He captured the heart of Red Sox Nation
|It has often been said that the story of baseball is the story of America. If that is true, Luis Tiant may be in the best position to tell both stories. The charismatic pitcher’s career in the Major Leagues spanned 19 years, starting in 1961, when the Cleveland Indians purchased his contract from the Mexico City Tigers. After spending three years in the minors, he debuted with the Indians in 1964, pitching a shutout victory against the New York Yankees. He went on to pitch for the Minnesota Twins, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates, and California Angels. And though he played for other teams, to Red Sox Nation, Luis Tiant is a legend.|
Last spring, Luis bought a summer vacation home at the Homes of Old Marsh in Wells, Maine. The charming cottage is just a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean and, perhaps more importantly, adjacent to a championship golf course. It is here that Luis hosts the annual El Tiante Celebrity Golf Classic, which raises money for several charitable organizations. At 71, Luis shows few signs of slowing down.
Born November 23, 1940, in Mariano, Cuba, Luis grew up around baseball. His father, Luis Tiant Sr., was a left-handed pitcher for the American Negro League for over 20 years. From 1926 to 1948 he spent summers playing for the New York Cubans and winters playing for the Cuban Professional League’s Cienfuegos. “My father had to play in the Negro League because black people were not allowed to play in the big leagues,” Luis says. “They took that chance in life—that opportunity—away from him. Who knows? He could have been in the Hall of Fame.”
In spite of the discrimination that was so rampant in the United States through much of the twentieth century, Luis believes in the power of forgiveness and relies on his faith to get him through the most difficult times. “The biggest thing God wants is for us to forgive each other,” Luis says. “Discrimination is all over the world. Wherever I’ve been in the world, I’ve seen discrimination. It’s not a good thing for anybody.”
Following in his father’s footsteps, Luis started playing baseball at an early age. He joined the Little League and later the Juvenile League in Havana until he was picked up for the Cuban Juvenile League All-Star Team in 1957. Shortly thereafter, his talent was recognized by Bobby Avila, the former Cleveland Indians All-Star, who was scouting for talent in Cuba. On Avila’s recommendation, Luis was recruited to play for the Mexico City Tigers. Over the next three years, he spent his summers living in Mexico City to play with the Tigers, and his winters in Havana to be with his family and play with the Sugar Kings.
But everything changed in 1961. The relationship between Cuba and the United States deteriorated following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April, and Fidel Castro held onto his power with an iron fist. “I was in Cuba during the Bay of Pigs invasion,” says Luis. “Just as I was supposed to go back to Mexico, the borders opened for a month and a half. I got on the last flight. I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t gotten out of Cuba.”
In Mexico City, Luis met and fell in love with Maria. After a short courtship, the two were married in August. The next month, as the season came to an end, Luis’s contract was purchased by the Cleveland Indians.
The prospect of coming to America to play for the Indians presented an incredible opportunity for Luis and his young wife, but it came at a terrible price. Before heading to the United States, Luis and Maria hoped to spend some time in Cuba with his family. But Castro had banned outside travel and issued a command to those who were playing baseball abroad: “Come home and play as amateurs in Cuba, or never come home again.” On the advice of his father, Luis did not return home.
After progressing through the Indians farm system, Luis made his Major League debut with the Cleveland Indians on July 19, 1964. “My first game, I shut out the Yankees,” Luis says. “It was good. It was nice to come here to play and fulfill the dream. Not too many people can say that in their lifetime.”
The next six years, Luis played for the Cleveland Indians and developed his inimitable pitching style. “His repertoire begins with an exaggerated mid-windup pivot, during which he turns his back on the batter and seems to examine the infield directly behind the mound for signs of crabgrass,” wrote Robert Angell in a piece for The New Yorker. “With men on base, his stretch consists of a succession of minute downward waggles and pauses of the glove, and a menacing sidewise, slit-eyed, Valentino-like gaze over his shoulder at the base runner. The full flower of his art, however, comes during the actual delivery, which is executed with a perfect variety show of accompanying gestures and impersonations.”
