The Legend of El Tiante

Luis Tiant's reputation lives on in New England, where he is forever linked to the 1975 Boston Red Sox, one of the best teams in the franchise's frustrating twentieth-century history
| By Gordon Mott | From Entourage, July/August 2009
The Legend of El Tiante

The line of eager fans stretches away from the simple booth where cigars are passed out. Around the 50,000-square-foot ballroom in Connecticut's MGM Grand at Foxwoods, other lines back up for a handshake with Carlos Fuente Jr., Rocky Patel or Tim Ozgener of C.A.O. or some of the dozen other cigar makers present that night. But the star at this particular booth, off to one side of the ballroom, has people lining up for more than cigars—they've come to shake the hand and get the autograph of one of the biggest sports icons in the Northeast: Luis Tiant, the former star pitcher for the Boston Red Sox.

"I take care of everybody," Tiant has said earlier in the evening, during an interview at a small casino bar. "You have to be happy. The fans feel for you. They know more about you than you do about yourself. They want to shake your hand. It makes you feel good."

The smile beneath his unmistakable, horseshoe-shaped mustache belies his joy that night. By 9:30, after three hours of shaking hands, signing autographs, putting his arms around fan after fan for a picture, the 69-year-old former baseball great is still smiling, still enjoying every moment, every contact with his many fans.

For Luis Tiant, that's what life is about today—staying in touch with his past, and having a good time. Every day.

If you are old enough to remember Watergate, Gerald Ford as president of the United States and you're a Red Sox fan, you can't forget the 1975 World Series when the Boston Red Sox came close to breaking the jinx that had kept them from winning baseball's biggest prize since 1918. Tiant won two games that series, and he was the starting pitcher in Game 6, often called one of the greatest games in baseball history, clinched by Carlton Fisk with a walk-off home run in the 12th inning.

You also can't help but remember Tiant's pitching motion, one of the most unusual in baseball history. The Cuban-born hurler, coming off a couple of average years in the major leagues, began to embellish his trademark back-to-the-plate windup in the mid-1960s. Tiant would glance to the sky, to the center field bleachers, to anywhere but toward the batter. Then he would whip around and it was anyone's guess where the ball would emerge from—sometimes it was sidearm, sometimes from all arm angles—as he delivered the ball to home plate.

"I had always turned my back to the plate a little," says Tiant. "But then I started looking up, and all around." The oddball delivery was stunningly effective. "I won 179 games after I started using that motion," he says. Tiant played for Cuba's Havana Sugar Kings as well as the Mexico City Tigers, and showed great promise as a 19-year-old in Mexico. In 1961 the Cleveland Indians purchased his contract. He burst onto the major leagues in 1964 with Cleveland, pitching a 3-0 shutout in his first game as he took on Whitey Ford and the New York Yankees. Tiant would win 71 percent of his games that season, going 10-4 with an ERA of 2.83, but his rookie year was far from easy. He had left Cuba as Fidel Castro rose to power, and when he began to ply his athletic skills in the United States, he was unable to return to his homeland. "I left my family, I suffered. When I left I didn't know if I would ever go back," he says. Tiant wouldn't see his mother and father for more than 14 years.

Finally, in 1975, Castro agreed to let Tiant's parents travel to the United States for that iconic World Series. They would remain until their deaths, but ironically their presence kept their son from returning after Cuban-Americans were allowed to make visits to the island. He no longer had immediate family members in Cuba, a requirement for eligibility.

"It's a sad thing to see that happen to any human being," Tiant says quietly. "I had friends who never saw their family, never saw their country again, and they died. I didn't want that to happen to me. I wasn't getting any younger."

Forty-six years would pass between Tiant's departure and his return to Cuba. In 2007, he coached an amateur baseball team that plays a yearly series on the island against a team of retired Cuban players. His position made a visit legal under the complicated rules of travel between America and Cuba. The trip became the subject of a documentary called The Lost Son of Havana, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York in April. The film wwas shown on ESPN on August 10, and will be seen in selected theaters around the United States throughout the summer and fall.

Director Jonathan Hock says the film grew out of a chance meeting between Tiant, the moviemaking team of Peter and Bobby Farrelly and their principle producer, Kris Meyer. Upon hearing Tiant's story and learning of his desire to return to Cuba, they asked to make a film of it. Long story short, they found the baseball organization and joined up with it to get Tiant to Cuba. In the end, they had their movie.

