The Leader of the Free World bent forward, reached his right hand through the backstop screen at the Estadio Latinamericano, and extended it to Luis Tiant. What President Barack Obama said next startled the Red Sox legend.
“He said, ‘What’s happening?’ Tiant said with a chuckle. “I said, ‘OK. I’m good, Mr. President, how you doing?’ He’s funny.’’
From where he was standing on the field, Tiant did not immediately see who was to Obama’s left, because the man was a little behind the U.S. president.
It was Raul Castro, the president of Cuba, brother of Fidel Castro, the dictator whose government had precipitated Tiant‘s exile from his homeland, an exile that lasted 46 years.
Raul Castro, like Obama, leaned forward and extended his hand.
“I didn’t know Castro was there,’’ Tiant said. “What am I going to do? What am I going to do, pull my hand away from him and say, ‘What the hell, I don’t want to talk to you.’
“No matter who he is, whatever he is, he is the president of the country. You don’t do that to any president, no matter if he’s your enemy or your friend. It makes you look bad. No class, no education, no respect. My father and mother didn’t teach me to act like that.’’
Luis Tiant, 75 years old and arguably the greatest Cuban-born pitcher, wants you to understand this: “I am a baseball player, not a politician.’’
He was in Cuba last week at the invitation of Major League Baseball, which had arranged an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team. It was the first time since 1999, when the Baltimore Orioles played a home-and-home series against the Cuban national team, that a major league team had visited the island. The visit dovetailed with President Obama’s announcement that the U.S. was seeking to normalize relations with Cuba.
“Joe Torre called me and said, ‘Do you want to go?’ Tiant said. “I said, ‘OK.’ Later on he called me and said they wanted me to throw the first pitch. I said, ‘All right.’ I didn’t want to do it, but then I was thinking, ‘That’s something that’s going to be history, not just for me, but for everybody in both countries.’’
The Orioles’ trip, and Obama’s intentions of trying to find common ground with the Castro regime, was not embraced by everyone. In the Cuban-American community, scarred by the suffering inflicted at the hands of the Castro regime, there are some who resist any weakening of the U.S. embargo against Cuba until the Castros are no longer in power.
Last Saturday night, a man of Cuban descent attending Saturday night’s Rays-Pirates game in Bradenton was arrested after vaulting onto the field and throwing an aluminum beer bottle and soda container into the Rays’ dugout in an apparent protest of the team’s trip to Cuba.
“I know there’s a lot of people who don’t agree,’’ Tiant said. “I understand them. I went through a lot of stuff in my life, too. I didn’t go to my country for 46 years. I went almost 17 years without seeing my mom and dad. It’s a drama for everybody.
“I told my countrymen, I respect their feelings, but I have my feelings, too.’’
Tiant went back to Cuba for the first time in 2007, ostensibly as a coach for an amateur team. He went this time, he said, “because that’s what my heart told me to do.’’
For Tiant, the chance that a baseball game might play a part, however small, in improving the chances that Cuba and the U.S. might begin a new era, one that would lead to more freedom and prosperity for his homeland, and allow Cuban players in the U.S. to travel freely back and forth, justified his decision to go to Havana.
It is why he was in Estadio Latinamericano, a place he last had pitched in 1961, in Cuban winter ball, and was named rookie of the year. He was pitching that summer in Mexico when his father wrote him, shortly after Luis was married, advising him not to come back, Castro’s government having banned all outside travel.
“The first five years forget it I thought I was going to go crazy,’’ he said. “I went to Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Mexico to play winter ball.
“The people who lived around us would invite me and my wife and kid for Christmas dinner and New Year’s. I would be there a little while, everyone was dancing and laughing and drinking, and boom, it would hit me. Here I am, having fun, but how are my parents doing? Do they have something to eat?
“I had to get outside and go cry like a baby. My wife came to find me, and she cried, too. That happened for five years.’’
Tiant was reunited with his parents in 1975, when he pitched the Red Sox to the World Series. But it would be over three more decades before he was allowed to return, tearfully reuniting with members of his extended family. On that visit, he said, his family was not allowed to come to the hotel where he was staying. Last week, he was joined at his hotel by several cousins, who shared a celebratory breakfast with him.
A small sign of progress? Perhaps. In the two days he was there, Tiant said, he was kept too busy to take the pulse of his country, to see how much conditions may have improved. He has no illusions. “Whatever happens,’’ he said, “it is going to take time.’’
Tiant shared the honor of throwing out the ceremonial first pitches with Pedro Lazo, the winningest pitcher in the history of the Cuban National Series with 249 victories. Lazo won two gold medals in the Olympics and starred in the World Baseball Classic.
“He was the best pitcher in Cuba after I left,’’ Tiant said. “It’s a shame. If he had been allowed to come here, he mighthave been better than me.’’
When Tiant, wearing a Red Sox cap, was introduced, without any recitation of his accomplishments, there was polite applause from the crowd of 55,000. Lazo drew roars. “A lot of people there, they don’t know me,’’ Tiant said.
Wearing a sport shirt, black slacks and dress shoes, Tiant considered going into his signature windup, turning his back to the plate, but thought better about it. “Too easy to slip,’’ he said. “I didn’t want to embarrass myself.
“But I threw a strike, a ball that sank. It was a good pitch.’’
And then he was standing in front of two presidents. He will never forget, he said, the men who died or were imprisoned in the futile attempt to overthrow Castro in the Bay of Pigs invasion. “They are my heroes,’’ he said. He will never forget the untold souls who drowned trying to cross the Straits of Florida on anything that would float. He will never forget the hunger or deprivation suffered by those he left behind, the agony of those forced from their homes and never being allowed to return. He will never forget the struggles of those who came here, many of them professionals in Cuba, forced to take the most menial of jobs to survive. He will never forget what it has meant for so many to live without being free.
But when Raul Castro extended his hand, Luis Tiant said, he had no choice but to take it. He had come, he said, because that is what his heart had told him to do.
“There has been a lot of hate,’’ he said. “But the bottom line is, we have to understand what’s going on. The world changes, everybody changes. This is a different world than 40 years ago. I respect the people who went through hell. You don’t forget.
“But we have to do something. Major League Baseball asked me to go there as an ambassador. If something happens, good. I am trying to do what is best for my people, my country.
“If not, what are you going to do?’’