After a year with the Minnesota Twins, where he fractured his right scapula, Luis signed a 30-day trial with a minor league affiliate of the Atlanta Braves. When the trial ended, he signed with the Louisville Colonels, a minor league affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. He was called back to the majors on June 3, 1971. Known to his fans as El Tiante, Luis spent eight years in Boston and became one of the most beloved pitchers in Red Sox history.
Luis first captured the heart of Red Sox Nation in 1972, when he led the team to an unexpected race for the pennant against the Yankees, Orioles, and Tigers. Three years later, he pitched the first game of the divisional playoffs against the Oakland Athletics, allowing only three hits and striking out eight players. The Red Sox swept the Athletics and went on to face the Cincinnati Reds in the 1975 World Series. In the very first game of the series, Luis shut out the Reds 6–0.
While the post-season was undoubtedly a highpoint of his career, 1975 was an emotionally taxing year for Luis. In spite of past attempts to see his parents, 14 years had passed since Luis last saw his father. The fear of never seeing him again weighed heavily. In a pre-season interview with Boston Herald reporter Joe Fitzgerald, he asked: “How much longer? My father’s 70 now, and he’s not well.”
In May, U.S. Senator George McGovern made an unofficial visit to Cuba and carried a letter from Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts requesting that Castro allow Luis’s parents to visit their son in Boston. On August 21, 1975, Isabel and Luis Tiant touched down at Logan Airport. The reunion was televised throughout New England as Luis wept with relief. Isabel and Luis Tiant never returned to Cuba. “I thought I’d never see my father again,” Luis says. “I really have to be grateful to God.”
Luis continued to pitch for Boston for another three years. At the end of the 1978 season, after the Red Sox offered a one-year contract, Luis signed as a free agent with the Yankees for two years, plus a 10-year deal as a scout. At the close of the 1980 season, he was released by the Yankees and signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He finished his major league career with the California Angels, where he pitched his final winning game against the Red Sox on August 17, 1982.
Today, Luis is once again working with the Red Sox, this time as a pitching advisor. “I go down to spring training for a couple of months and watch the big league pitchers and the minor league pitchers and I talk to the coaches and tell them what I see,” Luis says. “I just do my job. I’m happy to be a part of the Red Sox and to still be around the game.”
Even more satisfying is the time he gets to spend with his family. Together with his wife and son, Luis runs the Luis Tiant Charitable Foundation, which provides assistance to several Catholic organizations, children’s charities, and family assistance programs. “We’ve been able to help a lot of people,” says Luis. “That makes me feel good. You know, some people are lucky. They get breaks in life. But some people don’t. I had that big break, and if I can give that chance to other people, I do.”
On September 10, 2012, Luis will host the El Tiante Celebrity Golf Classic at the Old Marsh Country Club. The event brings a number of athletes and celebrities together with the community to raise money for charity. “We have to get together and do the right thing,” says Luis. “We can’t do it alone.”
Reflecting back over the last 50 years since he first came to America to play baseball, Luis seems content. “Life can be tough, but it can be pretty good,” he says. “God has been good to me. I’ve got my family, my grandkids. And I’ve made my mistakes just like everyone else, but I do what I can to do the right thing—to know my mind and my heart.”
The El Tiante Celebrity Golf Classic
The El Tiante Celebrity Golf Classic will be held on September 10, 2012. Funds raised will support the Luis Tiant Charitable Foundation. The foundation provides assistance to Catholic organizations, children’s charities, and family assistance programs. To find out more about the event or to register, visit oldmarshcountryclub.com or oldmarshwells.com
The Old Marsh Golf Course
Designed by Brian Silva, a premier golf architect, the Old Marsh Golf Course has won several awards. Golf Magazine recognized the Old Marsh golf course twice; first in “Top 10 New Courses to Open in 2008” and later as one of the “Top 100 Courses You can Play.” The country club features a clubhouse, swimming pool, tennis courts, recreation area, and the Brian Silva Grill. For a full list of events and golf tournaments in 2012, visit oldmarshcountryclub.com.
Photo provided courtesy of © Luis Tiant, Jr. Photography