Luis Tiant to bring book on tour

  • Luis Tiant signs baseballs for firefighters at the Manchester N.H. Fire Department in 2007 during an appearance with then-presidential hopeful, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. AP file

  • Boston Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant is pictured in 1974. (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin) Phil Sandlin—AP

Monitor columnist
Published: 7/21/2019 7:31:43 PM

Watch a clip of Luis Tiant pitching for the Red Sox in the 1970s and you’ll see what he means by adapting.

His motion, a twisting, herky-jerky balancing-act, never seen before or since his retirement in 1982, evolved so he could relieve pressure on his arm and reinvent himself. It worked; he won 229 games.

Listen to him on the phone and you get the rest of that story. The one about adapting off the field, because a dictator has split your family and is trying to stop you from pursuing your dreams. Because hotels and restaurants in the south keep saying you’re not welcome due to the color of your skin. Because you’re 20 years old and no one understands your language.

Tiant will appear at Gibson’s Bookstore Tuesday at 6 p.m. He’ll sign his new book, Son of Havana, which illustrates his struggles as he pushed himself to emerge as a major-league all-star.

“You have to use your brain,” Tiant told me by phone, anxious to promote his book before his appearance here. “If you compete, you will have to compete against guys who have better ability, and the only way you’re going to get even or beat them is use your brains. You have to make your own adjustments, or someone else will beat you because they are thinking better than you.”

I spent an hour on the phone with Tiant. His thick Cuban accent was, at times, hard to follow, but I got the gist of his background, what’s important to him and what he’s proud of.

He lived under Fidel Castro’s iron fist while trying to earn a living playing ball, something the Cuban dictator would not allow. He pitched in the minor leagues in the states, forced to stay here because the newly self-appointed communist dictator was famous for closing his borders so no one could leave.

Tiant got married in 1961. Before he could bring his bride Maria home to Cuba, his father wrote him a letter, according to Tiant’s new book, which read, in part, “Don’t come home. Castro is not going to allow any more professional sports here. If you do come home, I don’t think you’ll be able to get out again.”

Asked to comment on those unsure days, Tiant said, “One thing I asked God is let me see my parents and my country again, and after that, you want to take me, take me.”

So he stayed in Mexico and pitched. He saw his mother at the 1968 Summer Olympics, but didn’t see his father for 14 years, when Tiant’s parents were allowed to enter the United States in 1975 to watch their son pitch in the World Series for the Red Sox.

By then, he had experienced racism, after seeing his father, also a pitcher, dominate hitters in the Cuban leagues, yet never make it to the big leagues because he was well past his prime by time Jackie Robinson had broken the color line.

“It was real bad,” Tiant told me. “You read the book, you’re going to see what I had to go through, and I hope no one has to go through that, what Jackie Robinson and my father had to go through. It was no fun, I’ll tell you that, when they don’t treat you like a human being and they can say anything to you they want.”

As a minor leaguer pitching in the south for the Indians’ organization, after Castro rose to power, Tiant ate on the team bus, the food delivered to him by his white teammates. He stayed in separate hotels.

“I cry every day at the hotel and what I hear in the ballpark,” Tiant said, “... and I will show these people that the color of skin has nothing to do with what you can do.”

Then, he went to the ballpark and dazzled the opposition. Some, including Tiant himself, believe he should have been inducted into the Hall of Fame by now.

His 229 wins, 49 shutouts and .571 winning percentage suggest he and his supporters have a good case. He’s been waiting a long time. Chalk it up to just another adjustment Tiant has had to make.

“I got used to it,” Tiant said. “After 21 years (of being rejected) you better get used to it. My whole thing is my family. I’m not going to say I don’t care. I’m supposed to be there. I have the numbers. I don’t want them to put me in when I die. I told my family don’t go (to the induction ceremony). You don’t have a better record after you die.”

He’s been in the Red Sox Hall of Fame since 1997. If you’re old enough, you recall one of the great on- and off-field personalities in baseball history. You remember a terrific clutch pitcher, always at his best when the spotlight was hottest, the pitcher who shutout the Reds in the World Series opener in ’75.

You remember a cigar-chomping pitcher with a belly, a horseshoe-shaped mustache and a Cuban accent who escaped a tyrant and fooled people with an assortment of pitches, delivered from different angles at different speeds.

Oh yes, that brings us back to that pitching motion I mentioned earlier. The one that helped ease the strain on his arm.

Tiant was in his 30s, nearly a decade of big league pitching behind him. His shoulder hurt. He’d lost 20 games two seasons earlier, leading the league. Most fans around here figured he was washed up when Boston signed him as a free agent in 1971.

Why else had the Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves cut him loose over the previous two seasons? The greatness he showed with the Cleveland Indians through the 1960s was long gone, right?

Wrong.

Tiant adjusted, right there on the Fenway Park mound, choosing to use other parts of his rotund-yet-flexible body to limit wear and tear on his valuable right arm.

He’d wind up, bringing his hands above his head. He’d completely turn his back to the hitter, balancing on his right foot for a second and looking toward center field, his No. 23 clearly visible from home plate.

He’d raise his chin and look skyward, whip his left leg around while striding toward the plate, push off his right foot and fire home. Sometimes he’d drop down to the side, a technique used to scare right-handed hitters off the plate.

In 1972, Tiant won 16, lost 6 and allowed the fewest runs per nine innings in the American League. The next season he won 20 games, the benchmark for major league pitchers. Then he did it again in ’74.

Old? Hurt? Washed up?

“I pitched like that using my body,” Tiant said. “Use your arm all the time is when you get hurt, and that is what happens with these guys today. They don’t use their bodies.”

He’s 78 and still has that looping, thick, Fu Manchu mustache, silver now. He lives with his wife of 57 years in Milton, Mass., and has three children. He’ll promote his book here on Tuesday.

A book about a great pitcher who saw that change was needed to succeed. Tiant sees ballplayers today leaning on computers, on analytics, on technology to improve and grow.

Look inside the player, Tiant says. Computers don’t do that.

“Are you crazy?” he said. “Are you inside my brain? You inside my heart? No, no, give me the ball so I can show you what I can do.

“You have to make your own adjustments.”




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