After Cy, but before Rocket Roger and Pedro, there was Loo-eee, Loo-eee. And no one was ever more fun to watch when things were going well.
Luis Tiant came to the Red Sox as a discard. His glory days with the Indians and Twins were thought to be way in the rearview mirror. A minor league stint in the Braves organization had not gone the way he hoped, either, and when in the summer of 1971 he joined the Red Sox minor league affiliate in Louisville on the recommendation of minor league pitching coordinator Lee Stange (who had been tipped off by Jose Santiago, who himself had been alerted to Tiant by Pedro Ramos — got all that?), it was with minimal expectations.
Tiant went 1-7 after his Sox call-up, mostly from the pen. No one ever dreamed he’d become a Red Sox legend, as beloved by fans as anyone who has ever taken the mound at Fenway Park.
The Luis Tiant story has always been begging to be told in full, and now it has. In collaboration with Saul Wisnia, the ebullient righthander has let us learn about his life in “Son of Havana: A Baseball Journey from Cuba to the Big Leagues and Back,” published by Diversion Books.
Perhaps the most surprising revelation of all is the fact that his father, Luis Eleuterio Tiant Sr., was vehemently opposed to his son becoming a professional baseball player, at least in America. The elder Tiant had pitched with distinction in Cuba and in our own Negro Leagues between 1926 and 1948.
How good was Tiant’s dad?
According to Tiant, if Cubans of a certain age were asked what they think of Tiant, they would say, “Which one? The lefty or the righty?” Yes, his dad was a southpaw, and make that a crafty southpaw since he was 5 feet 10 inches and maybe 170 pounds. His official nickname was “Señor Skinny.” He did not throw hard, but he knew how to pitch. His calling-card offering was a screwball. As late as 1948, he was pitching in the famed Negro Leagues East-West All-Star Game in the Polo Grounds. So there was a Tiant of renown in Cuba long before we encountered his son.
So why? Why did he prefer his son take up another line of work? It was the D-word. “D” as in discrimination. Señor Skinny was too dark-skinned to play in the major leagues of the time. He did not want his son to live that life in America.
But our man Loo-eee was stubborn and determined, and with the support of his mother, Isabel, they were able to outvote Luis Sr.
It was a good decision. Luis Tiant would emigrate to the United States in 1961. He had been playing in the Mexican League, but things under Fidel Castro were getting dicier, and Tiant realized he had better seize any opportunity he had to leave Cuba for good. “Then on May 25,” he explained, “after the minor league season had already started, Castro opened things up a bit. I had gotten my visa and everything together, and as soon as possible — BANG — I think only a few planes got out, mine was one of them. Then nobody could get out anymore.” Tiant would not see his parents for 15 years.
Tiant broke into the bigs with Cleveland in 1964 with a 10-4, 2.83 season. In his third year, he led the league in shutouts with five, and in his fifth year he became a major star. In the Year of the Pitcher, when Denny McLain won 31 games and Bob Gibson was setting a modern record with a 1.12 ERA, Tiant was making his own statement, submitting a 21-9 record to go with league-leading ERA (1.60) and shutout totals (9). He says he actually pitched better than McLain, and I’m not going to doubt him.
There was a complete win-loss reversal in 1969 (9-20), a record he says was largely attributable to shoddy run support (but he did have a career-high 129 walks). The Indians bailed on him, sending him to Minnesota and starting him on the road to Phase II, right here in Boston.
Let us jump ahead to the night of June 28, 1972.
Sonny Siebert started for the Red Sox. He was lifted for a pinch hitter in the fourth, trailing the Tigers, 3-1. Luis Tiant, who was to this point just another member of an undistinguished Sox bullpen, took the mound in the fifth. None of the 16,822 in attendance, nor any members of the press box corps, knew we would bearing witness to the birth of a legend.
The numbers were certainly nice: five innings, no runs, one hit, five strikeouts. But it wasn’t so much the What as the How. This was the night Luis Tiant reinvented himself.
There were two on, two out, and two strikes on Aurelio Rodriguez. Let Loo-eee tell it.
“Suddenly a thought popped into my mind: I’m going to try something different — something I have never even practiced — and see what happens. Switching to an overhand windup, I turned my body so I was looking directly into center field. Then I looked into the sky, spun back toward the plate, and followed through. Rodriguez’s eyes looked as big as saucers! He jumped away from home plate and the ball just went — POOF — into [Carlton] Fisk’s mutt, right down the middle. I knew he had no chance to hit it because he had moved so far away. Strike three.”
Welcome to the rest of Luis Tiant’s pitching life.
He won that game. He went on to go 15-6. He led the league with a 1.91 ERA. He would win 20, 22, 18, and 21 in the next four seasons. He would captivate the baseball world in the 1975 postseason. But most of all, he would bring a panache to every outing. Luis Tiant starts were more than just baseball happenings. They were damn near celebrations of life.
And, oh, that windup. On that fateful night, the Globe man covering the game would observe that “the game belonged to Tiant, who showed you what Elgin Baylor would be like as a pitcher.” Wait a minute. That would be me. Sorry. Had to get that one in.
But the greatest descriptions of the Tiant M.O. belonged to the one and only Roger Angell. The venerable New Yorker scribe always brought his A-game to writing about Luis Tiant.
Among Angell’s categories for the Tiant M.O. : Call the Osteopath, Out of the Woodshed, The Runaway Taxi, Falling off the Fence, The Slipper Kick, and The Low-Flying Plane, which goes like this, (a subtle amalgam of 1, 3, and 4 above): “while he is pivoting, an F-105 buzzes the ballpark, passing over the infield from the third base side to the first base side at a height of 80 feet. He follows it all the way with his eyes.”
Whatever you chose to call it, the windup was a Tiant signature, and it brought results. Results and fun, which is a word his teammates relentlessly associated with him. Luis Tiant made every day at the ballpark an adventure. The man loved what he did.
A quick aside: My all-time favorite Tiant game was his 163-pitch complete Game 4 of the 1975 World Series. He did not have his best stuff. All he had was guts and heart. Or, as Churchill might have said, blood, toil, tears, and sweat.
It was a career (229-172, 3.30, 49 shutouts) and life well-led, and it should have culminated with him giving an acceptance speech on a July Sunday in Cooperstown a long time ago.
There’s still time. The Hall is loaded with committees. One of them should recognize Tiant. Meanwhile, he has a great story to tell. You’ll like it.
Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at email@example.com.