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From that momentous August day last season when Manager Eddie Kasko arrived at a what-have-I-got-to-lose decision and resurrected old Luis Tiant from the Boston Red Sox bullpen to a place in the regular rotation, the finest pitcher in baseball was not, surprisingly, Steve Carlton, the Philadelphia Franchise. Not that Carlton's brilliance diminished. From Aug. 5, he won 11 games, lost four and pitched three shutouts. But Tiant, the chesty Cuban exile who is 32 years old, at a minimum, and has cackled his way across the years in a voice that causes him to be called the toughest right-handed soprano in baseball, won 11 games, lost two and pitched six shutouts. And picking up where he left off in September, Tiant won his first two starts this season before Detroit caught him cold in the third game and drove him to the showers.
The Red Sox concede that it was Luie who carried them to their second-place 1972 finish, only half a game short of a divisional title. Losing the hair on his head but sporting a great horseshoe mustache that descends in two muttonchops to the bottom of either side of his jaw, Tiant wears a $1 cigar that remains fixed in his teeth even as he soaps himself under a shower. "Players throw water on him," says Trainer Buddy LeRoux, "but nobody has ever been able to put out his cigar." By the same token, though his career less than two years ago had plummeted close to unemployment, nothing could snuff out Luie's destiny.
His winning method—a searing fastball delivered repetitiously but from a greater variety of angles than could be mustered by an octopus—may be likened to his monologues, in which he approaches his point from every conceivable avenue to put together his pitch. Is it true, you ask him, that he is so deathly afraid of airplane landings that his screaming and wailing and entreaties to the Almighty have brought alarmed stewardesses to his seat on the dead run?
"Only way you can play baseball is to take a plane," Luie begins. "I can do nothing about it. That's the way we travel. If you want to keep playing you have to take a plane. It's quick, it's comfortable. Anything you need, they got it. It's good way. My wife get mad at me when we fly together because I holler, but what you going to do? I afraid. All these mountains can get up too much. You can see others afraid from their faces. They laugh now, but when they get closer to die, that's when they cry. Aparicio afraid—18 year in big league. Harper afraid. One trip, I looking and the wing miss hitting the runway by two inches, and boom! The wheel hit the runway and bounce. Someone say, 'What happened?' And I say, 'Look out, we just might die.' They laugh but they afraid. But what you going to do? If you play baseball, you have to take a plane. It's quick. It's comfortable. Anything you need...."
Like Tiant's verbal flights, his fastball, relieved only occasionally by an average curveball, slider or knuckler, arrives over home plate from whatever direction Luie's fertile brain has programmed. There he stands, the uniform number on his back turned toward the hitter, his head jerking like a speed bag, his right hand apparently waving greetings to his centerfielder. Whoosh. Fastball. Or maybe his small brown eyes are fixed firmly on the third-base coach. Whoosh. Fastball. "Dammit, look at home plate!" the hitters bellow. From overarm, three-quarters, sidearm or submarining, Luie's fastballs keep coming while his gaze takes in a vendor splashing mustard on a hot dog or counts the Tiant banners in the Fenway Park bleachers. "Oh, I looking," Luie says. "I might look at last minute, yes, but I have an idea where I want to throw the ball. Home plate where it always been. Most time all your life you throw the ball across home plate, so I know where it is. Like second baseman have to throw to first without looking. He know where first base is. I looking but maybe only at last minute...."
Sox Outfielder Reggie Smith sits on a clubhouse stool, doubled over with laughter, gasping as he again witnesses an episode in his mind's eye. Carl Yastrzemski at bat, Tiant (then in a Cleveland uniform) on the mound. Luie throwing nothing but fastballs that rise fiercely to the height of Yaz' letters—deliciously hittable fastballs, every one, but each thrown from a different recess of Luie's whirling fuselage. "It was hilarious, unless you were Yastrzemski," says Smith.
Anyhow, Yastrzemski strikes out, and innings later he again flails away at a variety of deliveries that without exception propel fastballs and again strikes out. His third time at bat, Yastrzemski is dropping to one knee; his grunting can be heard in the outfield. Zip, zip, zip, and he's out on three fastballs. He returns to the dugout resigned to acknowledging that he has played a role somewhat akin to the Marx Brothers racing on a treadmill. "One of these days," says Reggie Smith, wiping a tear from his eye, "a hitter is going to look up and find that Luie has thrown him the resin bag—right between his legs."
Accounts of Tiant's legerdemain abound, but if that is the case, why has he never won a Cy Young Award? Why has he failed to achieve the renown of a Koufax or a Carlton or even a Gaylord Perry? The answer is that at the peak of his career, after he had won 21 games for the 1968 Cleveland Indians and led the league with an earned run average of 1.60, he abruptly became a stumble-bum for a melange of reasons that included excessive weight, poor batting support, meddlesome coaching that attempted to alter his style and a fractured shoulder blade. The year after he won 21, he lost 20, thus commencing a trek that took him to Minnesota, Richmond and Louisville before he finally arrived in Boston to win standing ovations beyond even those that Bobby Doerr and Ted Williams once received.
In those final two months of last season, he pitched complete games in every one of his 11 victories. Trim at 190 pounds and sound of arm, he threw four consecutive shutouts. "He knows how to close out a game," says Gabe Paul, Luie's onetime front-office boss at Cleveland. "Some guys can't pick up the pot, but Luie's nostrils dilate when the money is on the table." His 1.91 earned run average not only led the league but made him the first Red Sox pitcher with an ERA below 2.00 since Carl Mays in 1917. Having been only a spot starter through the first four months, he nevertheless won 15 games and only twice all year gave up more than three runs.
"At Fenway he's a folk hero," says Larry Claflin of the Boston Herald American. "And, oh, is he playing the role!" Continuing to pitch occasionally in relief during his torrid August-September stretch, Luie sashayed in from the bullpen to the accompaniment of a roaring, step-by-step ovation, savoring it. "It'd take him half an hour to get to the mound," says Claflin, "but how can you blame him? The poor guy spent half his life in Cleveland pitching in front of 30 people."