Ah, Luis Tiant says with a wistful smile, "Los Yanquis." If only his father could see him in a Yankee uniform. The thought is a delight to Tiant as he sits in the Yankee clubhouse and towels away the sweat of his workout.
Luis Tiant's father -- now there was a pitcher. "They tell me in the minor leagues, 'You are nothing compared to your father,'" Tiant said with a brighter smile. "That make you feel good."
Luis Tiant Sr. came to the United States from Cuba to play baseball in the old Negro leagues. Sometimes the great stars of America would go to Cuba to play exhibition games. "One time my father struck out Babe Ruth three times," Tiant said. "They telling him to pitch easy to Babe Ruth because the crowd want him to hit home runs. My father, he say okay. They he go out and pitch his regular way, strike out Babe Ruth three times. Babe Ruth, he get mad, my father told me."
The Yankees have always been favorites for Latin Americans. Hemingway lived in Cuba and wrote about his Cuban fishermen singing the praises of the great DiMaggio. Fidel Castro wants the Yankees to be the first major league team to return to Cuba. "When I come to the Yankees all the Latin American people tell me I should have come sooner," Tiant said.
Tiant left Cuba on May 25, 1961, and has not been back, which is a distinct sadness for him. He did not see his parents again until shortly before the 1975 World Series, when they were allowed to emigrate and moved in with the younger Tiant in Milton, Mass. "The first time my father see me pitch as a professional is in the World Series and we lose," Tiant said. "He tell me, why I don't do this, and why I don't do that."
The son beat Cincinnati twice before the series was over and he has the films to play over in his home to pick out the small delights, one of which is a closeup of his father in the grandstand. "You can see the expression on his face," the son said. "He was a good father."
The parents died within a few days of each other after spending 15 months in Tiant's big home in Milton. They rode in a parade in Luis' honor and they saw Luis consciously spoil his three children.
"I raise myself poor and I never forget it," Tiant said. "I give my kids more than my father give me, not because he didn't want to. They were good to me, but when you pitching in the black leagues, you not making [much]." He did not ask for the car at night as his son Luis III will soon. "What car?" Tiant said. "I glad if he can give me a dollar for a beer."
Tiant grew pensive again, puffing on a cigar that means $2 or sometimes $4 going up in smoke. "You know what the worst part is?" he said. "They doing so much to raise me and when I am making pretty good money and I can give them what they need, I can't send them [anything]."
Tiant's command of the English language is comfortable and precise and his use of the clubhouse profanity adds only flavor. To Tiant, those words never had their original English meaning; they mean only what they have come to mean in the clubhouse. There are nouns and verbs, adjectives and adverbs and what the grammarians call intensifiers, and nothing offensive. They come in unfamiliar places between words and sometimes in the middle of words. And some of them are difficult to identity through his accent.
He has won 204 games in 15 major league seasons. After being released by Minnesota and Atlanta in 1971, he came back to win 122 games for Boston, leaving him one short of Mel Parnell for second place on the Red Sox' all-time list. Last season he won 13 games and pitched well enough to have won a few more while the Red Sox' lead that Tiant calls "14 games and a half" was slipping away.
"They craze," Tiant said. "I don't know what they think." Neither, he said, do his friends on the Red Sox. "They can't believe Boston let me go, especially to the Yankees," he said. "The Yankees and Boston been fighting the last 100 years of baseball. I no believe it myself. But I have to thank them. I never thought I would wind up in New York. They not going to pay somebody (Jim Rice) a million dollars and pay me peanuts. They no want to pay me, that's okay, I take a hike."