Luis Tiant was a charismatic right-handed pitcher who Reggie Jackson called “the Fred Astaire of baseball.” Most notably as a member of the Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox & New York Yankees, Tiant won 229 games over parts of 19 seasons in the major leagues. His mid-career comeback from shoulder surgery, dramatic family reunion during a playoff run and World Series heroics inspired a legion of New England fans, likely leaving him the most beloved man ever to play for the Boston Red Sox.
The Lost Son of Havana is a documentary that follows former MLB great Luis Tiant as he returns to his native Cuba after a 46-year absence. While accompanying “El Tiante” through Cuba, the film intersperses clips of Tiant’s life history as well as that of his father, Luis “Lefty” Tiant Sr.
Luis Tiant left Cuba to play for the Tigres of Mexico City - he expected to be gone for 3 months but instead was gone for 46 years. Luis was signed out of the Mexican League by the Cleveland Indians in 1961 and left to play in the minor leagues. At the same time, the Cuban government had been overthrown by Fidel Castro’s guerillia movement. Following the Bay of Pigs invastion, Castro presented an ultimatum to Cuban ballplayers playing abroad: either come back to Cuba and play baseball as an amateur (professional baseball was outlawed) or stay in the US and never return.
Tiant chose to stay and never returned. Until now.
Tiant returns to Havana unannounced for the first time in nearly a half-century to drop in on family and friends that he left behind. He is seeking closure.
“I wanted to go back before I die. Forty-six years is a long time to be away.”
Between the joyful and sometimes heartbreaking reunions, we learn about Tiant’s baseball career and the relationship he had with his father, a baseball star in his own right, former Negro-leaguer Luis Tiant Sr.
This film draws similarities to the Buena Vista Social Club where we are treated to shots of every day Havana street scenes and the Cuban countryside. An especially poignant scene for me, was when Tiant arrived at the “Esquina Caliente” (“hot corner” – a central park where baseball-mad fans gather to argue/talk baseball) unrecognized. The film crew asked the gathering who was the best Cuban pitcher to have played in the majors:
No, you’re wrong – it was El Duque!
You’re crazy man! It has to be Livan Hernandez!
This goes back and forth until one fan says Tiant. Then Tiant is pointed out in the square behind them and they gather around him and talk baseball. It is almost surreal. (For more on the Esquina, I travelled there in January of this year).
Although a baseball story on the surface, this film is much more than that. For Tiant, he has 2 loves: baseball and family. At a crucial point in his life Tiant had to choose between the two and he chose baseball. This film examines both loves, but in particular the feelings of regret that Luis has in choosing baseball over family. In addition, this film is a great study on the father-son relationship and the timeless bond that baseball affords this relationship. The relationship between Jr. and Sr. is explored in great detail here.
Baseball fans will take particular interest in interviews with Carlton Fisk and Carl Yastrzemski who provide glowing tributes as to what it meant to have Tiant as a teammate of theirs. The film also tracks Tiant’s comeback from major shoulder surgery as well as his various minor league stints when major league teams wouldn’t give him a shot.
However, the crux of the film isn’t really about baseball at all. Although Tiant Jr. achieved great success at the major league level, it was hollow. He had no extended family to share in his success. Not only were they not with him but he had no access to them. Tiant is clearly torn by the choices he’s made and his struggle with guilt is an underlying theme in this film.
This film touches on all aspects of the Cuban embargo, politics, success & failure, heartbreak, regret and love. Cuba is much different than how Tiant remembers it. There is a point in the film when the narrator conveys to us Luis’ feelings: that Havana initially feels as alien to him as America did when he was growing up in Havana. His family are old, in pain and struggling to make ends meet. Tiant is overwhelmed by the desolation and poverty his family and friends are living in.
“Things could have been different,” says Luis, overcome with emotion at his aunt’s cramped and run-down Havana home.
Although Tiant does little in regards to articulating his emotions, his stoicism makes it all the more impactful when he does drop hints as to how he is feeling:
“I have a strange feeling. All those years I’ve been away. So many people I knew are gone now. Sometimes I want to laugh, sometimes I want to cry, sometimes I want to scream.”
The moment illustrates the central tension of the story: by abandoning his family and Cuba, Tiant found great success. His family found misery.
Returning to Cuba brings Tiant some semblance of closure. “I feel better,” he says in the film. “My heart is better; my head is better. I guess I can close my book now. If I die, I die happy.”
Although it is not available by conventional means, this movie can be downloaded via NetFlix, iTunes or purchased from Amazon.com. Without giving too much away, the archival footage of an ancient Luis Tiant Sr. throwing out the first pitch at Fenway Park while Luis Jr. holds his jacket is, on its own, worth your investment of time and money. That being said, there are so many other great moments in this film that I highly recommend it for any baseball fan or anyone who appreciates great story-telling.