Friday, April 30, 2010

The Lost Son of Havana, El Tiante

This story kinda pulls at the heart strings.

The Lost Son of Havana


One of the main attractions of sports is that they’re a welcome escape from the ­politics of the day and the things men do to one ­another in the name of this or that cause. Occasionally, however, the world of sports and politics collide. And when they do, it’s usually without a happy outcome—think of the 1972 Munich Olympics, when 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by Palestinian terrorists; Jimmy Carter’s boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics; and the subsequent Soviet boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.


Pitching great Luis Tiant, the subject of ESPN’s “The Lost Son of Havana.”

It should come as no surprise then, that “The Lost Son of Havana,” an ESPN Films documentary about Red Sox pitching great Luis Tiant’s return to Cuba after 46 years of exile, is not a happy tale (Sunday, 6 p.m.-8 p.m. ET on ESPN Deportes; Monday, 10 p.m. ET on ESPN). It is, rather, the story of a refugee’s rise to major-league stardom and the torment of returning home decades later to visit family on an island gulag.

“Things could have been different,” says Mr. Tiant, overcome with emotion at his aunt’s cramped and run-down Havana home. He is, of course, right. The wealth he accumulated in the ­major leagues could have helped lift his entire family out of poverty. But ­Castro’s revolution dashed any hopes he might have had of playing professionally in his country or returning home to help support his family and the community he left behind. In 2007, he was finally allowed back into Cuba as part of a goodwill baseball game ­between American amateurs and ­retired Cuban players.

Written and directed by documentary filmmaker Jonathan Hock, “The Lost Son” begins with a shot of the 67-year-old Mr. Tiant puffing on a cigar and examining an old black-and-white photo of his father, Luis Tiant Sr., a baseball great in his own right who pitched in America’s Negro League in the 1930s and ’40s. Luis Sr. didn’t have an overwhelming fastball but was, like his son, an absolute master of the screwball and other off-speed pitches. With his “herky-jerky” windup and off-beat delivery, he dominated the Negro League and twice defeated the Babe Ruth All-Stars in exhibition play, holding the Babe to just one single.

There’s no doubt that Luis Tiant Sr. had the stuff to be a star in the majors. But by the time Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, Luis Sr.’s professional baseball career was over and he was forced to return home to ­Havana.

The dream of playing in the major leagues, however, lived on in his son, and in the summer of 1961 Luis Jr. left Havana for a three-month stint in the Mexican league, where he hoped to be discovered by an American scout. He quickly became a sensation and it wasn’t long before the Cleveland Indians signed him to a minor-league contract.

“But that was also the summer of the invasion of the Bay of Pigs,” the film’s narrator, actor Chris Cooper, explains over old footage of the failed U.S. invasion. “Cuba and the United States severed relations, and Castro tightened his control over every aspect of Cuban life. Suddenly no Cuban was free to leave the island. Cubans playing baseball overseas received an ultimatum: Come home and play as amateurs in Cuba or never come home again: And so, Luis’s three-month trip became 46 years of exile.”

Through interviews with sportswriters, former teammates and footage from scores of games, the film documents the dramatic ups and downs of Mr. Tiant’s 19-year career, including the 1970 injury (a fractured scapula) that nearly ended his playing days; his remarkable climb back to the majors (he taught himself to pitch again, it seems, by imitating his father’s wild windup and off-speed pitches); and his winning starts for the Red Sox in the 1975 World Series, which Boston lost to Cincinnati 3-4.

But it is the sounds and images of his return to Cuba that are most poignant, and elevate the film to far more than a sports documentary. Antique cars and dilapidated buildings abound. Ordinary household goods are nearly impossible to come by. Like most ­Cubans, Mr. Tiant’s aunts and cousins receive enough staple goods from the government each month to last about 15 days; they must “improvise” for the rest. Not surprisingly, the black market is thriving and U.S. dollars are the currency of choice. One relative tells Mr. Tiant, holding back tears, “We are living on cigarettes.”

Knowing they’re in need, Mr. Tiant brings a suitcase full of gifts and basic supplies such as clothing, toothpaste, sewing kits and medicine. And though we only see him give money to one relative, one suspects he brought a thick wad of greenbacks with him as well.

Sadly, there’s an air of resentment among some. When an old neighbor says he was “forgetful” of his family, Mr. Tiant disagrees and explains that he sent gifts, money and supplies but they were always confiscated by the Cuban authorities. Still, his sense of ­regret at not doing enough for his family in Cuba is apparent, even though it was Luis Sr. who told him over and over again never to return, to live the life his father couldn’t.

Amazingly, there’s more to the story. In 1975, not long before the World Series, Castro (by all accounts a genuine baseball fan) gave Mr. Tiant’s parents a special visa to travel to America. Sen. George McGovern, as he testifies in the film, hand-delivered a letter from Luis Jr. to Castro asking that he allow his parents to travel to the U.S. to see him play. For whatever reason, Castro granted his request, and Luis’s parents came to America and lived with him until their all-too-early deaths the following year.

Nevertheless, a few days after his arrival in Boston, Luis Tiant Sr. was ­invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch in a game against the California Angels at Fenway Park—a perfect strike. As he and his son stood together on the mound at Fenway, 30,000 adoring fans chanted “Luis! Luis! Luis!”—a glorious, and one hopes for a father and son from Havana, healing moment in baseball history.

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