Luis Tiant: Minnesota, Caracas, Louisville, Boston and LaGuaira (Part III)

Luis Tiant, a RHP, is best known for winning Games One and Four, 1975 World Series, versus Cincinnati, and a Game Six no-decision, a historic 6-3, 12-inning win for Boston, on Carlton Fisk’s three-run HR at Fenway Park. Boston was 0-4 in games Tiant did not start, and 3-0 in contests he started. Part II ended with Tiant’s trade to the Minnesota Twins, December 10, 1969. Part III begins with his 1970 injury-plagued season for Minnesota; includes his comeback with 1971 Class AAA Louisville Colonels, a Boston Red Sox farm team; covers three seasons of winter ball in Venezuela; and, five seasons (1971-75) with the Boston Red Sox. Tiant’s SABR bio by Mark Armour, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/2212deaf, is a good source, and used here.

Minnesota Twins, 1970

In 1970 he won his first six decisions for the Twins, but left during his sixth win with a sore shoulder that had been bothering him since the spring. A specialist found a crack in a bone in his right shoulder and prescribed only rest. Tiant—inactive for 10 weeks—lost three of four decisions the final part of 1970 to finish 7-3, 3.40 ERA, in 92.2 innings. He completed two of 17 starts, with one SHO. Tiant was activated for the ALCS, and relieved Ron Perranoski in the ninth frame of Game Two, October 4. Brooks Robinson reached first, E-6, off Tiant; Davey Johnson homered; Andy Etchebarren and Dave McNally both popped up, in Baltimore’s 11-3 win at Minnesota. Tiant waited five years before another AL post-season appearance. Leo Cardenas and Tony Oliva were two Cuban teammates, and César Tovar, a Venezuelan teammate, with the 98-64 Twins. Tovar encouraged Tiant to pitch for Caracas.

Caracas Lions, 1970-71

Tiant started six games for Caracas, going 2-1, 3.08 ERA, 25 strikeouts-19 walks in 38 innings. The Lions counted on Camilo Pascual (7-0, 2.31 ERA) and Diego Seguí (5-5, 3.56 ERA) in the regular season; and Seguí and Tiant for their semi-final series, which they lost, three straight. Tiant was 0-1 in two games. He enjoyed pitching in Venezuela; earning extra money; and sharing moments with Cuban teammates such as Pascual, Seguí, and Cookie Rojas (.275 AVG); plus, Venezuelans Tovar (.338 AVG) and Vic Davalillo (.379 AVG), his ex-Cleveland teammate.

Minnesota-Richmond-Louisville-Boston, 1971

In spring training 1971, Tiant pulled a muscle in his rib cage; missed two weeks; hurled eight ineffective innings; and released, unconditionally, March 31. Twins owner Calvin Griffith believed he was finished at 30. Tiant opined the move was made to save money. (Tiant was to make $48,000 in 1971, a four percent pay cut from his $50,000 salary in 1970.) Atlanta signed him to a 30-day trial with Class AAA Richmond. After limited work, the Braves did not promote him, but Tiant signed with the Louisville Colonels, Boston’s Class AAA affiliate.

Pedro Ramos—Tiant’s teammate with the 1964 Cleveland Indians—pitched for Richmond in the International League in 1971. Ramos felt bad for his countryman (Tiant), after the Braves released him, and contacted José “Palillo” Santiago, a starter with Louisville, who had helped Boston win the 1967 AL pennant; started two games in the 1967 World Series; was 9-4 with the 1968 Red Sox; named to the AL All-Star team by his manager, Dick Williams; but right elbow tendinitis put Santiago on the DL. Per the author’s interview with Santiago (April 27, 2020), Ramos said: “He (Tiant) can still pitch.” Santiago had empathy for Tiant, having seen him pitch for Cleveland, 1964-68; and Puerto Rico, 1961-62 and 1964-65, when Santiago’s San Juan Senators faced Caguas and Ponce, respectively. Ramos firmly stated (to Santiago): “Luis Tiant needs to work; he has a good fastball, curve and change-up…”

