Welcome back to Routine Moments in Baseball History, a running weekday feature that looks back at plays that have been ignored by the history books because history books only talk about things that are important or interesting. Today's installment is "Luis Tiant's Family Reunion."
Most of the biographical details here are taken fromthis great summary of Tiant's career by Mark Armour for SABR.
On August 30, 1975, Luis Tiant stood on the mound at Fenway, in front of a crowd of 28,000 rapt Bostonians, looked at the Oakland Athletics' leadoff hitter Bill North, and let out a breath that was partly a sigh, partly a way of girding himself for one of the biggest games of his life. The A's were in first place in the American League West just as the Red Sox were at the top of the East, but the opponent probably didn't matter as much to Tiant as the audience—for the first time since he left Cuba in 1961, his father was watching him pitch.
Tiant in his day was as dominating and towering a figure as you could find in baseball. He had a big, barrel-chested body and an imposing Fu Manchu, but on the mound he was as graceful as a dancer, twisting all the way back to look at second base before uncorking himself toward home. He spent the 60s with the Cleveland Indians before breaking his shoulder blade, an injury that nearly ended his career. He washed up in Boston, where he built himself into an icon—the moustache, the windup, the cigar that he was always chomping on when he wasn't pitching, the charisma and charm that wafted around him like smoke. "Pancho Villa after a tough night of looting and burning," is how legendary sportswriter Red Smith described him. A "good-lookeen sonofabeech" is how he described himself, in an over-the-top accent Tiant put on for effect. He's not in the Hall of Fame, but at his peak he was as dominant as anyone in baseball, and he became an icon in Boston as the ace of some teams that had plenty of talent and character but never brought home a World Series win.
Tiant's separation from his family—he hadn't even seen his father in 14 years—was weighing on his mind in 1975. The 34-year-old told a newspaper reporter, "How much longer? My father's 70 now and he's not well. Yet he still works in a garage down there… I've got [Cuban] friends up here whose parents have died and they couldn't go home to bury them. What can ever hurt like that? Now all the time, I think about my father dying." Responding to the pitcher's plight, a Massachusetts senator asked South Dakota Senator George McGovern to deliver a letter to Fidel Castro on McGovern's upcoming visit to Cuba in order to ask the communist leader to let Tiant's parents come to Boston. Castro, a lifelong baseball fan who perhaps empathized with Tiant, gave his assent and in late August the family had an emotional reunion. Luis wept openly as the media recorded the emotional meeting at the airport, and on August 26, Luis the elder, a former Negro League star, threw out the first pitch at Fenway.
Four days later, the son was pitching in front of his father, and you can only imagine what was going through his mind. Of course everyone wants to show their parents that they're a success, we all want them to see our talents and demonstrate that we're fully capable of pitching a complete-game win against the A's. But there was more to it than that—Luis had his father's name, and his father's vocation for pitching, and if he didn't burn with a desire to outdo his dad, he at least wanted to measure up, to get out of the great man's shadow. All those years playing in Mexico and then Cleveland and briefly in Minnesota and Boston, and he had never proven to his father what he could do, how he had discovered himself as a pitcher and a man. It's not hard to see Luis that day as a six-foot, 180-pound child, suddenly scared of disappointing the person who mattered most to him.
Tiant struck out North, but the rest of the game was a mess—he didn't have his control and never settled down, giving up a two-run home run in the first, letting three more men score in the second, and issuing two walks and a single in the third before manager Darrell Johnson decided he'd had enough and pulled him out of the game. The pitcher returned to the dugout, head down, body aching, the eyes of his father burning a hole in the back of his jersey.
But let's not be unfair to Luis—we don't have to end the story there. Like most Cubans who managed to get the hell out of Castro's clutches, the Tiants never returned to their homeland. The elder Luis died in 1976, but not before he saw his son pitch in the 1975 postseason: He threw a shutout against the A's in the American League Championship Series, then pitched three games in the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds, winning the first two and getting a no decision in Game 6, one of the greatest games of baseball ever played. It's safe to say that that made up for those bad few innings in August.
This has been Routine Moments in Baseball History. Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.