The Spanish verb for it is rebotar—to bounce back, to show resilience. And no one in baseball has done it better, or more often, or more dramatically, or with more cigar smoke than Luis Clemente Tiant. Just four days after Tiant's legion of obituary writers were pressed into emergency service last week, Ol' Luis fooled them again by pitching a seven-inning no-hitter in his second outing for the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League. And so begins another improbable comeback for El Tiante, or, as he should be known, "El Rebotante."
The venerable Tiant needed all his powers of resilience after an embarrassing opener on April 14 at Civic Stadium in Portland, Ore. Both the performance and the surroundings were strange indeed for a pitcher of his stature.
That wasn't Robert Merrill at home plate belting out the national anthem. It was the Fair Oaks ( Calif.) Presbyterian Church Youth Choir. That wasn't Bump Wills of the Texas Rangers stepping in for the first pitch of the season. It was Jay Loviglio of the Edmonton Trappers. And when Tiant, in the middle of that unusual look-away delivery, glanced into left-center field, he didn't see the monuments of Yankee Stadium. He saw an advertisement for Rico's Pizza.
But if Civic Stadium wasn't a customary setting for Cuba's second-most-famous cigar-smoking pelotero, Tiant's performance wasn't customary, either. After two innings, 56 pitches, eight runs, one grand-slam home run by Gary Holle, and five other hits, the highest-paid minor-leaguer in todo el mundo sat in front of his locker, shrugged, and said, "Eh, nat-ing you can do."
"Na-ting you can do" has become something of a credo for this battered but not broken warrior. Na-ting you can do if the Yankees see you with what your agent calls "40-40 eyesight"—a player 40 years old (as Tiant claims to be) is too old to be protected on the 40-man roster. Na-ting you can do if the other 25 teams weigh your age more heavily than your 225 major league wins and decide not to draft you as a free agent. Na-ting you can do if you don't want to take off that uniform and the only route back is the minors. Na-ting you can do if Step 1 in your comeback with the Triple-A Beavers is a two-inning calamity.
But Step 2 turned out to be Tiant's third professional no-hitter, a 2-0 victory at Spokane in the first game of a doubleheader. The others were with Burlington, Iowa in 1963 and with La Guaira in the Venezuelan Winter League in 1971. This time Tiant walked only two and struck out 10. "It's the hardest I've seen him throw in four years," said Spokane's Ted Cox, a former Red Sox teammate. "Before the game I told the guys, 'Don't worry. He won't throw the fastball by you.' But that's what he did." Cox' flailing alone accounted for three of the strikeouts.
"I throw good," Tiant said, as laconic as ever. "All my peetches work. I peetch like me, that's all." Tiant did concede that the performance might help his comeback. "This make people notice," he said. But the biggest immediate impression was made on his wife. After Tiant called her in Mexico, she started crying. "She my No. 1 fan," he said proudly.
The faith of Tiant's most loyal supporter would have been tested by his performance in the opener. But Tiant was phlegmatic then, too. "I peetch a bad game," he said. "What can I do, go around killing myself?"
If Tiant went around killing himself every time something has gone wrong in his 22-year professional baseball career, he would have been laid to rest in a number of American cities. It took him 5� years and five stops (including Portland) to finally make it to the majors with Cleveland in 1964. The Indians traded him to Minnesota after the 1969 season, and after a year, the Twins released him. Atlanta picked him up and promptly sent him down to Richmond before releasing him. But in May of 71, Boston signed him, and in eight years he was 122-81. After the 1978 season, the Red Sox let him get away to the Yankees as a free agent. The Yankees didn't pick up his option for a third season, which was, in effect, another release. Na-ting you can do.
The improbable saga of a highly paid major league pitcher who has won 57.7% of his games returning to the Pacific Coast League begins with Portland's improbable general manager and majority owner, Dave Hersh. If the Beavers (or the Bevos, as they're known around town) have a phenom, it's probably the 26-year-old Hersh, a fast-talking, highly visible workaholic in a three-piece suit. By his own admission, and the eager testimony of others in the Portland organization, Hersh "has a tendency to go off the deep end sometimes." It was toward that end the Beavers were heading in the first two years of Hersh's profligate reign. But even his critics admitted he wanted a drawing card, which Portland hadn't had since 1964, when its pitching staff included Tiant, Sam McDowell and Tommy John. Tiant had a simple line then: "I peetch, I ween." He was 15-1 in 17 starts before the Indians called him up in midseason.