Santiago was on good terms with Haywood Sullivan, special assistant to Dick O’Connell, Boston’s GM. Sullivan, born in Alabama, and a quarterback and catcher at the University of Florida, caught Santiago and other Caribbean pitchers (Diego Seguí, Orlando Peña and Aurelio Monteagudo) with the 1964 and 1965 Kansas City A’s. Sullivan had suggested that the Red Sox obtain Santiago and OF José Tartabull (a Cuban) in trades with Kansas City, which they did. Santiago told Haywood Sullivan that he “had not seen Tiant pitch in 1971,” but Sullivan replied: “Tell him [Tiant] that Louisville can offer him a $30,000 contract, with an option to be promoted to our [Boston] club.” Tiant accepted; the Red Sox signed him, May 17, 1971. Santiago, who enjoyed pitching to Carlton Fisk at Louisville, recalled: “Boston sent Sullivan to watch Tiant pitch for Louisville, in a double-header. I pitched the first game, and won, 2-1. Then, Tiant strikes out 15 in the second game. After the game, the three of us speak and have dinner. Sullivan says, ‘We’re going to take him.’”

Tiant pitched superbly in 31 innings for Louisville–29 strikeouts and a 2.61 ERA – and was called up by Boston on June 3. His first Red Sox appearance was a one-inning start at Kansas City, June 11. Cookie Rojas, his 1970-71 Caracas teammate, tripled off him with the bases loaded. LHP Ken Brett came in with no outs in the second; pitched five strong innings; allowed one run; followed by Bill Lee’s two scoreless frames. Clif Keane, who covered baseball at the Boston Globe, 1939-to-1975, wrote: «The latest investment by the Red Sox looked about as sound as taking a bagful of money and throwing it off Pier 4 into the Atlantic.» (Keane later began a game story, on Tiant, with “Enough is enough.”) Tiant, 0-6 as a starter, lost his seventh game, in relief, at Kansas City, August 24, before winning his first game for Boston, August 31. Tiant relieved Gary Peters in the seventh, and pitched 2.2 scoreless innings. Carl Yastrzemski’s walk-off hit off Jim Palmer gave Tiant a 4-3 win. Tiant finished 1-7 with a 4.85 ERA for Boston.   

Eddie Kasko, Boston’s manager, felt Tiant could become a quality pitcher again. On July 3, at Fenway Park, he threw seven innings against the Yankees, but lost 2-1 on a two-run HR by Roy White, and a CG by Fritz Peterson. Tiant also threw 10 shutout innings, and 154 pitches, against the Twins, but did not figure in the decision. Kasko took him out of the rotation in early August. He was better in the bullpen, 1-1 with a 1.80 ERA in that role. “Tiant was going to turn it around,” said Kasko. “He had good years ahead of him and it was a matter of time…” Bob Montgomery, who backed up Carlton Fisk, 1972-79, told the author that “Tiant had the right stuff, and was “a pleasure to catch.” Montgomery, who caught for the 1970-71 Licey Tigers in the Dominican Republic, opined winter ball was “good for Tiant.” Tiant alerted the author he enjoyed having Venezuela’s Luis Aparicio as a Boston teammate, along with a trifecta of players from Puerto Rico: Juan José “Tití” Beníquez and Rogelio “Roger” Moret, 1971-75; and Orlando Cepeda (1973).  

LaGuaira Sharks, 1971-72

Luis Tiant (courtesy of Germán J. Rivas)

Tiant (7-5, 2.35 ERA) was the staff ace for LaGuaira (31-30), hurling 122.2 innings with 120 strikeouts and 18 walks. Aurelio Monteagudo (6-8), Rob Gardner (7-5), John Montague (4-3) and Jim Rooker (3-1) were the other starters. Orlando Peña was their reliever/closer. On November 14, 1971, nine days shy of turning 31, Tiant no-hit Caracas, a team with LA Dodgers prospects Bill Russell, Bobby Valentine, Doug Rau, and Charlie Hough, plus mainstays Vic Davalillo and César Tovar. LaGuaira’s imports included OF Lou Piniella, then with Kansas City.

