"I’m standing there with no clothes. It was great when Fisk hit that.”
BY ROCCO CONSTANTINO
In April, the Baseball Hall of Fame announced changes to their election committees.
There are just two player committees now: those who played before 1980 and those who played after. Each committee will vote on an eight-player field determined by a separate committee. Luis Tiant will be under consideration in the pre-1980 “Classic Baseball Era” group which comes up for vote in December of 2024.
This is important to this week’s guest, the legendary El Tiante who joins us for the 100th installment of Spitballin’.
Disappointingly, Tiant should have been elected long ago – but now things seem to be trending in a positive direction.
Ambassadorship seems to be playing a larger role than ever, and who is a better ambassador for the sport than the beloved Tiant?
Last winter, Buck O’Neil, Jim Kaat, Gil Hodges and Minnie Minoso finally were selected for enshrinement. While their on-field accomplishments merit induction as per current standards, their status as beloved icons whose contributions go beyond statistics played a large role too.
Tiant’s case is no different.
His 229-172 record with a 3.30 ERA compares well with a number of his enshrined contemporaries and when you look into nerd stats, he is even better.
If you’re a fan of WAR for Pitchers, Tiant is ahead of Bob Feller, Juan Marichal, Jim Bunning, Roy Halladay and over 30 other Hall of Famers.
Just using the eye test? Ask baseball fans of the 1960s and ‘70s if there was any discernable difference between Tiant, Kaat, Catfish Hunter, Don Sutton or Bert Blyleven.
Don’t forget that Tiant battled arm injuries through three years of his prime and didn’t get back on track until he was 32. When he was right again, Tiant averaged 19 wins a season for five years between 1972-1976 after winning 20 for the first time in 1968. Considerations are made for players whose careers are cut short due to injury, why not for the ones who had seasons of their prime cut out for the same reason?
We’re with baseball royalty today, so light up a cigar and join us as we go Spitballin’ with Luis Tiant.
Mr. Tiant, as one of the countless kids who imitated your delivery playing Wiffle ball, it’s an absolute honor to talk with you. Let’s jump right in and start at the beginning. What was baseball like for you as a kid growing up in Cuba?
My father used to play in the Negro Leagues for 25 years for the New York Cubans and I started playing when I was seven or eight years old. I played with my friends in the street. We played in the parks too, anyplace we could find the space. But most times we played in the streets, and I liked it a lot. I played Little League for two years then I played amateur before playing professional.
Your first experience at pro ball came in Mexico. Can you talk about the start of your pro career?
That came in 1959. I went to Mexico for two years and then Cleveland bought my contract while I was playing Winter Ball in Puerto Rico in 1961. In 1962, I went to the United States and played in Charleston, West Virginia. In 1963 I moved to play in Burlington, North Carolina. In 1964, I moved up to Portland, Oregon and went 15-1 there in half a season. Then Cleveland called me up and I pitched my first game against Whitey Ford and the Yankees. I went 10-4 for the Indians, so I went 25-5 that year between AAA and the Big Leagues.
On the HoF: “I think it was a shame what they did to people like Ron Santo. They wait until after he died to put him in. Minnie Minoso too. That’s brutal. They don’t have no feelings and no heart when they do that shit.”
Was pitching in the Major Leagues something you thought about as a kid?
Baseball is my passion and pitching in the Big Leagues was my dream. My dream was to pitch against Minnie Minoso and Mickey Mantle. God gave me the chance to do it for many years and it was great. I did things I never thought I would be able to do and that’s a great thing. I loved baseball so much. I would have played for no pay.
That’s awesome. You mentioned your dad being a great Negro League pitcher. What kind of influence did he have on your career?
In the beginning, he wanted me to stay in school. No baseball for me. My mother would fight with him. She’d say, “He likes to play, why not let him play?” He didn’t want me to go to Mexico City to play, but my mother fought him on that. Finally, he let me go. When I came back to Cuba, some friends told him that he better go watch me pitch, because I’m good. Then he started coming to see me pitch. The first time he came I saw him get off the bus and he hid behind some cars. The field was wide open though, so I could see him. I threw a shutout that day. He crossed the avenue, shook my hand and said, “Good pitching, you did great.” From that point on, he started talking to me about pitching.
Was that difficult knowing that your dad didn’t want you to pitch before he saw you that night? Especially since he was a great pitcher himself?
When you’re going to do something in life, nobody is going to take that away from you. The only thing that can happen to you is that God wouldn’t want you to play. That’s what I believe. If you want to do it; you’re gonna do it. I’ve been in the game for a long time. It was 25 years professional, 22 years in Winter Ball and 19 in the Big Leagues. I enjoyed every minute of it. If I was on the mound, I was enjoying it. Struck out a lot of guys, threw a lot of shutouts, pitched a few no-hit, no-run games here and there. That’s beautiful. It’s a good feeling and I think I did a pretty good job.
