NEW YORK (Reuters) - One of baseball’s greatest showmen returns to the spotlight in a documentary film that infuses the drama of sport with the emotions surrounding Cuba’s revolution, isolation and gradual re-opening to the United States.
More significantly for Luis Tiant, he returned to his native Cuba 46 years after getting caught outside the country during the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, unable to return without giving up his promising professional baseball career.
“The Lost Son of Havana,” which premiers at New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival, documents Tiant’s 2007 return to Havana. There he was re-united with family, friends and former teammates who alternately embrace him and resent his search for fame while leaving Cuba behind.
U.S. and Cuban authorities allowed him to return in conjunction with an exhibition baseball game.
U.S. President Barack Obama this month relaxed some of the travel restrictions that helped keep Tiant and other Cubans in the United States from visiting their homeland.
Tiant, 68, still wears his big droopy mustache, now turned white, and smokes jumbo cigars, making him a natural for the camera, just as he was in 1975. His magnificent and charismatic performance in the World Series that year as a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox made him one of the most popular players in the game.
Many fans recall the 1975 series, in which the Cincinnati Reds defeated Boston in seven games, as the most exciting they have ever seen.
“We love athletes and we love human interest stories and we love Luis, and so it all seemed to mesh when we found out he wanted to go home to Cuba after being away for 46 years,” said Bobby Farrelly, co-executive producer with his brother Peter.
The Farrelly brothers are best known for making comedies such as “Something About Mary” and break new ground with “The Lost Son of Havana,” directed by Jonathan Hock.
The film covers the diplomatic events that divided Cuba and the United States during the Cold War, forcing Tiant and other Cuban ballplayers to choose between remaining amateurs at home or aiming for the major leagues in the United States.
It also tells how Tiant’s father, Luis “Lefty” Tiant, was denied the chance to play in the major leagues because of the color barrier that kept blacks out until 1947, just as his career ended. Lefty instead became a legend in the pre-integration Negro Leagues and in 1961 advised his son to pursue the major leagues rather than return to Cuba.
After a couple of years in the minor leagues, where the younger Tiant endured the open racism of the segregated South in 1962, he burst into the big leagues with an overpowering fastball in 1964 and soon became one of the best pitchers in the game.
A serious arm injury in 1970 robbed him of his fastball, so he re-invented himself as a finesse pitcher who turned his back to the batter, whipping around and delivering the ball from a different arm angle each pitch.
Deception replaced velocity as his weapon, and he again dominated the pitching mound. But, an apolitical man, he never understood why he could not return home.
“When you play in the big leagues and have a nice house and a car and a family, everybody thinks you’ve got it made,” Tiant told Reuters. “Only you can’t go back. And you start thinking about it. Why? That’s my biggest question. Why does it have to be that way?”
“The Lost Son of Havana” helps answer why.
Editing by Will Dunham