LaGuaira won their semi-final series, but lost in the finals to the Aragua Tigers, led by player-manager Rod Carew. Tiant was 0-1 in both series, with a 1.54 ERA in the semis (11.2 innings) and 6.43 ERA (seven innings) in the finals, for a post-season 3.38 ERA. That winter proved helpful going into spring training. Miguel Dupouy Gómez, Venezuelan blogger and baseball historian, is a lifetime fan of the Aragua Tigers, but has a signed baseball card of Tiant, wearing the Boston Red Sox uniform. Carlos González-Mariche, a diehard Caracas Lions fan, told the author (via twitter) that Tiant’s MLB career “would have been better” had he been allowed to pitch [1968-69] winter ball in Venezuela. “We know how careful pitchers are with their routines and workloads, particularly starters,” said González-Mariche, adding “Injuries were a problem for Tiant…it was another era of an ‘alpha-athlete’ who played, despite being hurt…”

Boston Red Sox, 1972

On March 22, 1972, the Red Sox traded Sparky Lyle to the Yankees for Danny Cater (Tiant’s teammate with the 1964-65 Ponce Lions) and Mario Guerrero (Dominican IF), a trade that ranks among the worst that the Red Sox ever made, but which likely saved Tiant’s roster spot, per his SABR bio. Kasko Tiant in the bullpen—long-relief, save situation—before giving him more starts. He started 19 of 43 games, completing 12, with six SHO and three saves. His league-leading ERA was 1.91, and his ERA+ was 169. On July 3, 1970, Tiant bested Minnesota and their starter, Bert Blyleven, 8-2. The Red Sox finished 85-50, a half-game behind 86-50 Detroit, in a strike-shortened season. A July hot streak coincided with Tiant getting more starts. He was 3-2 after his July 3 win, and 12-4 from July 4-October 4, when the season ended. Having Carlton Fisk behind the plate was helpful.

Tiant’s four straight SHO culminated with a Labor Day (September 4) SHO of Milwaukee, 2-0. Jim Lonborg, ex-1971 Boston teammate, took the loss. Ken Brett then won the second game for Milwaukee. Tiant’s prior three starts included August 19 and 29 SHO versus the White Sox plus his August 25 gem against Texas. His 40 consecutive scoreless innings ended September 8, at Fenway, versus the Yankees. Tiant was 9-1, 0.82 ERA, in a 10-game stretch, which included six SHO. He was 1972 AL Comeback Player of the Year, with a 15-6 record and .714 PCT, behind Catfish Hunter’s .750 PCT for Oakland. California’s Nolan Ryan led the AL with 329 strikeouts. After the 1972 season, Red Sox pitcher John Curtis wrote a newspaper story on trying to explain to his wife why he loved Luis Tiant. Dwight Evans would later say, «Unless you’ve played with him, you can’t understand what Luis means to a team.” (See Tiant’s SABR bio.)

La Guaira Sharks, 1972-73

Another 69.1 regular season innings were added to Tiant’s résumé. He went 6-2, 2.21 ERA, in nine starts, with five CG. Jim Rooker (13-5, 1.97 ERA, 160 innings) and Ken Forsch (4-7, 3.45 ERA, 114.2 innings) accounted for 37 of La Guaira’s 72 starts. Camilo Pascual was 3-0 with three saves; Aurelio Monteagudo, 1-7, with a 3.38 ERA. The 36-36 Sharks had catcher Paul Casanova, José Cardenal, Al Bumbry, and Panamanian Ivan Murrell, who hit 13 HR. Natives Enzo Hernández and Oswaldo Blanco contributed. Tiant pitched 15 innings in the semis, 1-1, 5.40 ERA. His 84.1 total Venezuelan Winter League innings, plus 191 with Boston, equal 275.1. His Venezuela stats are at http://www.pelotabinaria.com.ve/beisbol/mostrar.php?ID=tianlui001)  Caracas won the finals over Aragua, and hosted the February 1-6, 1973 Caribbean Series, dedicated to the memory of Roberto Clemente. Licey, managed by Tom Lasorda, won this series.

