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.
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...."
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,"
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."