El Tiante holds court

A dozen or so men crowd together in Havana’s Central Park, jostling, poking, and shouting over each other. They’re arguing about baseball, like they do every day.

“Who,” someone asks, “was the best Cuban pitcher to play in the big leagues in the United States?”

An eruption of noisy opinions:

José Ariel Contreras!

El Duque! Orlando Duque Hernandez!!!

Livan Hernandez!

Then a quiet but self-assured voice pipes up.

Luis Tiant. Luis Tiant. Luis Tiant.

Meanwhile, Tiant himself is a few feet away, puffing a cigar in the shade apart from the scrum. When told of this, the men fall silent for a moment, then throng around the winningest Cuban pitcher in the Majors, thrusting out their hands and peppering him with questions.

That’s a scene from Jonathan Hock’s excellent new film, The Lost Son of Havana, which premieres on Saturday night at the Somerville Theatre as part of the Independent Film Festival Boston.

I interviewed the great El Tiante last Monday for my feature profile this week
about the movie, which documents his bittersweet return to Cubathe first time he'd seen his birthplace in 46 years.

He was terrific. A really great guy, funny and forthcoming. We talked for a full hour and a half. Alas there wasn’t room in the paper for a lot of what he had to say, so here — transcribed verbatim from his thickly accented English — are some outtakes from the interview.

On how he expects his old team to do this year...
I think the main thing is don’t get hurt. Key guys get hurt, that’s when you’re in trouble. But if nobody get hurt, we’ll be fine, we’ll be fine. You looking around the year, to win a pennant it takes 40, 50 players. Send ‘em down, bring ‘em up, put ‘em on disabled and bring somebody else. If you no got those guys down there who can help you, you in trouble. That’s the thing with baseball, there are so many injuries. One guy could have a broken foot, another guy could be hit in the face with a pitch. There’s a lot of injuries that can occur. The key is to keep the team less injury, free of injuries. They’ll be OK. You see what happen last year: Ortiz, Manny go, Lugo ... that killing us. You got Josh Beckett, you got Lester, you got a lot of pitchers. You don’t know what’s gonna happen. Smoltz. Got Penny. Five and a half months. You don’t know what’s gonna happen. One month you be good, next month you’re no good.

On his life after baseball...
I been happy. The best thing that happen to me is coming here [to Boston, 10 years ago, where he’s now employed by the Red Sox as a spring training instructor and goodwill guy around town]. They been good with respect. These people, they are different in the way they respect us and care for us. They been good to me. But you have to do your job. Lucchino my boss, he been great, we can play we can talk, I don’t have to say “Mr.” or “Sir,” they respect me, I respect them. Mr. Henry good. Werner’s good. Theo is good to me. I enjoying what I do. I think I’m here where I belong. Wherever I go people wanna talk to you, they wanna take a picture of you, they wan’ you to go to their house and introduce their family. That means they really respect you. And that’s a good thing.

On whether he still keeps in touch with old teammates.
We play golf a lot
. Rico. Yaz. Tommy Harper. Rice. All those guys. We play a lot of golf. There a lot of guys around here. Some in Connecticut. Some in Rhode Island. Bill Lee in Vermont. He’s crazy. I like him man, he’s my old friend, he’s a good guy. He’s funny. He tell you what you wanna hear or what you don’t wanna hear. I like him, you know. Most of those guys... Lonborg is a gentleman. Monbo, Rico, Tommy, Evans, Rice, Yaz, Fisk, Freddy Lynn. We still good friends. We play a lot of golf together, and that’s good. We still like each other. That’s a good thing.

On how he reinvented his mechanics and developed that deadly cyclone of a wind-up...
In ’72. We’re pitching against Cleveland. I got the guy at two strikes. And then I say, I dunno, I’m gonna try it. Turning around. Coming from the side here. [The batter] move away from the home plate ... Strike Three! He ask Fisk, “Come on, man, what are you doing?” And Fisk says to him, “New pitch.” “Are you kidding me?” I do it from there. I try to practice and get better. Try to throw my pitches from here, from here, from here [he mimes three separate release points] the same way. And I threw everything. Then I threw the hesitation. I stop, then release the ball. Move it in and out, up and down, change speed. The hitter cant go in against one pitch then. They cant go in there [thinking] fastball. He throw me a breaking ball it gonna be here. Or changeup. They know you throw pretty good, they no gonna go looking for fastball because they don’t wanna be late. Sometimes they look like little league swinging. There’s a lot that get fooled. And that’s the thing about pitching: you got three pitches you can command? That’s all you need. You gonna be a winner.

On his philosophy of life...
Life is no easy. No one telling you you have an easy life. You have to work hard. You have to pursuit. You have to try harder ‘cos you wanna be the best at whatever you do. And it’s no easy to do that. You need a lot of breaks, and you need a lot of people extend their hand and help you. But you have to do it yourself.

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