Cuban crown prince
Luis Tiant thrilled Red Sox fans and became a legend in his home country
By Jackson Malnati
“If a man put a gun to my head and said I’m going to pull the trigger if you lose this game, I’d want Luis Tiant to pitch that game.”
Red Sox manager Darrell Johnson used these words to describe the man affectionately referred to as “El Tiante.” The Cuban-born flamethrower spent 19 seasons in the big leagues and compiled an impressive resume – racking up 229 career wins, amassing 187 complete games, including forty-nine shutouts, and finishing his career with an ERA of 3.30. Tiant posted four 20-win seasons and earned three all-star appearances.
An iconic figure on Yawkey Way known for his locker room antics and big grin, Tiant became a hero in Boston and a national legend in his home country.
The road to Boston, however, was not one paved in gold for the “Fred Astaire of baseball,” as Reggie Jackson called him. Tiant began his illustrious professional career in 1961, while playing in the Cuban Professional Baseball League. That year, the 21-year-old phenom took home Rookie of the Year honors.
After 1961, Tiant took off for America, signing a minor league contract with the Cleveland Indians. This event coincided with the Bay of Pigs Invasion, effectively barring Tiant from returning to Cuba until 2007. In July of 1964, Tiant got his first crack at the major leagues, and he certainly did not disappoint. Facing off against a Yankee lineup led by Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, “El Tiante” outdueled Whitey Ford on his way to a masterful complete game, 11-strikeout shutout. The New York Times summarized the performance as a “major league debut that little boys dream about.”
Tiant’s career took off in 1968, when he set modern-day American League record for ERA in a season, posting a 1.60 mark. He finished with nine shutouts and 21 wins, including a 10-inning, 19-strikeout shutout on July 3 against the Minnesota Twins.
A broken scapula suffered during spring training of 1970 brought Tiant’s career to the brink of collapse. After being released and subsequently picked up by Boston, Luis Tiant reinvented himself, adopting a pitching motion that was, at best, unorthodox. Tiant’s new twisting motion earned him the name, “master of deception,” by his catcher, Carlton Fisk.
His resurrection story began in 1972, when he threw four consecutive shutouts after being moved from the bullpen to the starting rotation. Fans grew to adore him, as chants of “Lu-is! Lu-is!” could be heard anywhere around Fenway. The Red Sox’ appearance in the 1975 World Series versus “the Big Red Machine” of Cincinnati was due in large part to Tiant. In Game 1 of the Series, Tiant threw a masterful five-hit shutout, and followed it up with a Game 4 win in which he tossed 173 pitches. His knack of pitching well in big games cannot be overstated. Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer once said, “when the chips are on the line, Luis Tiant is the greatest competition I’ve ever seen.”
In the homestretch of the 1978 season, Tiant was pitching in the final game of the year – a must-win game that would result in a one-game playoff the next day if the Red Sox won and Yankees lost. El Tiante rounded up his teammates and explained to them, “If we lose today, it will be over my dead body. They’ll have to leave me face down on the mound.”
He went on to spin a two-hit shutout against the Blue Jays, which – coupled with the Yankees’ loss to the Indians – necessitated the one-game playoff that has become a part of baseball history.
That was Luis Tiant.
Jackson Malnati was a 2012 membership intern in the Hall of Fame’s Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program for Youth Leadership Development