As August 1972 dawned, Red Sox reliever/spot-starter/afterthought Luis Tiant sported a 4-4 record with a 3.18 ERA. This was actually a positive and surprising turn of events — Tiant had been discarded a year earlier and his making the Red Sox in April was more a reflection of their sad pitching staff than it was Tiant’s spring mound work. No matter what manager Eddie Kasko might have said.
On August 1 the Red Sox were 47-46, fourth place in the six-team AL East, a mediocre team on the way to a mediocre finish. No one was blaming Tiant — he’d been given an unimportant role, and he had performed it with aplomb.
I was with my father and grandfather in the third base grandstand for his July 22 start against the A’s, his fifth start of the season. I generally attended one or two games a year, and this was the one. The pitching matchup was Tiant against Catfish Hunter, which seemed hardly fair though both pitchers departed a 3-3 game eventually won by Oakland. What are you gonna do?
Luis Tiant, as I well knew, had had some excellent seasons (especially 1968) with the Indians, had been traded to the Twins (1969), had badly hurt his throwing arm (1970), was released (1971), and finally was picked up by the Red Sox and sent to the minors. I loved Tiant in his pre-Red Sox days. I liked his name, and I especially liked the way he looked on his baseball cards. Handsome as hell, and he looked like he came to win.
But this was not my first rodeo. I was plenty old enough (10) to know that injured and discarded pitchers did not suddenly become uninjured. I figured I’d never hear his name again.
The Red Sox called Tiant up in June, and he was in and out of the rotation for two months. By early August he was 0-6 with a 6.44 ERA, and Kasko was mocked in the local papers. Tiant didn’t start again, thankfully, but he stuck around in the bullpen the rest of the season and pitched better. The Red Sox gave him an invitation to spring training the next year, but he had no shot to make the team.
Topps didn’t even put him on a 1972 baseball card. Understand: Topps gave everyone a baseball card, which is one of the things I loved about baseball cards. Bobby Pfeil, who the Red Sox acquired a week before the season started but immediately sent to the minor leagues, never to return to the majors, got a baseball card as a member of the 1972 Red Sox.
Luis Tiant did not get a card because Topps figured Tiant was finished.
On March 22 the Red Sox traded Sparky Lyle to the Yankees, an infamous deal that came with the side effect of saving Tiant’s job. Give Eddie Kasko credit: he believed. Luis survived as a bullpen option who could also spot start. Four months later his utility role had not changed.
He saved a game against the Yankees on August 2, then pitched two complete game wins over the Orioles on the 5th and 12th. He pitched another game in relief (still not in the rotation!) before starting on the 19th at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. The result was a 2-hit shutout, the first hit coming on a Carlos May double in the 7th. After the game, Kasko finally announced the obvious: Tiant would remain in the rotation. The team was suddenly just 3.5 games out of first.
Over the next four weeks I fell in love with Luis Tiant, and I have never really fallen back out. It wasn’t the love I had for Agent 99, but it was love just the same. I loved the look, the accent, the cigars in the shower. I loved the way he walked to the mound, stood on the mound, stared in to get the sign from Carlton Fisk, the 20 different windups, the 10 pitches thrown from several different angles and speeds. And the fact that he got everyone out, that was also nice.
His next start was another shutout, and then another, and then another. Four in a row, before he settled for a 4-2 win over the Yankees on September 8. After a shocking 3-2 loss in Yankee Stadium on the 12th, he shut out the Indians four days later.
This is about the time we all finally noticed, “Hey, wait a minute, Tiant doesn’t have a baseball card this year? WTF was Topps thinking?” Thereby using both absurd revisionism and 21st century twitter jargon.
I was therefore doubly thrilled when this issue of the Sporting News showed up, with its “Boston’s Surprising Ace” headline. If you ever want to see this issue, you can find it hanging in my office to this very day.
On September 20, when Tiant walked to the mound to face the Orioles, a sold-out Fenway Park crowd rose to its feet and cheered his entrance (his teammates joining in) and began chanting “Loo-EEE, Loo-EEE,” a refrain that would become a common Fenway sound over the next few years.
This went on for the rest of the night, growing especially loud when Tiant batted in the eighth, grounded to the pitcher, exchanged batting helmet for glove, and strode back to the hill. He finished his shutout, his sixth in his last eight starts, to total bedlam. Carl Yastrzemski, who knew a thing or two about starring in a pennant race, said that he had never witnessed such devotion.
Tiant pitched two more complete games wins before losing a 3-1 heartbreaker in Tiger Stadium on October 3, a game that decided the division. Let’s not dwell on that.
For the season, the washed up spot-starter had finished 15-6, 1.91, capturing the league’s ERA title and various comeback awards. This was just the beginning, of course. He would have many heroic moments in the coming years in Boston in pennant races and post seasons. (His September-October record for the Red Sox was 31-12.) But it started in August 1972.
The most anticipated baseball card in New England in 1973 is right here. Finally, our nightmare was over. Interesting — the photo was almost certainly taken in the spring of 1972, right about the time Topps moved heaven and earth to get Bobby Pfeil on a card.
The next time I saw Tiant pitch in person was June 24, 1974, against the Brewers. No longer a spot-starter, Luis was instead one of the biggest stars in the game. I was thrilled that it was Tiant’s turn, and even more thrilled at the 9-0 shutout.
I sent Tiant a letter around this time, and received a signed copy of this card. He had grown his trademark Fu Manchu, which he still sports.
Many years later, when I finally got up the nerve to submit an article to SABR for publication, it was the life story of Luis Tiant, which appeared in the Baseball Research Journal about 20 years ago. I have updated it a few times, and it is on the web. When I was fortunate enough to meet Tiant at the 2002 SABR convention in Boston (thanks to Anthony Salazar!), he gave me a cigar.
Once again, Luis Tiant’s candidacy for the Hall of Fame is up for debate. Am I biased? Of course I am biased. Vote for him, please. It would be the capper to my 45-year love affair.