Sunday, August 2, 2020

Son of Havana by Luis Tiant with Saul Wisnia

Why I Read It: I was seven when Bucky Dent his the home run in 1978. I bleed Red Sox baseball.

Summary: The autobiography of El Tiante, the most colorful baseball player I ever had the privilege to watch play.

My Thoughts: There's usually more to an athlete than meets the eye. Sometimes, the stuff that gets hidden is better off kept tucked away. Not so with Luis Tiant.

The LOO-EE I knew as a kid was a twisting, twirling, baseball-hurling machine, just another one of my heroes as I grew up a Red Sox fan in Boston. As far as I knew, this was what he did. He existed only on the mound.

I was born too late to know his backstory. Had I been five years older, I might have caught the stories of separation from his family as a young man, as Fidel Castro closed Cuba's border and outlawed professional baseball in the island nation. I might have seen the newspaper articles covering his reunion with his parents as they came to the States late in life. I might have known that Luis was the second great Luis Tiant to pitch professionally. But I missed all of that.

My dad didn't. As lifelong fan himself, he loved to tell a story he read in Peter Gammons' Beyond the Sixth Game, of how El Tiante, short, dark-skinned, somewhat burly, would walk by a mirror in the Red Sox clubhouse after a shower, look at himself with his towel around his waist and a cigar in his mouth, and say, "6'2", blond hair, blue eyes, looking goooood!" Luis brought joy to a Red Sox nation that was getting flat-out desperate for a championship.

And he did it in a time when race relations in Boston were at their worst in decades. The city that produced William Lloyd Garrison and The Liberator, the city of the Fighting 54th Regiment of Civil War fame, was tearing itself apart over busing. Tiant had faced racism in the minors in the south, and he faced it in suburban Milton, Massachusetts, in the 1970s. But when he stepped on the field in Boston, he was beloved. 

Life shouldn't have been as hard as it was for Tiant. And he was one of the lucky ones who escaped Cuba to follow his dream. But he has lived a damned good life, one of sweat and tears, no doubt, but one of philanthropy, mentoring, guidance, family and passion for the sport he loves.

I know I'll never be able to repay Luis for what he did for me and my dad. We could be 1000 miles apart, having not spoken to each other for a month, pick up the phone and start in on Red Sox memories without missing a beat. They all started, for me, watching El Tiante do his thing at Fenway Park as a young boy in the 1970s, and learning that you could go to war every day with a smile on your face. 

I had no idea what kind of wars he was fighting until I read this book.