Luis Tiant's Home Run Bridges Tough Politics
Ã¢â‚¬Å“No es facil.Ã¢â‚¬Â Luis Tiant, confronted with the pain and sadness of leaving his country and his family for a second time, utters this most Cuban of Cuban expressions at the end of the stunning documentary Lost Son of Havana. This week producer Bobby Farrelly and director Jonathan Hock arranged a screening of the film in Washington, bringing together political figures from both sides of the policy spectrum: Massachusetts Democrat Bill Delahunt (a longtime advocate of opening to Cuba and author of legislation that would lift travel restrictions for Cuba) and Senator Mel Martinez (Peter Pan exile and fierce defender of the status quo). People on both sides know that the politics are tough on this one.
But baseball, as any fan of the Durham Bulls can tell you, isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t hard: You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains. And Luis Tiant reveled in the game - reliving his baseball career from sandlot struggles in Havana to his two victories in the Ã¢â‚¬â„¢75 World Series is a rare joy.
Playing in a Mexican summer league, Tiant was away from home and family as the U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs fiasco unfolded in 1961. His father wrote that a return to Cuba would mean giving up any chance to play professional baseball. And so his American baseball career began. Tiant didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t see his parents again until 1975, when Senator George McGovern visited Cuba during one of the many false springs in the U.S.-Cuba relationship and appealed to Fidel Castro to allow Luis, Sr. - known in his playing days as Lefty Ã¢â‚¬â€œ and his mother Isabel to leave the island.
One of the most compelling scenes in the movie depicts the senior Tiant, close to 70 years old, kick high and send a gorgeous strike across the plate before one of his sonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s starts with the Boston Red Sox. Luis Sr.Ã¢â‚¬â„¢s story is an epic at least the equal of his sonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s: a Cuban ace in the Negro Leagues, he struck out Babe Ruth and excelled for years in AmericaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Jim Crow years, only to return to Cuba and eke out a living as a gas station attendant in Havana. He and Isabel died within a few days of each other in Boston.
After the film, Luis Tiant waited for the chants of Loo-ie, Loo-ie to die down before thanking the filmmakers and the crowd. And then he said, Ã¢â‚¬Å“I want all the embargoes to be openedÃ¢â‚¬Â¦But we got a problem there. And we have to respect the people there Ã¢â‚¬â€œ so many people struggled and died, trying to come hereÃ¢â‚¬Â¦Ã¢â‚¬Â And then he admonished the American audience to appreciate what they have.
Luis Tiant was clear in saying that heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s no politician. But the return experience clearly changed him. In the film, he says to his fatherÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s sisters through tears that from now on, things would be different. The 46 years of exile were too many -- he wouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t stay away from his country or his family again.
Only a few years ago, Tiant criticized the Baltimore Orioles for playing one of a two game series in Havana against the Cuban national squad. TiantÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s tone is different now. For him, the years have been too many, and heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s clearly going to be going home more often. Maybe politics isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t easy, but when it comes to his heart, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not hard at all.