By Yusseff Díaz
HIALEAH,FLA-Boston Red Sox star Luis Tiant may be the greatest Cuban pitcher ever to head to the majors, but he is yet to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Luis Tiant has the most victories by a Cuban pitcher in MLB history, yet he isn’t enshrined in Cooperstown. “Little Louie” or “El Tiante” as he is known by the Boston Red Sox faithful is actually 61st on the all-time list in this stat.
The flamethrower was purchased in 1961 by the Cleveland Indians from the Mexico City Tigers for 35 grands. Tiant made his debut in 1964 on the 19th of July for Cleveland and on that day he tossed a complete game four hitter against the New York Yankees. That season he finished 10-4 with a 2.83 ERA and 115 SO’s.
During a career that spanned over 20 years the crafty righty won 229 games, posted a 3.30 earned run average, and fanned 2,416, which is 39th all-time. Between 1968 and 1972 he had the lowest ERA in the American League. After changing his style of pitching after a catastrophic arm injury he was named the comeback player in
’72. Tiant led the AL in K’s in 1967 and also led the junior circuit in shutouts in (1966,1968 and 1974).
In 1968, he posted a 1.60 ERA to lead the league and also had nine shutouts, including four in a row. That year on the 3rd of July he struck out 19 Twins in a ten-inning game. In 1975, a few seasons after making a comeback from that catastrophic arm injury he won 18 games and led the Boston Red Sox to the World Series. In that series he shutout the” Big Red Machine” in game one, beat them again in game 4 while tossing 173 pitches, and left with a no-decision in game six while pitching on three days’ rest. In 1997 he was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame. Tiant also pitched in the Venezuelan Winter League, where he closed his career. He even tossed a no-hitter there in 1971 and was inducted into their Hall of Fame in 2009.
Your father was a good pitcher in his own right in the Negro Leagues, did he teach anything about the art of pitching?
My father who was a better pitcher than me never wanted me to pitch, he wanted me to go to school. My mom had to fight with him in order for me to be able to play even the juvenile leagues in Cuba. I was selected to play on a junior national team that traveled to México in 1957 and my mother once again had to convince my father to let me travel with the ball club, thank God he did. I pitched well and that team finished second in that tournament. One day my father decided to hide behind a column and watch one of my games, I pitched a complete game shutout. After the game, he greeted me with a hug and said great game son. From that day on he shared his knowledge with me about the intricacies of pitching. He taught me how to get people out by using movements on my pitches.
With the triumph of Fidel Castro in Cuba, you had to make a decision whether to leave or return to Cuba. How did you come to that decision?
Well, I had just got married in México in 1961 and was about to leave for my honeymoon to the Isle of Youth in Cuba when I received a letter from my father stating that professional baseball was outlawed in Cuba, right then I knew I couldn’t return to my homeland. I instead decided to play winter ball in Puerto Rico with the Criollos de Caguas where Preston Gomez was the manager. When I arrived on the island, I saw Preston sitting in the hotel lobby because he had been fired as the team’s skipper, I pitched for the Criollos that winter and then returned to México City where the Indians bought my contract that off-season and the rest is history.
Due to injuries you had to change your pitching style, you could no longer rely on talent but had to rely more on deception. When did you realize that your new delivery was a keeper?
When I was in Cleveland, I threw a 99-mph heater, I held their record for SO/9 because of a combination of my velocity and pinpoint control. But then I hurt my arm and noticed my fastball would never be the same. I languished in the Boston Red Sox bullpen for a few years, but in 1972 I got my golden opportunity to start. Early in the season, Sonny Siebert had to miss a start because he had the flu, when manager Eddy Kasko asked me if I wanted, I was ready to pitch to which I replied, “I’m always ready to pitch.” In the seventh inning of a game, I was winning 3-1 against Cleveland I uncorked my a sidearm slider from my quirky new wind-up, one to which I looked to the outfield, the sky, and the released the ball towards home. When
I threw the pitch, I saw the batter’s eyes almost come out of his head.
Later (Carlton) Fisk told me that the batter asked what that was, to which he replied, “that’s his new delivery.” Fisk, who was also puzzled, came to the mound and asked me the same question as the batters, to which I replied, “this is my new delivery so get used to it.” I went 15-6 that year and owe my career to Kasko because he had faith in me. I worked on my new delivery constantly to master it and it won me 172 more games.
Your parents were in attendance for game 1 of the 1975 World Series, did their presence inspire to pitch such a great game?
It wouldn’t say they motivated me, because participating in my first World Series was motivation enough. One always once to perform on a grand stage, that’s always the objective. Having parents, wife, and son in attendance to go with my performance made it the best day ever as a professional. My parents were able to leave Cuba due to the efforts of Senators McGovern and Brooke who went to
Cuba on a diplomatic mission to secure their release and I’m forever grateful to them for that. My parents stayed with me for 15 months until their passing. I always asked God to not let my parents die without me seeing them once more and thanks to his grace I was able to see them again.
We all know you belong in Cooperstown; does it bother you that
you haven’t been enshrined yet?
It bothers me a little or better said I feel uncomfortable about it. Everyone knows what I did, and we all know the numbers I put up, that’s something they can never take from me. I had to jump through plenty of obstacles to get where I’ve gotten to and in spite of that I still had a stellar career. For them not to put me in the HOF just because is the ultimate disrespect. I told my family if I’m elected after I die to not attend the ceremony because I consider a posthumous election inhuman, how are you going to wait for someone to die to enshrine them. There are 21 pitchers in the Hall of Fame who I have better or comparable numbers to, why are they enshrined and not me?
If I’m elected after my death, they can eat their bust. Just because I’m the winningest Cuban pitcher of all-time should be enough to secure my election in Cooperstown.
How did you feel when you returned to Cuba after 46 years in 2007?
It wasn’t a good experience, the same day I left for Cuba I visited a woman in Miami who was a childhood friend and she asked me,” Have you told your family that you’re coming?”, to which I replied, “no.” She then told me, “They might be surprised but you will be more surprised than them with what you see.” She was spot on, the Cuba I left was a shell of itself. Nothing looked the same, there were plenty of buildings condemned or dilapidated, I couldn’t even find where my family lived. I passed it a few times before finally recognizing it. The basic necessities that people lacked in the current day wasn’t the Cuba I left; this was a totally different Cuba than the one I lived in.