Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Luis Tiant

Luis Clemente Tiant Vega (Spanish pronunciation: [ˈlwis ˈtjant]), born November 23, 1940 in Marianao, Cuba, (then part of Havana Province), is a former right-handed starting pitcher in Major League Baseball who played for the Cleveland Indians (1964–1969), Minnesota Twins (1970), Boston Red Sox (1971–1978), New York Yankees (1979–80), Pittsburgh Pirates (1981) and California Angels (1982). Tiant is one of five pitchers to have pitched four or more consecutive shutouts in the 50-year expansion era, with Don Drysdale (six, 1968), Bob Gibson (five, 1968), Orel Hershiser (five, 1988) and Gaylord Perry (four, 1970) being the others.

Tiant is the only child of Luis Tiant, Sr. and Isabel Vega. From 1926 through 1948, the senior Tiant was a great left-handed pitcher for the Negro League's New York Cubans during the summer and the Cuban professional league's Cienfuegos in the winter, his heroics being followed by hundreds of thousands of Cubans. Luis Jr. followed in his father's footsteps at an early age, joining both the local Little and Juvenile baseball leagues until he starred for the Havana team and was picked up for the Cuban Juvenile League All-Star team in 1957.

His talent was recognized by former Cleveland Indians All-Star, Bobby Avila, who was scouting for talent in Cuba. Avila recommended him to the Mexico City Tigers of the Mexican League. Tiant was signed for $150 a month, and for the next three years he divided his time between the Tigers and the Havana Sugar Kings in the International League.

Tiant broke through in 1968, after he altered his delivery so that he turned away from the home plate during his motion, in effect creating a hesitation pitch. According to Tiant, the new motion was a response to a drop in his velocity due to an arm injury. Twisting and turning his body into unthinkable positions, Tiant would spend more time looking at second base than he did the plate as he prepared to throw. In that season, he led the league in ERA (1.60), shutouts (9, including 4 consecutive!), hits per nine innings (a still-standing franchise record 5.30, which broke Herb Score's 5.85 in 1956 and would be a Major-League record low until Nolan Ryan gave up 5.26 hits/9 innings in 1972), strikeouts per nine innings (9.22, more than a batter an inning), while finishing with a 21–9 mark. Beside this, opposing hitters batted just .168 off Tiant, a major league record, and on July 3 he struck out 19 Minnesota Twins in a ten-inning game, setting an American League record for games of that length. His 1.60 ERA was the lowest in the American League since Walter Johnson's 1.49 mark during the dead-ball era in 1919, and second lowest in 1968 only to Bob Gibson's 1.12—the lowest ever during the Live Ball Era. With lefty Sam McDowell, Looie is the only right-hand starting pitcher in the AL to S0 9 batters/ 9 innings 2 seasons (1967 & 1968). With McDowell and Sonny Siebert and others, the Indians staff led the AL in SO 5 consecutive years, including a record 1189 SO in 1967, a record that would stand for 30 years until the steroid era.

After an injury-plagued season in 1969, Tiant was traded to the Twins in a multi-player deal that brought fellow pitcher Dean Chance and third baseman Graig Nettles to the Indians. With Minnesota, Tiant began 1970 with six wins, but then he fractured his right scapula, essentially ending his season and, some felt, his career. He showed some promise in the 1971 spring training, but he was released.

The Braves signed him to a minor league contract to play with their Triple-A Richmond, where he pitched well, and was acquired by the Louisville Colonels, a farm team of the Boston Red Sox.

He was quickly called back up to the majors, and despite struggling through 1971 with a 1–7 record and 4.88 ERA, he would soon become one of the greatest and most beloved pitchers in Red Sox history and a great idol in Boston.
Luis Tiant aboard USS Albany, June 2007

Starting to be known as El Tiante at Fenway Park, in 1972 Tiant regained his old form with a 15–6 record and led the league with a 1.91 ERA. He would win 20 games in 1973 and 22 in 1974.

Though hampered by back problems in 1975, he won 18 games for the American League Champion Red Sox and then excelled for Boston in the postseason. In the playoffs he defeated the three time defending World Champion Oakland Athletics in a 7–1 three-hitter complete game, then opened the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. His father and mother, having been allowed to visit from Cuba under a special visa, were in Fenway Park that game to watch their son defeat The Big Red Machine in a 6–0 five-hit shutout. All six Red Sox runs were scored in the seventh inning; Tiant led off that inning (the designated hitter was not yet in use in World Series play) with a base hit off Don Gullett and eventually scored on Carl Yastrzemski's single for the first of those six runs.

Tiant won Game 4 as well (throwing 163 pitches in his second complete game in the series) and had a no-decision in Game 6, which has been called the greatest game ever played, after Carlton Fisk’s dramatic game-winning walk-off home run in the 12th inning.

Tiant went 21–12 in 1976, 12–8 in 1977, and 13–8 in 1978. At the end of the 1978 season, Tiant signed as a free agent with the Yankees. Tiant compiled a 21–17 record in New York over two seasons from 1979-80.

As of 2007, Luis Tiant resides in Southborough, MA, USA. He also works for the Red Sox as a pitching advisor.

Tiant is the subject of the documentary film "The Lost Son of Havana", produced by Kris Meyer and the Farrelly brothers, and directed by Jonathan Hock. It had its world premiere on April 23 at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, and was promptly acquired by ESPN Films.

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