The Long Road Home For A Cuban Baseball Legend Luis Tiant left Cuba in 1961 to play pro baseball in the U.S. In 2007, at the age of 67, he made a bittersweet return to his homeland. Filmmaker Jonathan Hock, who documented the trip in The Lost Son of Havana, talks with Robert Siegel.
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The Long Road Home For A Cuban Baseball Legend

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The Long Road Home For A Cuban Baseball Legend

The Long Road Home For A Cuban Baseball Legend

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

(Soundbite of film, "The Lost Son of Havana")

SIEGEL: This is a scene in Jonathan Hock's documentary film, "Lost Son of Havana." The filmmaker is shooting in a public park in Havana, where there's a place known as the Hot Corner. Baseball fans gather there, and they argue ferociously about the game.

(Soundbite of film, "The Lost Son of Havana")

Mr. JONATHAN HOCK (Filmmaker): (Spanish spoken)

SIEGEL: Hock asks a crowd in accented Spanish: Who is the best Cuban pitcher who ever played in the Major League?

(Soundbite of film, "The Lost Son of Havana")

Unidentified Man #1: (Spanish spoken)

SIEGEL: Some of the fans call out El Duque, Orlando Hernandez, and others Jose Contreras, pitchers of very recent vintage. And when one of the fans answers Luis Tiant, Hock surprises all concerned with the news that Tiant himself, long retired from baseball and back in Cuba for the first time since 1961, is right there in the park.

(Soundbite of film, "The Lost Son of Havana")

Mr. HOCK: (Spanish spoken)

SIEGEL: "The Lost Son of Havana" tells the story of Luis Tiant's return to his country.

And Jonathan Hock, who made the documentary, joins us from New York right now.


Mr. HOCK: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: First, I want you to explain to non-baseball fans out there or non-Boston Red Sox fans who Luis Tiant is.

Mr. HOCK: Luis Tiant was a pitcher for several Major League teams, most notably the Boston Red Sox. At two different points in the '60s and in the '70s, he was the best pitcher in baseball, but more importantly, he was the most loved pitcher of my lifetime. I was growing up when he was in his prime, and there was never a pitcher, maybe any Major League player, who was just more loved by the fans than Tiant.

SIEGEL: Tiant's story is fascinating, and I didn't know the half of it, which is to say I didn't know the story of his father. He was a very young man and a very gifted young pitcher, at the moment of the Cuban revolution was outside the country, opted to play pro ball here, and by doing so was really barred from going home.

Mr. HOCK: That's right. Tiant, the younger, was pitching in the Mexican League the summer of the Bay of Pigs. And while he was in Mexico, he was scouted by the Major Leagues and fulfilled his young life's dream to that point by signing a contract with the Cleveland Indians.

He got a letter from his father saying don't come home. He's not letting anyone leave once you come back. If you come back, you're not going to be able to play baseball. Tiant himself had been rookie of the year in the Cuban pro league the year before as a 20-year-old pitcher in Havana. And his father said, for now, just stay put. None of them expected that it would be 46 years before Luis went home.

SIEGEL: His father, meanwhile, the elder Luis Tiant, had also been a great pitcher and had come to the United States, but in his day, because he was dark-skinned, he couldn't play Major League ball. He pitched in the negro leagues for a long time.

Mr. HOCK: Exactly right. In 1931, Luis Tiant Senior, who was known as Leftie, came up with a Cuban team for an exhibition game. He was clearly an extraordinary player and was looked at by Major League teams.

There were several Cubans in the Major Leagues in the '20s and early '30s. However, they were very light-skinned, and Luis Senior was deemed too dark by a shade or two and was not allowed to pitch in the Major Leagues. So he became a huge star in the Negro Leagues and eventually had his greatest season in 1947 when he was undefeated and led the New York Cubans to the Negro World Championship.

SIEGEL: Now, the elder Tiant, as well as his wife, Luis Tiant's mother, eventually were allowed to join him in the United States through some international statecraft. I mean, there was diplomacy to permit them to leave after quite a few years, so Luis Tiant had seen his parents. But the idea of going back was something special to him.

Mr. HOCK: Luis was 67 years old the day we landed in Cuba, and he was staring down what he felt was the last chapter of his life. He is not ill or anything. There's nothing - no immediate cause of this. He just woke up one morning and said, oh, my God, I'm going to die like so many of my friends here have died without ever going back. And I think he had this extraordinary guilt.

He had an extraordinary need to see his family and make sure - or find out really, discover, that it was okay with them that he had never come home and had become a star.

SIEGEL: There's a touching and not altogether cheering scene toward the end of the film, when Luis Tiant has met with his aunts and all of his cousins. He is the rich success story from the United States. They're poor, and they're really facing hard times, and they need help from him. They need cash.

(Soundbite of film, "The Lost Son of Havana")

Mr. HOCK: Well, this was one of the most uncomfortable scenes that I've ever filmed. Luis' cousin, after they had a lot of laughs, and this was the day he was getting ready to go, she takes him off to the side and she says, look, it's not easy here, and we need more than they give us. And Luis did what I think anybody visiting a family member in need would do. He reached into his pocket, pulled out whatever Cuban money he had and gave it to her.

It's uncomfortable to see that. But especially at the end of the film when he's been working through things so well with his family, you know, a lot of difficult things he's working through with them, to be struck with this uncomfortable moment, and I don't think Luis was ashamed to do it. I don't think his cousin was ashamed to ask. She saw me standing in the room filming. And this is their reality. This is the reality of life there.

SIEGEL: And it's an illustration of what really is the central tension of this story, which is Luis Tiant had a great talent, a great talent to pitch. By staying in the states when he did, he was separating himself from the place he came from, and he was succeeding as an individual. So the test between what's yours, what you've been able to achieve in our country and to what extent are you in the same boat with your cousins and your aunts and your neighbors is part of what's tugging at him in all this time.

Mr. HOCK: Well, I think Luis - on the one hand, I think he's been running from it his whole life. Not running from them, but running from facing up to the guilt that's there for him.

(Soundbite of film, "The Lost Son of Havana")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. TIANT: I've been long enough away from my family, 46 years from (unintelligible). I feel better. My heart is better. My head is better. I guess I can say I can close my book now if I want to. I die, I die happy.

Mr. HOCK: You know, what's interesting is that in a way, we sort of tell the two parallel stories, the one present day, his journey to Cuba; and the second his life story and baseball career. You see how Luis in a way becomes his own antagonist.

The more he succeeds, the greater his guilt, the greater the sense of loss, the greater the emptiness of how much he's not been able to share it with his family. And for him to be able to try to set that right at the very end of the story was what made it so dramatic in a filmic way.

SIEGEL: Jonathan Hock, thanks a lot for talking with us.

Mr. HOCK: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Jonathan Hock's new documentary about Luis Tiant's return to Cuba is called "The Lost Son of Havana."

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: It premieres tomorrow at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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