Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Luis Tiant: Lost Son of Havana

Last night, ESPN broadcast a documentary on former Boston Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant called Lost Son of Havana.

The film, produced by the Farrelly Brothers, documents Tiant's return to his native Cuba in 2007 for the first time in 46 years as well as weaving through the ups and downs of his 19-year major league career in a manner as unique as his pitching delivery. It was simultaneously joyful and heartbreaking to watch.

In addition to covering the cigar smoking Tiant's own career there is also careful attention paid to his father, Luis "Lefty" Tiant, Sr's journey through the Negro Leagues. Although some Cubans had played in the majors, the elder Tiant was considered to dark skinned to pass Major League Baseball's color line. Ironically, when Jackie Robinson broke into the bigs in 1947, it effectively dismantled the Negro Leagues and also ended his career.

Tiant is reunited with his elderly aunts and also meets scores of cousins for the very first time. Life is very difficult in Cuba. Basic needs are not met. Food shortages are rampant. Tiant supplies his relatives with everything from money, toothpaste, medicines and chewing gum. Despite living in an abundance of squalor and an absence of freedom there is a proud spirit amongst the Cuban people. A strong sense of family is conveyed and it is made clear to Tiant that his countrymen have not forgotten him.

Another interesting segment took place in Havana's Central Park. There is a section of the park called the Hot Corner. In baseball parlance, the Hot Corner refers to third base. But the Hot Corner is to Havana's Central Park what Speaker's Corner is to London's Hyde Park. Of course, Cubans are not free to discuss politics. But they are free to discuss baseball and boy do they talk baseball. The assembled crowd is asked who they considered the best Cuban pitcher to play in the major leagues. Then the argument begins. Some say Jose Contreras. Others say "El Duque" Orlando Hernandez while others say his brother, Livan Hernandez. Then one young man says Luis Tiant. The young men are then introduced to El Tiante.

For his part, Tiant is apolitical unlike current Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell, whose parents fled Cuba while some of his other relatives paid with their lives. When Fidel fell ill in 2006, Lowell said he hoped Castro would die.

I suspect Tiant has mixed emotions towards Castro. Tiant was pitching in a tournament in the U.S. when the Bay of Pigs invasion occurred in 1961. Castro gave an ultimatum to Cuban baseball players outside of Cuba - return or never come home. When his father told him not to come back he stayed away. Tiant did not see his parents for 14 years until Castro granted them permission to travel to Boston to stay with him after Senator George McGovern delivered a letter to Castro written by Massachusetts Republican Senator Edward Brooke pleading Tiant's case. Tiant's parents got to see him pitch in the 1975 World Series and would stay with him until their deaths within 24 hours of each other the following year.

If ESPN re-broadcasts Lost Son of Havana please watch it. It offers Americans a rare glimpse into the everyday lives of Cubans. If you are not a baseball fan by the end of this film you will be. If you are not an opponent of communism by the end of this film you will be.

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