You did a great job and that leads to my next question. You should be in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, and it should have happened long ago. What do you think when someone tells you that?
I agree, but what are you gonna do? I can’t control anything. There are guys that shouldn’t be in, but they put them in because they’re buddy-buddy. I really don’t care too much anymore. The only thing I ask of God is to give me and my family a good life. I want to see my family stay healthy, that’s my number one thing. My Hall of Fame is my family. I know what I did, you know what I did, everybody in baseball knows what I did. The Hall of Fame [induction] is one day. They put your name, you give your speech and that’s it. Your life is much more than that.
I don’t want to worry about it every day, I’m over that. I tell my kids, don’t get too happy when you see they mention my name [as a Hall of Fame candidate]. Don’t anticipate it, but if it happens, you get happy and celebrate it. Don’t go crazy. Just wait until you see my name there then you celebrate it. I’m not saying I don’t want to be in the Hall of Fame; everybody does. We’ll see what happens [with the new committees]. I’ve been waiting. Hopefully God gives me a lot more life. I’m 81 years old. I don’t know how many more years I’m going to be here.
I’ve heard you say that if they induct you after you passed away, you didn’t want your family to go. What are your thoughts about that?
I think it was a shame what they did to people like Ron Santo. They wait until after he died to put him in. Minnie Minoso too. That’s brutal. They don’t have no feelings and no heart when they do that shit. I told my family, “If they put me in after I die, don’t go.” What am I supposed to do? Come out of my tomb and make a speech, then go back to my tomb? People don’t have a heart. They don’t have a feeling about life. Nobody has to give me anything. I earned it. My numbers are there. You don’t play with people’s lives, but what are you gonna do.
(Photo by Moses Robinson/WireImage for Fox Television Network)
That’s really well put, and I just have to believe you’ll get in one day and I hope you’re there to celebrate it because the fans will love it. That brings me to my next questions. You’re one of the most beloved baseball players around. What does it mean to you to be so popular among baseball fans?
I’m different than a lot of other pitchers. I have a lot of fans and people liked watching me pitch. Every time I pitched, and people came to see me, they enjoyed it. They liked watching my windup and how I turned around or did this or did that. Everybody has been good to me especially in Boston. People show me admiration and respect. I can’t complain. You’ll find a crazy one here or there, but what are you gonna do? If somebody doesn’t like me, I don’t get mad. But I got lucky, most of the fans like me. Every time I see fans, they remind me [how much they like me] and that’s great. That’s a good feeling for me. Wherever I go, people want an autograph and want to take a picture. It always makes me feel good.
I have to ask you about your windup, changing arm angles and everything creative you did on the mound. Where did that all come from?
When I was in Cleveland, I was a power pitcher, smoking everybody. Then I hurt my arm. In 1971, the Red Sox signed me and I had to go to AAA in Louisville for 20 days. They put me in the bullpen when they brought me up to the Big Leagues. I was a starter my whole life. My arm was feeling good. Eddie Kasko, the Red Sox manager, wanted to keep me for 1972 and he started me in the bullpen. We had a series against Cleveland and Sonny Seibert was supposed to pitch, but he was sick. When I came in the clubhouse, Eddie Kasko had a ball in my locker. He came to me and said, “You’re going to start today. Are you ready?” I said, “I’ve been ready all my life. Just give me the ball.”
I started the game and in the seventh inning I had a hitter with two strikes and no balls. It came into my mind, “Let me try this and see what happens.” Carlton Fisk was the catcher and even he had no idea. It just came into my mind; nobody told me. I looked at the signs, went into my windup, looked into centerfield, looked at the sky and then threw it sidearm to the guy. He moved back because he thought it was gonna hit him, but I got it right on the corner. Sit down. He asked Fisk what pitch that was and he said, “I don’t know, I guess it’s a new pitch!”
Luis Tiant (r) and Ed Figueroa (c) of the New York Yankees explain to Tony Perez (L) how they will pitch to him in the coming season. Perez has Just signed a three-year One Million Dollar agrement with the Boston Red Sox and will play in the American league for the first time in his career during a local baseball clinic on November 17, 1979 in San Juan, Pueto Rico. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images)
We talked earlier about the influence your mother and father had on you as a youngster. I also read that you met your wife while you were pitching in Mexico as a teenager. Can you talk about how much it meant to have the support of your wife Maria for all these years?
She’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I’m telling you. She’s been behind me over sixty years. A lot of times I would say, “I don’t want to do this or I don’t want to do that,” but she would fight with me and tell me, “You better go over there and show them what you can do!” She would take care of the kids and tell me not to worry about it. So I would go do my thing and that was good for me. She backed me up all those years and she’s still doing it after 60 years of marriage. That’s the best thing that ever happened to me. Meeting her and marrying her. She’s a great mother, great grandmother and great wife. What more can you ask for?
