped by a lack of language skills, of creating your own world in order to cope. He knows the feeling of not understanding what people around you are saying, of not wanting to be embarrassed, exposed. He knows the natural response to that is to not say anything.
It’s not healthy. Guillen suspected as much when he came to the United States as a seventeen-year-old and knew it for sure a year later when John Kruk helped open a new world for him. Ever since, Guillen has tried to spread the importance of language skills to other Latinos. He does it with his players all the time.
Ozzie might have worn out his teammates with his incessant talking, but his mentor saw courage in it.
‘‘How many Latin players could have been really good big-league players if they would have opened up and been more expressive?’’ Kruk said. ‘‘You see so many talented kids in the minor leagues who, because of the language barrier, just go into a shell. They don’t live up to their potential because this is a scary place. Talent-wise, they’re more than capable of being major-league players. The other things that are involved with that, Ozzie embraced it.
‘‘He knew he didn’t know the English language, but it didn’t stop him from speaking it. He butchered the English language like you couldn’t imagine. When you’re speaking Spanish, the past tense, the present tense, that’s the hardest part. You’ll say the wrong word, and it sounds like you’re talking about something completely different. It’s kind of the same way with English. Ozzie would say stuff where you’d go, ‘What’s he talking about? Is he talking about yesterday or four days from now?’
‘‘But he wasn’t afraid. He knew he was going to mess up, that he was going to say the wrong thing, but he was like, ‘So what?’ He said, ‘They might not know what I’m saying, but they’ll always know I’m talking.’ ’’