Luis Tiant, Perpetual Motion

On Luis Tiant, and the contortions that lead to grace. From the new e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great"
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Swag on clammy-mustachioed high-number.

Image via Bleacher Report.

Back in February, we talked to Marc Normandin about what was then a worthy Kickstarter project: an e-book on players great enough to persist in fans' memories, but not quite great or lucky or linear enough for Cooperstown. In the months since, the project was funded thrice over, changed its name from "The Hall of Very Good" to "The Hall of Nearly Great," and became a 43-chapter e-book of essays on baseball's most fascinating near-greats. A number of Classical people contributed to the book, including Jon Bernhardt, Eric Nusbaum, David Raposa and David Roth; eminences such as Jeff Passan, Jon Bois, Rob Neyer, Boog Sciambi, Joe Posnanski, Craig Calcaterra, Jay Jaffe, Emma Span and Old Hoss Radbourn, all of whom have succeeded in life despite lacking Classical bylines, also wrote essays for the book. This excerpt is our own Josh Wilker's essay on Luis Tiant. If you'd like to buy "The Hall of Nearly Great," and you really should, you can do so here.

Carl Yastrzemski had heard cheers before. Just five years earlier, he’d led the Red Sox to a miracle pennant, setting his previously moribund home ballpark ablaze, but this new sound was different. Deeper, fuller, more intimate, more human, more alive. In 1972, Fenway Park turned into one gigantic heart, thumping out a pulse in the name of the gnomish, barrel-chested man at the center of the diamond.

Looie! Looie!

“I’ve never heard anything like that in my life,” Yaz said.

Though I was too young to notice the chant when it first took hold, it was still thundering at the beginning of my awareness of baseball and life. When I think of my childhood in the mid-1970s, I see myself at the end of our dirt driveway, a Red Sox cap on my head, a duct tape strike zone on the garage door forty feet away. I’m about to go into a pitching motion, and not just any pitching motion but the motion at the heart of that pulse and at the heart of my life.

***

The motion began in 1961, when Luis Tiant left Cuba for what he thought would be three months to pitch for a team in Mexico. While he was there, Fidel Castro banned Cuban citizens from traveling outside the country. If the 20-year-old pitcher returned home, he’d be barred from leaving. Tiant’s father, Luis Tiant, Sr., had been a star pitcher in the Cuban leagues and the Negro Leagues. He knew what it was like to feel the pulse of a baseball. He wrote to his son in Mexico and told him, in effect, to let go of everything except that baseball.

In America, Tiant’s first taste of his new world was saturated with the hatred that had robbed his father of the chance of pitching in the majors.

“I couldn’t speak very good English, but I understood racism,” Tiant said of his travels through southern bush league towns. “They treated me like a dog. I used to go back to my room every day and cry.”

Tiant kept a tight grip on the baseball, and within three years was making his major league debut for the Cleveland Indians against Whitey Ford in Yankee Stadium. Tiant blanked the reigning American League champions 3–0, striking out 11 batters.

“It was the best day of my life,” Tiant said years later. Just after the game, he was asked a question that dampened the elation: would his father hear about what he had done? Barred from contact with his family, Tiant could only hope the news might sift its way through Cuba’s closed borders.

He kept in touch with his father in a different way, through his work on the mound. His unorthodox approach, still not as pronounced as it would be in later years, nonetheless stood out from other pitchers.

“There is a definite stop on his motion before he releases the ball,” veteran third baseman Frank Malzone complained in 1965. “But the umpires aren’t calling it.” Malzone connected Tiant’s method with the famous hesitation pitch of Satchel Paige, but it was actually a reflection of Tiant’s bond with another Negro Leagues standout whose estimable success as a pitcher rested more fully on misdirection and guile. Armando Vasquez, a teammate of Luis Tiant, Sr., suggested the line between father and son in an interview in the 2007 documentary The Lost Son of Havana.

“He had a funny movement for a pitcher,” Vasquez said of the elder Tiant. “His hands were always moving. You’ve gotta watch him.”

In 1968 the son catapulted beyond his father and all but very few pitchers in baseball history, winning 21 games, posting a 1.60 ERA, and breaking the single-season record for fewest hits per nine innings, a record that had stood for 62 years and that at face value identified Tiant as, literally speaking, the most unhittable pitcher who had ever lived. During the season, Tiant was featured in a Sports Illustrated article that again connected his success with Satchel Paige:

The cigar-chomping 27-year-old is using a copy of Satchel Paige’s “hesitation pitch” that twists his body away from the plate and leaves his face looking skyward just before he throws. This delivery hides the ball from the batter until the instant it is released and has a psychological effect as well. Says one outfielder, “It has to be disturbing. Luis seems to be looking at the moon, and all of a sudden the pitch is by you.”

