"All I ever heard around here was people talking about that team," says Hersh. "Luis was such a big part of it that it seemed a natural to go after him. We needed him to boost the gate and make us a winner again. And he needed us to try and get back in the majors. We're not using him like a lot of people are saying. We're using each other."
The deal wasn't struck easily. One complication occurred when the Yankees suddenly got interested in Tiant again and wanted him to pitch for their Triple-A farm team in Columbus, Ohio. As late as Feb. 16 of this year, seven days before Tiant was to sign the Portland contract, Hersh called a press conference to say, " Portland is just not capable of competing with the major leagues, especially in pursuit of a major league pitcher." But just as suddenly as they regained interest in Tiant, the Yankees lost it again. Tiant says, " Cedric Tallis [executive vice-president] wanted me, George Steinbrenner didn't."
Tiant's next-best alternative was to sign the Portland contract, which, with both a $50,000 signing bonus and an undisclosed deferred signing bonus (the only clauses allowed in a minor league contract), will earn him between $140,000 and $160,000. Portland owns his contract outright; if the Pirates, Portland's parent team, or any other major league club want Tiant, they'll have to purchase his contract from the Beavers, who have promised to let him go willingly.
Tiant's contract is believed to be the biggest ever for a minor league player. Hersh and his 11 partners paid for it by reaching into their own pockets for half the money and recruiting three additional partners for the franchise. They had hoped Tiant would pay them back at the gate, but he drew just 4,750 fans in the home opener, 2,750 fewer than they had anticipated.
One of the moneymen is David Lander, who plays the part of Squiggy on Laverne & Shirley. But to Tiant, this comeback attempt is no sitcom. He's in Portland for only one reason—to get back to the bigs—and he realizes that each step backward, like the one he took in the opener, makes that hope more unrealistic. "I still love the game," says Tiant. "I don't want to come in here and embarrass myself. I don't want to steal their money."
He worked hard to get in shape in the off-season and now he looks as solid as a 40-year-old, 5'10", 205-pound pitcher with an ample waist can look. "He reported in outstanding physical condition," says Portland Manager Pete Ward. "I couldn't have asked more from him in that respect. Luis leads by example. He's a manager's dream. He works hard; he's a model for the whole team." And Tiant impressed some of the Pirates in spring training, where he had a 2-0 record but a 6.39 ERA. "I never had to move my glove," said Catcher Steve Nicosia after working with Tiant. "If I set up outside, that's where the pitch was. If I set up inside, that's where the pitch was."
Despite his enthusiasm, Tiant is somewhat the scarred Don Quixote these days: he's ready to do battle with a few more windmills, but he's been through too much to have ultimate faith in the system. "All the time, throughout my career, people have been pulling tricks, doing things they shouldn't be doing, making it hard for me," he says. "I've had to prove myself every year, so this is not new. They've said before I'm too old. Sometimes they say my arm isn't strong anymore. I get used to that." In a statement that will stand in lasting counterpoint to the optimism of Chico Escuela, the former Saturday Night Live sports commentator, Tiant says, "B�isbol no been easy game for me."
A little self-doubt has crept into El Tiante's thinking, too. "I want to play 3� more years in the majors," he says. "That will give me 20 years. But I won't do it if I'm making a fool of myself. I won't do it just to make a couple more dollars. I don't really know what are my chances of getting back. But I know one thing: I could be thinking one thing and the other guy is thinking something else."
If Tiant at last hangs it up this season, he has several prospects—to manage or coach in Mexico, to be a major league pitching coach, or to become "director of Latin Affairs" for the Yankees, a job that was guaranteed when he signed with them in '78. Or he can just go back to raising poultry on his farm in La Piedad, outside Mexico City. "The same way I came in, I'll go out," says Tiant. "Nobody will have to tell me it's time." If that time is soon, Luis Tiant knows there's na-ting you can do. Unless, of course, that "na-ting" is a no-hitter.