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Old haunts haunting to Tiant

Luis Tiant's return to his native Cuba was a most poignant experience. Luis Tiant's return to his native Cuba was a most poignant experience. (File/Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Bob Hohler
Globe Staff / April 15, 2009
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A wise old woman, her cheeks wet with tears, warned Luis Tiant how much it would hurt to go home.

One of the most endearing folk heroes in the history of New England sports, the Red Sox great was poised to defy the governments of the United States and Cuba and sneak back to his boyhood home in Havana after 46 years in exile. He would make the journey on his 67th birthday, searching for a missing piece of his soul.

"There's such misery there," the woman, a Cuban refugee in Miami, cautioned Tiant on the eve of his journey. "Even if you don't want to cry, tears will come out of your eyes."

In an intimate social history that evokes the heartache millions have endured when politics or war have separated them from their native lands and the ones they love, El Tiante's cathartic journey home - he painfully discovers the truth of the woman's prophecy - is chronicled in a new film documentary, "The Lost Son of Havana."

The movie, scheduled to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York April 23 and to open in New England at the Independent Film Festival Boston April 25, is a story of love and death, hope and desperation, glory and despair, all seen through Tiant's crying eyes as he confronts his stolen past and enters the winter of his life. The debut documentary of Sox diehards Bobby and Peter Farrelly, the film provides the deepest look yet at the private turmoil Tiant suffered as a child of the Cuban-American Cold War.

"We knew it was going to be a moving story," Bobby Farrelly said, "because Luis had so much burning inside of him."

Five years in the making, the documentary tracks Tiant from his spacious suburban home in Southborough - he retired from Major League Baseball in 1982 after a 19-year pitching career that compares favorably to those of several Hall of Famers - to the desolate streets of Havana, where he is jolted by the anguish and sorrow of the impoverished family and friends he last saw in 1961 after Fidel Castro's violent rise to power.

"I have to go to Cuba before I die," he says as the movie opens. "That is going to complete my life."

Tearful partings
Though many young Red Sox fans know him as little more than the cigar-puffing inspiration for Cuban sandwiches at Fenway Park, Tiant long ago built a boyhood dream into an indelible baseball legacy. The only child of Lefty Tiant, a former Negro leagues star who once struck out Babe Ruth, Tiant was 20 when he departed Cuba in 1961 to play baseball in Mexico and caught the eye of a scout for the Cleveland Indians. By the time he retired, he had won 229 games, pitched in three All-Star Games, and emerged as a star of the classic 1975 World Series between the Sox and Cincinnati Reds.

Along the way, Tiant captured the hearts of New Englanders with his indomitable spirit. No Sox pitcher has since matched the 163 pitches he threw to defeat the Big Red Machine in a complete-game, 5-4 victory in Game 4 of the '75 Series (he also shut out the Reds, 6-0, in Game 1).

"I actually cried" when Tiant left the Sox after the '78 season, Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski says in the documentary. "He was the heart and soul of the pitching staff."

To Castro, though, he was a deserter. Barred from returning to Cuba unless he agreed to join the Socialist revolution and play as an amateur, Tiant for decades was visible to the family and friends he left behind only as a fuzzy image of an American baseball player on the few television screens available to them in the isolated nation.

The only concession Castro made to Tiant was granting a written request from Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke, delivered by South Dakota Senator George McGovern, to allow Tiant's aging parents, Luis and Isabel, to leave the island in 1975. They lived with Tiant for 15 months, cheering him in the '75 Series and the '76 All-Star Game, before they died.

The elder Tiant succumbed to cancer in a Boston hospital.

"I'm going," he told Isabel on his deathbed, Tiant recalls in the film. "Are you coming with me or are you staying here?"

"I'm going with you," Isabel told him.

The next day, soon after her husband passed on, Isabel Tiant died in her son's home, apparently of a ruptured aorta.

"They killed me," Tiant says tearfully of their deaths. "The two of them buried me alive."

An idea is hatched
Every attempt Tiant made to return to Havana before and after their deaths was thwarted by US and Cuban officials. Then he met Kris Meyer, of Quincy, an associate of the Farrelly brothers, when the Farrellys were filming their Sox-inspired romantic comedy, "Fever Pitch," at Fenway Park in 2004. Tiant shared with Meyer his desire to return to Cuba and agreed to allow a film crew to accompany him if the producers helped him enter the country.

"We tried to go through the proper channels, but that didn't work," Meyer said. "So we found out about a goodwill baseball team that was going."

The San Diego Black Sox agreed to add Tiant and the film crew to their traveling roster. The only hitch: Tiant and the filmmakers would need to pass themselves off in Cuba as players and coaches.

It wasn't pretty, as Meyer went down swinging against a Cuban pitcher, and the film's writer and director, Jonathan Hock, eked out a single but paid a physical price.

"I set an international record," Hock said, "by pulling two hamstrings in three innings."

The ruse cleared the way for Tiant to return to his childhood streets. He found his boyhood home in Havana, visited the park where his father helped teach him to pitch, and found old friends and relatives. He was greeted warmly by all but one, a destitute man named Fermin, who seemed to speak for many on the island who achingly wondered how their lives might have changed had they, rather than Tiant, reached America.

Fermin and Tiant had played baseball together as youths.

"I've been hurt and angry with you [because] we were both right there as players," Fermin tells Tiant in the film, angrily wagging his finger in Tiant's face. "Damn, Luisito, I'm [mad] as hell!"

Taken aback at first, Tiant then embraced his childhood friend, who wept on Tiant's shoulder.

For three days, the film crew crowded into a 10-foot-square room in Havana as Tiant and his relatives tried to piece together all they had lost. Long known as one of baseball's most gregarious and devilish cutups, Tiant turned tender and wistful as he discovered how much his family had struggled to survive in Cuba while he thrived in America. He learned his relatives needed to peddle cigarettes on the streets to try to make ends meet.

"We're doing badly," a cousin whispers to Tiant in the film, trying to shield herself from the camera. "We are left needing a lot."

Tiant realizes his parents suffered the same fate before they left the island. His father, who was barred from playing in Major League Baseball because of his skin color, lived his final years in Cuba as a gas station attendant.

If only Tiant could have found a way to help, he tells his relatives, grappling with misplaced guilt. If only he had returned sooner.

"So much time has passed that I shouldn't have let go by," he says, crying. "I thought I wouldn't be able to see you again."

Yet even as his relatives struggle to subsist, they comfort him in the generous spirit of an impoverished people.

"Don't worry about it, cousin," a woman tells him. "What we want is for you to be happy."

Renewed in return
The documentary, narrated by Oscar winner Chris Cooper, captures the essential Tiant: his signature Fu Manchu mustache, now white at the handlebars; the smoke swirling from his homemade cigars; his big smile and sad eyes; his painful inner conflict born from a political standoff he was powerless to resolve.

By the end, on an island where freedom is scarce, Tiant is personally liberated by the kindness of the family he has rediscovered.

"The gift that Louie's family gave him in their humble way was helping him understand that you can't undo the things that go wrong in your life, but you can make peace with what you have lost," Hock said. "They let him know that they have never stopped loving him, which is what he needed as he looked toward the final chapter of his life."

Nourished by the sights, scents, and sounds of the Havana he once called home - and renewed by his lost family's love - El Tiante headed back to New England a richer man.

"My heart is better, my head is better," he says in the film as he prepares to depart Cuba. "I can say, 'When I die, I die happy.' I'm a free man now."

Bob Hohler can be reached at hohler@globe.com.

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