Although Hock left for Cuba a non-cigar smoker, he says that he shared a morning and evening cigar with Tiant almost every day they were in Havana at the pitcher's insistence. "It was a lesson in so many ways, to slow down for that 45 minutes and learn to decompress. And to do it with Luis was just great," Hock says.

The return helped complete a chapter in Tiant's life. "It was emotional for me. But it was a great trip for me," Tiant says, getting animated about the things he saw and did upon his return to his birthplace. "But I didn't go in a big public way. I didn't wear a uniform. I didn't go to speak with anyone in the government. I'm not political. But now I can die tomorrow, and I'd be happy."

However, Tiant holds some clear ideas about the state of U.S.-Cuban relations, and was eager to discuss them after a week of news about the Obama Administration's decision to loosen many of the travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans back to their homeland.

"Look, the policy hasn't been working for 50 years. It's time to do something different," Tiant says matter-of-factly. "The Cuban people have been suffering for 50 years. Not one day, one week or one month, but for 50 years, trying to decide what they are going to do, stay or not. Sometimes whole families died trying to leave in boats. But now, we've got the window open, and it's time to open the door all the way."

One thing Tiant carried with him from Cuba was a love of cigars, which he began smoking when he was 17. If you remember his pitching motion, you also remember the cigar in his mouth in almost every picture ever taken of him off the mound and all the jokes about how he didn't take it out even to shower. Today, he has joined with his son Daniel to market a brand called El Tiante. It is the cigar that he helps hand out at the Big Smoke MGM Grand at Foxwoods.

Less than 10 minutes into the interview, he has lit one. "I started smoking 51 years ago, after I signed my contract with the Mexico City Tigers," Tiant says, his English heavily accented. "I smoked for a couple of years, stopped, started again, stopped and started again.

"It's a natural thing. It comes out of the ground," he adds, waving his cigar in front of his face, and his yellow tinted sunglasses. "You like to smoke, good. That's why I'm in this business. But they've been going after cigarettes, and they've included cigars, too. That's not right. There are a lot of other things in the air that are worse than cigar smoke."

Tiant began working on his own cigar brand more than seven years ago, but ran into some problems with production and consistency. He and his son Daniel decided it was best to come out with an entirely different cigar, and searched out Victor Calvo, of Nicaragua's Tabacalera Tambor, whose products they admired. "You know consistency is the most important thing," Tiant says, "and we don't have any problems with that now. The worst thing that can happen to you is if [your cigar] is not good week to week. The smokers won't come back if they don't like one."

The El Tiante brand is currently available in two blends, the 23 Series Habano and the 23 Series Corojo. (The number is a prominent one for Tiant: he was born on November 23, 1940, was 23 years old when he made his major league debut, and wore No. 23 on his back with the Red Sox.) The El Tiante brand has established a strong presence in the Northeast, but now Tiant, his son and Kevin Anderson, who works for them, are focusing their efforts on expanding across the United States and increasing their current production of 20,000 cigars a year.

"You know for me, a cigar is relaxing. I like to sit out on the porch by the pool, with a drink, you know, a Cognac, a Port. You feel like a million dollars," says Tiant. He adds that he likes to make sure people understand what it is about a cigar that makes him feel that way. "When you talk to them about making a cigar, what goes into it, how it burns, how it feels—when they learn about those things, they enjoy it more."

He laughs when asked why he hadn't created a cigar before, particularly during the time when it was his signature. "All those years I played, with the mustache and the cigar. That was my reputation. No one ever came to me. No one ever called me about doing a cigar. So, seven years ago, I just decided to do it myself."

If there is one other thing that Tiant could do for himself, it would be to get to the front of the line with the Veteran's Committee at the Baseball Hall of Fame. In the 2009 balloting, he received only 13 of the 48 votes he needed for election. During the years in which he was eligible for regular Hall of Fame balloting, Tiant never came close. His most successful tally came in 2000, when he picked up 86 votes. But that represented only 17 percent of the electorate, and he needed 75 percent, or 375 votes, to gain entry.

"It's been 21 years, so I don't think about it a lot," he says, but his nod of the head reveals some frustration. "If I thought about it every day, I'd be crazy by now. I mean, look, it took them 15 years to put Jim Rice in. They should have let him in the first year. If you've got the numbers, you should be in the Hall of Fame."