Though Tiant’s motion helped baffle batters, his success also leaned heavily on a blistering fastball. While pitching for the Twins in 1970, Tiant suffered a cracked shoulder blade that knocked him out for the remainder of the season, and when he returned the following year the hornet-like sting in his fastball had vanished. He was released by the Twins, then picked up and quickly released by the Braves.

The Boston Red Sox took a chance on the two-time castoff. After a stint in the minors, Tiant struggled through his worst Major League season, compiling a putrid 1–7 record, the kind of mark that tends to end careers. One moment Luis Tiant was throwing an unbeatable pitch. The next he was learning what it felt like to be on the wrong side of something seemingly unbeatable. All of the sudden the pitch is by you.

You can’t always just overpower life. You will be overpowered. Better to incorporate into your motion the inescapable tendency of existence toward defeat. Better to bob and sway, bend not break. According to Tiant, when he was teetering on the edge of baseball oblivion, he reinvented himself, becoming in effect an even more passionate disciple of his father.

“I have to do something to hide the ball better,” Tiant said of his preparations for the 1972 season. “I changed my delivery completely.”

It was the full flowering of the Luis Tiant motion, father and son, the motion that mimicked life itself, unpredictable, unforeseeable. Just when you think you have it figured out, it comes at you in a whole new way, leaving you flailing.

***

Life tends to come at you in new ways, leaving you flailing. For most of my life, I was a son. Now I’m a father. I find myself wondering what I should try to pass on to my son. Earlier this week, I fantasized that I could pass on the motion that long ago settled into the marrow of my bones like joy. This fantasy led to me resurrecting the long dormant ritual at the center of my childhood—mimicking Luis Tiant’s windup—which in turn led to me feeling as if I just staggered to shore after several hours on a storm-battered fishing boat. Hoping to reconnect with old joy, I ended up nearly vomiting all over the carpet.

I used to have a better connection to balance and abandon. I was first drawn to Tiant’s windup all these years ago because of its proximity to that primal childhood version of drunkenness, simply spinning, putting both arms straight out and twirling around and around until the whole Earth rocks and giggles. There was something about Tiant that was more connected than other players with primal childhood abandon. But to truly channel Tiant, you have to be both son and father, boy and man, and somehow bring balance to abandon. ***

Tiant’s miraculous resurrection with the Red Sox inspired the men who depended on him to speak as if trying to describe the indescribable. Carl Yastrzemski simply referred to Tiant as the “heart and soul” of the Red Sox. Dwight Evans said, “Unless you’ve played with him, you can’t understand what Luis means to a team.” But the man whose livelihood relied most squarely on wins and losses depicted Tiant in the starkest terms.

“If a man put a gun to my head,” manager Darrell Johnson said, “and said I’m going to pull the trigger if you lose this game, I’d want Luis Tiant to pitch that game.”

Johnson’s statement has all the markings of a “gut feeling” that, upon closer inspection, is found to be based on illusions. However, Tiant does seem to have

had a knack for pitching in crucial games as if lives depended on it. Consider:

17–3, 175 2/3 IP, 2.36 ERA, 1.05 WHIP

Tiant authored this line over the course of 23 “gun-to-the-head” games with Boston, including postseason games and any September and October regular season starts that occurred during a season in which the Red Sox finished within 2-1/2 games of first place. In these games, Tiant, often working on short rest, was virtually unbeatable. He kept this up all the way through his final Red Sox start, the 162nd game of the 1978 season, which the Red Sox needed to win to force a one-game playoff the next day.

“If we lose today,” Tiant vowed, “it will be over my dead body.” He threw a 2-hit shutout.

***

You have to balance abandon. You have to kick and pivot and look in every direction, even straight up at the sky. You have to sway like you’re a conduit for music with a mournful hesitating heartache backbeat. You have to make the whole Earth rock and giggle and yet also land on solid ground, everything still. You have to tattoo the slimmest border of the strike zone with your pitch, the deepest pulse passing from father to son like holiness untouchable.

You have to deliver your whole life.


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