May 23, 2019
(+++) A SPECIALIZED HERO
Son of Havana: A Baseball Journey from Cuba to the Big Leagues and Back. By Luis Tiant with Saul Wisnia. Diversion Books. $25.99.
If you are a baseball fan – a crucial, foundational “if” – you will find much that is thrilling and much that is uplifting in Luis Tiant’s story as told, at least partly by Tiant himself, in Son of Havana. It is hard to be sure how much of the sometimes hectic prose in the book comes from Tiant and how much from collaborator Saul Wisnia, but certainly the writing style has the sort of punch that fans of big-league sports will like: “On defense our guys tried their best, but sometimes it seemed we couldn’t hit or catch the ball. This put a lot of pressure on the pitchers. You knew every time out that one mistake could cost you the game. …I wasn’t just pitching good, I was dealing – allowing just 14 hits and seven walks while striking out 35 over the 36 innings of the streak.”
The rather immodest tone here is somewhat at odds with the reputation of Tiant, whose baseball odyssey began with the Mexico City Tigers in 1959 and with winter ball with the Havana Sugar Kings. But those were not times when baseball was played in a political vacuum: in 1961, Tiant’s father, himself a onetime Negro League pitcher, warned his son not to return home to Cuba or he would risk not being allowed to leave again. Those were the early days of Fidel Castro’s Communist takeover of the island, a time of massive upheaval that remade not only Cuba itself but also parts of the United States, notably Miami and much of southeastern Florida.
The political situation during Tiant’s lifetime is an inevitable part of Son of Havana, with the book’s subtitle referring to the fact that it was 46 years of exile before Tiant could make a return – by then a triumphant one – to his home island. But the book is not really about geopolitics and not really aimed at showing how baseball, among other things, became something of a pawn in the ongoing disputes between Cuba and its allies, on the one hand, and the United States, on the other. Son of Havana is about Tiant himself, about the racism he faced after joining the Cleveland Indians in the 1960s – when, to make matters more difficult, he could barely speak English – and about the crippling injuries that eventually brought him to the Boston Red Sox in 1971 with torn shoulder ligaments and little expectation of much of a remaining career. And then the book follows the typical arc of a down-and-out-and-back-up-again tale by showing how Tiant overcame his damaged arm, evolved a strange and very effective pitching style, and won over Red Sox fans to such an extent that they started calling him “El Tiante” and were celebrating his pitching and dedication with loud chants by the time of the 1975 World Series.
For many potential readers of Son of Havana, the year 1975 will be ancient history. The book relies on the long memories and continuing fascination with the past that so many baseball fans possess. It was in 1975 that Tiant had a reunion with his family – Fidel Castro had allowed the family members to leave Cuba to see their son pitch. And this was in many ways the high point of Tiant’s baseball career: by 1978, he signed with the Red Sox’ arch-rivals, the New York Yankees, for reasons that Son of Havana delves into but that will seem mystifying to anyone not deeply committed to the whole major-league-baseball ethos and the intensity of the many-decades-long rivalries that the sport has spawned. By the 1980s, Tiant had retired and become a college baseball coach and a pitching consultant (for, yes, the Red Sox). And so matters stood for 20-some years until Tiant returned to Cuba in 2007. And then, to add triumph to triumph, Tiant got to throw out the first pitch for a U.S. spring exhibition game in Cuba – in 2016 – cementing Tiant’s cross-cultural importance to the sport and completing a journey that geographically covers only 90 miles (the distance from Cuba to the closest part of the U.S.) but that spans nearly five decades of political, social and personal upheaval.
This material is certainly the stuff of an impressive memoir, although a very narrowly targeted one. But much of the style of Son of Havana is so determinedly inner-workings-of-baseball in its orientation that the book is less compelling than it could be. There are certainly emotional high and low points here, but the book’s focus is on a great deal of name-dropping – including comments by Carlton Fisk, Johnny Bench, and other notable players – and on insider comments on elements of many specific games: “A rotation of me, [Ferguson] Jenkins, Bill Lee, Rick Wise, and Reggie Cleveland, plus our powerful lineup and depth, made us the favorites to repeat as AL East champs in ’76. Darrell Johnson said he was worried I’d be out of shape when I got to Florida, but I surprised him just like I used to surprise Al Dark.” The ongoing tone of self-praise, whether it comes from Tiant himself or from Wisnia, makes it harder to root for Tiant as he goes through his many challenges and emerges, by and large, victorious. The truly interesting story here for non-baseball fans is the one about an unwilling exile from his homeland who makes good despite many reverses, then returns in triumph to the place where his roots lie. And that story is certainly present in Son of Havana, but much of it is buried beneath mounds of detail that limit the book’s appeal to anyone who is not largely familiar with Tiant’s story already.