It doesn't take a long analysis of the statistics to see that the Hall of Fame entry isn't based strictly on the numbers. Among Tiant's contemporaries are some pitchers whose election was indisputable: Nolan Ryan, Gaylord Perry, Tom Seaver, Don Sutton are notables on that list, all with 300 wins plus and various outstanding statistics. But get into the next tier of pitchers who are already Hall of Famers, and distinguishing their achievements from Tiant's is harder to do. Take Jim Bunning; Tiant has more wins, fewer losses and a nearly identical lifetime ERA. Or Catfish Hunter; Tiant has more wins and more strikeouts. He's got more wins than Don Drysdale, more strikeouts than Whitey Ford and fewer losses than Bob Gibson. He had four seasons with 20-plus wins, had the lowest ERA in the major leagues for a season twice, pitched nine shutouts in 1968, and once pitched 52 consecutive shutout innings. In his career, he had 49 shutouts, and 187 complete games.

But he might be best remembered, at least among Red Sox fans, for his performance in the 1975 World Series. He started three games. He pitched a 6-0 shutout in Game One, helping his cause with a lead-off hit in the seventh inning, the frame in which all six Red Sox runs were scored. He went on to win Game 4, his second complete game in the Series. Then he recorded a no-decision in Game 6, which was won when Carlton Fisk connected in the 12th inning and then seemed to will the ball fair as he waved on his way down the base path.

That landmark game, however, doesn't even stand out in Tiant's five greatest moments in his baseball career. Although he listed them in order, he admits he would be hard-pressed to name one above all the rest. The first was that first Major League game, where he blanked the Yankees. "I had 11 strikeouts," he says, "a record for a rookie.

"The second was my 52 shutout innings in a row. Third, is my two consecutive game record of 32 strikeouts. Fourth, is my 19 strikeouts in a 10-inning game; I'm the only one to ever do that. And the fifth is the 1975 World Series, especially the first game with my mom and dad in the stands who got the special visa to attend."

Without skipping a beat, after running down his top-five moments in the Majors, he says he's "not missing any sleep" over the Hall of Fame. "I want to be in it, for sure. I've got the numbers. It shouldn't be because you're a nice guy, but because you've got the numbers.

"I've never been in jail. I'm not an alcoholic. I've never taken drugs. I don't beat my wife. I don't understand it. So, hopefully, they won't wait until I die. If they do, I'll come right out of my grave," he says.

The evening is winding down at the Big Smoke at Foxwoods. But a few fans still wait to get Tiant's autograph. A big ring weighs down his finger, and when asked about it, he says, "Yeah, I got two, 2004 and 2007. This is 2007." He pulls off the 2007 World Series ring of the Boston Red Sox and hands it to the questioner. Turns out, Tiant is far from divorced from baseball: He serves as a consultant for the Red Sox, helping out their pitching coach and the young staff. And, he's happy to do so.

His love of the game, and his ties to the Red Sox go back a long way, even though he followed his time in Boston with stints playing for the Yankees, the Pittsburgh Pirates and, finally, the California Angels.

In 1986, he was on the roster of a Red Sox fantasy camp for devoted fans. Ivens Robinson, a lifelong Red Sox fanatic, attended the camp and got to hit against Tiant in a Campers vs. Major Leaguers game. "He was really friendly. We talked cigars, even though he had quit at the time," says Robinson, a lumber import company executive. "You could tell if someone got a hit off of him, he was still competitive." Robinson says he hit a line drive off Tiant's fifth pitch to him but was thrown out at first base on a close play. "He didn't strike me out," Robinson says, "even though he was doing all that stuff with his windup."

"I'm proud to have been a major leaguer," Tiant says. "The game fit me. And I need it. It's emotional. You work hard. You compete. That's the way I work. I grew up and I tried to get better, year after year.

"I worked hard to get there. It wasn't easy. The fans see you when you make it, but they don't know what you had to go through to get there. But they like me. That's a good feeling, people trying to be good to you. You have to respect them. I never get tired of talking about baseball. That's what I do."

He signs one more piece of paper. "When people don't want my autograph anymore, that's when I go home and put my head between my legs," he says with a laugh and twinkle in his eye.