An ode to El Tiante

1974

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.

1968   1971

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.

None.

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.

1972-topps-681-bobby-pfeil-36652

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.

1973

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.

1974Yearbook

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.

loutiant_1978_tbb1_345_black

 

 

Author: Mark Armour

Long-time SABR member, co-chair of the Baseball Cards Committee, founder and past chairman (2002-2016) of the Biography Project, author of several books and dozens of articles on baseball. See mark-armour.net.

14 thoughts on “An ode to El Tiante”

  1. I’m detecting a trend with your pre and post pubescent female celebrity crushes. Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon) and Kate Jackson are rather similar in appearance.
    Luis’ Cleveland cards were all fantastic. The 69 decal insert and photo stamp as well as the 69 Kellogg’s 3D all depict Luis wearing a greyish blue windbreaker under the vest uniform. A very interesting look.
    Having Luis cigar is very cool, but a “game smoked” cigar from Luis would be better.
    Luis is well worth a 45 year love affair. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am fairly certain that my first celebrity crush, the first person I could not wait to see on the screen, was Barbara Gordon as Batgirl. This would have been while the show was airing in primetime, so I was like 7 years old.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember that 72 season well. Too well. Aparicio tripping rounding 3rd. Just saw Louie at a show a few ago. I’ve always loved that 73 yearbook card/ cutout of Tiant

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, the Aparicio game was the opener of the series — they had one chance to get to Lolich, and got only one run. He struck out 15 I believe. Tiant lost the second game, and the Red Sox won the meaningless finale. Tough blow, made worse by the fact that I was not allowed to stay up to watch the ends of the games. I relied on a radio in bed. My parents were tough.

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  3. This’ll be part of a post later this month but when I touristed to Seattle in the early 1990s I caught an Everett Giants vs Yakima Bears short-season A game. I was a blown away to see that Tiant was the Yakima pitching coach and since I’d had the presence of mind to include an official AL baseball in my luggage I very excitedly waited for him by the bus after the game. So he stopped and was going to sign except that my pen died. Man the look of apology/pity/sympathy on his face was sort of heartbreaking. I also had the presence of mind to include spare pens so no tragedy. But yeah I think you can learn a lot about a guy by how he treats a kid when an autograph session goes bad.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Tiant’s “problem” is that he is a direct contemporary of some truly great pitchers and some really, really good pitchers with long careers.

      1964-1982: Tiant
      1967-1986: Seaver
      1959-1975: Gibson
      1964-1987: Niekro
      1965-1988: Carlton
      1962-1983: Perry
      1965-1983: Jenkins
      1966-1993: Ryan
      1965-1984: Palmer
      1960-1975: Marichal
      1966-1988: Sutton
      1965-1979: Hunter

      And to a lesser extent in terms of career overlap:
      1970-1992: Blyleven
      1956-1969: Drysdale
      1955-1971: Bunning

      Like Schilling and Mussina, Tiant is a great pitcher who happens to be overshadowed by even better contemporaries (every pitcher listed above is in the HOF except Tiant – there are still very good pitchers like Tommy John and Koosman and Kaat and Reuss and Jim Perry and others who aren’t mentioned above). If Tiant’s career had started in the 1940s (yes, I’m ignoring the color barrier issue), he would likely be heralded as among the best of his generation, along with Spahn, Robin Roberts, and Feller, and very likely already be in the HOF without changing one bit of his stats.

      Of course, one positive change in the baseball card world is that it is very likely that a player of Tiant’s stature would have a card in some product during the year nowadays, regardless of the season he had. There would likely also be autographed and serial numbered parallel versions of that card as well, along with short prints (whether those are positive changes is a matter of personal taste).

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great article. I always love when authors connect players to childhood and the events thereof.
    As for childhood crushes-my 1st was Tina Louise on Gilligan’s Island (syndication), but my 1st (and longest) “real time” crush had to be Cheryl Ladd as I was one of the few at the time that preferred her to Farrah!
    Again, nice work!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I can’t remember if Tiant adopted that herky-jerky, looking-every-which-way motion only after he revived his career, or if always did it. These past couple of seasons watching Oliver Perez with the Nats always reminded me of Tiant.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Question: what is Tiant holding in that last card? It looks like a mid-2000s flip phone. (And while we’re all chiming in, my first tv crush was Susan Dey aka Laurie Partridge…)

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