As Mark Buehrle pumps in a strike, patrons chat about their day's work and bartenders pour beer and waiters pluck empty pitchers from tables and smoke lazes toward the ceiling. Aside from a few unique decorations – the disco ball that dangles from the ceiling and the trophy case with a T-shirt that reads "I ♥ TIGHT ENDS" – Crew looks like your average sports bar: An overwhelming amount of men for each woman, more than a dozen televisions, a Golden Tee machine adjacent to a pool table and plenty of hometown mementos.
Like the flag on the back wall. It's big and black and silver, and it displays the logo of the Chicago White Sox, World Series champions. Or, perhaps more accurately these days, the Chicago White Sox, managed by Ozzie Guillen, who Tuesday called Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti a "(expletive) fag."
At Crew, they try to laugh it off. They want to see Guillen as nothing more than a small-minded hypocrite. Here he is, calling Mariotti the ultimate slur of homophobes, and spitting out an explanation that in his native Venezuela, it means a spineless man, one who, in Mariotti's case, does not face Guillen after ripping him in print. Turns out that Guillen is the one without courage, initially not apologizing for what he said – the true odious act – but for whom he might have hurt, like he actually cared.
What Guillen does not understand, and what's difficult for so many to grasp, is that intent never assuages the power of words. They are like fired bullets, capable of severe damage and incapable of being taken back, weapons of the reckless.
"If I'm leaving this bar at 12:30 a.m. and walking home, and I hear someone yell the word fag,' you'd better believe that would put the fear of God into me," says Drew Ferguson, 32, dragging on a Camel Light and drinking a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. "Ultimately, I don't care about the word fag. What I do care about is that the man doesn't have sense enough not to say it."
"And that's where the anger in the gay community rises," says Erick Gerrard, 59, one of Ferguson's drinking buddies. "We're all supposed to turn a blind eye in the era of shock culture, with South Park' and everything else that tries to make the word commonplace, and he can get away with saying fag despite how it may resonate."
Did it ever resonate Wednesday. The Sun-Times columnist who wrote about the incident, Greg Couch, called for Guillen's suspension. Mariotti claimed he'd been threatened several times in the White Sox clubhouse, alleviating his responsibility to take the reciprocal tongue-lashings columnists generally do. Guillen spewed more bile at Mariotti, forgoing the term fag for a few other George Carlin-approved words. The morality plays kicked into overdrive.
Me? I just want to know what gay men think of the word fag.
Because I don't know, and I don't think the majority of the public knows, either. To truly know what a word means is to have experienced it. It means to have felt the intensity of hate and the chill of fear that accompanies every vile epithet. It means someone saying the word fag with a purpose, and make no mistake, however benign Guillen's was, there was a purpose.
"In a situation like that, where you're a public figure, you're allowing what you say to be interpreted so many ways," says Billie Spicher, the manager at Crew. "Everybody's got a different opinion or view. One person might think he was bashing gays, and the next person might not think anything of it, and the next person might think in between.
"Your perspective could be a lot different than mine. If we sat down and watched him say it, we'd see it two different ways."
I saw it as an embarrassment to baseball as much as Guillen. Clubhouses nurture a culture that subverts gays. No baseball player has admitted he was gay while active. The fear of being outed kept Glenn Burke and Billy Bean closeted until after they retired. Machismo is currency, and the boys-being-boys excuse fosters homophobia.
"When you call someone a fag, it emasculates and belittles," Ferguson says. "It doesn't matter how he meant it. It's connotation versus denotation. And you ought to have sense enough to realize you have a fan base that's all-inclusive."
It stretches to Crew, located in Chicago's Uptown district, about 10 miles north of U.S. Cellular Field. A few patrons watch the big-screen TV on the right end of the bar as the White Sox pound out 13 runs against St. Louis. When the camera flashes to Guillen in the dugout, they don't boo. When a commercial with Guillen peddling the Chevy Equinox pops up, they don't yell at the screen.
What's the point? Guillen escaped the day without rebuke from White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and Major League Baseball, even after his papier-mâché defense – Guillen had seen Madonna in concert and goes to a gay hairdresser, as if those were to exempt him from criticism. Either he knows where some bodies are buried or Guillen's outsized persona has grown so large he's beyond sanction.
In the last 48 hours, Guillen has said: "I represent the organization." Though the comment came during his discussion of his ejection after a plunking Tuesday, it applies to every aspect of Guillen's life, from his on-field actions to his off-the-cuff remarks.
Ozzie Guillen is the face of the White Sox. And he's not a fag. Just a coward.