Tuesday, August 11, 2009

After 46 Years In Exile, Luis Tiant Returns To Cuba


Most of us live in a world where we take, simple things, such as family gatherings for granted. Usually a family member organizes a BBQ, calls all of his/her relatives-- everyone shows up and has a great time. Not too hard, right? For most of us it isn't, but for some, like former major league pitcher, Luis Tiant (l.), this is an improbable scenario.

Tiant's ordeal began in 1961 when, as a young pitcher, his Cuban team was playing an exhibition series in Mexico. Tiant's dream was to impress major league scouts and hopefully land a major league contract. This was during a time when relations between the U.S. and Cuba were good and Cubans were allowed to travel freely to the United States.

Tiant's desire to pitch in the majors, was furthered by the fact that his father, Luis Tiant Sr., who was also a pitcher, never got a chance to do so. Tiant Sr. was deemed too colored for Major League Baseball and was forced to play in the Negro Leagues. Those who saw the elder Tiant, say, he had the most wicked fastball they'd ever seen. In fact, in an exhibition game between Major League All-Stars and Negro League All-Stars, the elder Tiant showcased his fastball by blowing it past the great Babe Ruth and striking him out with ease.

After the Bay of Pigs military debacle in 1961, Tiant received the news that would change his life forever. The Cuban government ended all relations with the U.S. and no Cuban citizen would be allowed to travel outside the Cuban borders. Tiant, with his aspirations to pitch in the big leagues, made the toughest decision of his life. He decided to stay in the U.S. as a refugee and pursue his major league career, which meant never seeing his family ever again.

Tiant fulfilled his dream. He had a great major league career mostly with the Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox. He was 229-172 with a 3.30 ERA in 19 seasons. His 1.60 ERA in 1968 is the 4th lowest in the past 90 years.

But his desire to return to his native Cuba is what haunted him for most of his life. It was a dream that came true in 2007. That year, Tiant was finally granted permission by the Cuban government to visit his native land, after 46 years in exile.

In the ESPN documentary, "The Lost Son of Havana", which aired last night, Tiant and a film crew documented his 3-month stay in Cuba. Tiant , 67, returned to his old neighborhood and reunited with the few surviving relatives he left behind in 1961 and generations of new relatives he had never met. Friends, neighbors and former teammates all gathered to greet their lost son. It was an emotional reunion. Even the strong-willed Tiant couldn't hold back his tears.

Towards the end of the documentary, when his 3-day stay was coming to an end, a saddened Tiant would say, "I feel like I'm born again now. Now if I die, I die happy."

I guess in life, what may be simple for some is a life's journey for others.

Photo courtesy of the Encyclopedia Britannica

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