When you left for the Big Leagues, you weren’t able to return to Cuba and your parents weren’t able to come to America to watch you pitch until 1975. That’s when your dad was able to come to Boston in 1975 and threw out the first pitch. What did it mean to finally reunite with your parents?
It felt great. They had a good time. Dad enjoyed seeing me pitch and they let him throw out the first pitch. We both enjoyed it a lot because before that, he thought he’d probably never see me again. And I felt the same way. God gave us the opportunity to see each other though and he got to watch me pitch. [Back in Cuba] they weren’t allowed to watch games. If they saw you watching the games, they would put you in jail. This guy used to have a TV and could watch the games. He would call my mother and father and they would watch the games. Every time they showed me on TV, my mother would touch me through the TV.
You have a son that you can’t see? That’s not right. Finally they came and had a great time. They were here about 16 months and they both passed away here, one day apart. We had to bury them both on the same day. It was terrible. But at least they saw me, met my wife, met their grandkids. We stayed in the same house and had a good time. I have a good memory of that. I thought I never was going to see them again, but God made it happen.
Boston Red Sox player Luis Tiant fouls one off during Game One of the 1975 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds at Fenway Park in Boston on Oct. 11, 1975. (Photo by Tom Landers/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
You were the starting pitcher for Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, which many say is the greatest World Series game ever played. You were out of the game by the time Carlton Fisk hit his famous homer. Where were you when that happened?
I was inside changing because I was sweating so much in the game. But I said, “Shit! God dang it, I am coming back to the dugout!” But I forgot my pants. I was running down to the field in my jock. I’m standing there with no clothes. It was great when Fisk hit that. It wasn’t something you’d expect could happen. It was a great World Series that could have gone either way. If we had Jim Rice, it could have been a little different. We played good though. We made the fans happy and it could have gone either way. Cincinnati had the best team in baseball. We were the underdog but we came up just short. There was a lot of tension. They scored, we scored. We scored, they scored.
You had 513 at bats before the DH came into play and had some good production. You had five home runs and 14 doubles among your 84 hits. Can you talk to us about your hitting?
When I started playing, I was a catcher. The ball hit my palm hard though and I quit. Then I played third base, shortstop and first base. They didn’t let me pitch when I was a kid because I threw too hard. They were afraid if I hit someone, I could kill them. I was a pretty good hitter, especially when they threw a fastball. I didn’t care who was pitching, if they threw a fastball, I thought I could hit it. Breaking ball? That’s a different story. That was bad. In the World Series they threw me fastballs and I got some hits. I ran the bases too. I almost killed myself on that slide into second base in the World Series. I scored a run and missed home. I had to go back. I knew I missed it and I heard Johnny Bench saying to give him the ball. I had a lot of fun.
Coach Dick Williams #23 of the California Angels comes out to talk with pitcher Luis Tiant #23 of the Boston Red Sox and Thurman Munson #15 of the New York Yankees all of the American League All-Stars against the National League All-Stars during Major League Baseball All-Star game July 23, 1974 at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The National League won the game 7-2. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
After the Red Sox, you played a couple of seasons with the Yankees. You were on the team when Thurman Munson had his plane crash. Could you talk about Thurman and what that was like to experience?
He was my buddy. He was a very good catcher. Him and Carlton Fisk were the best catchers I ever pitched to. They wanted to control the game and they did. They could throw, catch and do everything. Me and Thurman became good friends. He was one of the only guys that sent flowers to my mom and dad’s funeral and I never forgot that. Only three players sent flowers and he was one. We appreciated the game and talked baseball a lot. He was a good man with a good heart. When he passed…. that was bad. I pitched the first game after the crash. Before the game they put his picture up. I looked at it and cried. I said, “God please, let me win this game for him.” I lost the God damned game 1-0, but I did my best.
Eight innings and just two hits allowed; you can’t do much better than that. You played with and against so many great players. Who were the ones you enjoyed competing against?
I would compete against anyone. I liked competing against Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. So many great ones like Al Kaline, Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew, Tony Oliva, George Brett. Shit, they’re all bad men! There was nobody I didn’t like to pitch against. They might hit me, but I will get them out more often. Those guys hit everybody, so if they hit me, it didn’t bother me. When they were coming up, I wanted to make sure nobody was on base for them. Then if they hit me, I’d just get the next guy.
We had so many good hitters in those years. Norm Cash, Willie Horton, Frank Robinson, Boomer Scott, Carl Yastrzemski, Boog Powell. So many bad men, but I love to compete. I’m not afraid of anyone. It was satisfying to get them out. I feel like I did good against the very best, which is why I think I belong in the Hall of Fame. The record is there. You can look it up on Google.
Join us next week on Spitballin’ for Part II with Luis Tiant when he lets loose on the current state of Major League Baseball.