The Lost Son of Havana
Tracking Tiant’s painful homecoming
They called him LOO-IE!, and the roly-poly pitcher with the Fu Manchu knew how to respond. Luis Tiant tortured batters by twisting toward center field and jerking his head in the air before delivering the next pitch with his rubber right arm.
From 1973 to 1976, “El Tiante’’ was the heart of the Boston Red Sox. He almost willed the team to a world championship in 1975, won at least 20 games three times, and averaged 280 innings a season. For perspective, consider that current ace Josh Beckett has averaged 192 innings a year with the Sox.
But there’s another side of Tiant, the story told in a new documentary “The Lost Son of Havana,’’ directed by Jonathan Hock, produced by the Farrelly brothers and Kris Meyer, and narrated by Chris Cooper. The film follows the aging Tiant on his 2007 trip to his native Cuba. It’s no weekend jaunt. In 1961, the Castro government had delivered an ultimatum to the phenom: If you go to the States to play baseball, you can’t come back home. Tiant, encouraged by his parents, chose the major leagues. He tried several times to return for visits, but it took 46 years to finally get permission.
He wondered repeatedly whether he stayed away too long.
More than a travelogue, the film tells of Tiant’s two loves, for his homeland and the pitcher’s mound. Baseball is threaded seamlessly through a series of vintage clips and interviews with, among others, former Sox stars Carlton Fisk and Carl Yastrzemski, who were his teammates.
The tale of Tiant’s exile starts with his father, Luis Sr., a Negro League pitcher from the 1920s to ’40s who returns to Cuba to a decidedly inglorious life. He pumps gas and starts drinking too much. Is it any wonder he urges his son to sign with the Cleveland Indians?
By the time the younger Tiant finally returns to Havana, his parents are long gone, the streets look unfamiliar, and the people live in abject poverty. Tiant is known for hamming it up in interviews, for playing the jester with his thick accent. Here, Hock wisely trains his lens on Tiant’s eyes. You can feel the melancholy as he trudges from door to door, desperately trying to find his relatives. When he finally locates his aunts, who are failing physically, Tiant embraces them and doesn’t seem to want to let go.
And talk eventually turns to the reality. In a back room, after being told of how miserable everyone is, Tiant starts peeling bills off his bankroll. It’s a bittersweet homecoming.