Boston Red Sox, 1973-75

Photo credit: sportmemorabilia.com.

Tiant won 60 games the next three seasons, 20/year. He was 20-13 in 1973, with a league leading 1.085 WHIP; a 1974 AL All-Star, 22-13, including a league-best seven SHO; then, 18-14 in 1975, for the pennant-winning Red Sox. On April 6, 1973, Opening Day, Tiant took the mound at Fenway against arch-rival New York Yankees, in the first AL contest with a Designated Hitter (DH). Tiant walked lefty DH Ron Blomberg with the bases loaded and two outs in the first, but eventually settled down in Boston’s 15-5 win. Mel Stottlemyre took the loss. Fisk drove in six with two HR. Cepeda became the first right-handed batter as a DH, in the home second. “I was a teammate of Juan Marichal (with San Francisco) and Bob Gibson (with St. Louis),” said Cepeda. “Tiant had more ‘maña’ (deception) in his pitches than Marichal or Gibson…Tiant was great…”

Red Smith once wrote: Tiant looked like “Pancho Villa after a tough week of looting and burning.” (Coincidentally, the author recently saw a 1934 movie on Turner Classic Movies called Viva Villa.) Tiant was preoccupied with a possible family reunion. In December 1974 he told Boston Herald reporter Joe Fitzgerald: «My father is going to be 70 years old soon, and I don’t know how many years he has left. He’s working down there at a garage, serving gas, and I can’t even send him a dime for a cup of coffee on Christmas.» In May 1975 US Senator George McGovern (D-South Dakota) made an unofficial visit to Cuba to see Fidel Castro, with a letter from fellow Senator Edward Brooke III (R-Massachusetts). Castro approved this request the next day. Tiant Sr. and wife Isabel arrived in Boston’s Logan Airport, August 21, 1975. Tiant Jr., his wife, Maria, their three children, and dozens of reporters and cameramen, greeted them. Tiant Jr. embraced his father and wept. Isabel told her son, «I’m so happy I don’t care if I die now.»

Luis Tiant Sr. throwing the first pitch in Fenway Park.

On August 26, 1975, pre-Angels-Boston game, the Red Sox arranged for Tiant’s parents to be introduced to the crowd and for Tiant Sr. to throw the first pitch. The elder Tiant, standing on the Fenway Park mound in a suit and Red Sox cap, took off his coat and handed it to his son. He went into his full windup and fired a fastball to catcher Tim Blackwell –low and away; asked for the ball back; and, floated a knuckleball across the middle of the plate. The fans roared as he left the field. Tiant Jr. later noted, «He told me he was ready to go four or five innings anytime.» But Tiant Jr. lost the game, 8-2, as Eduardo Figueroa, RHP for the California Angels, pitched a CG.

On September 11, 1975, Tiant Jr. impressed Tiant Sr. with 7⅔ innings of no-hit ball versus Detroit, before allowing a run and three hits. When asked about the hit by Aurelio Rodriguez that ruined the no-hitter, Tiant Sr. responded, «Don’t talk about a lucky hit. The man hit the ball pretty good.» Five days later, Tiant blanked Baltimore, 2-0, outpitching Jim Palmer at Fenway Park. The Orioles were now 5½ games out. The crowd home crowd chanted all evening («Loo-Eee, Loo-Eee, Loo-Eee»). On September 26, first game of a twin-bill, Tiant bested Dennis Eckersley, future Cooperstown Hall of Famer, in a 4-0 win over Cleveland, clinching the AL East title.

Tiant three-hit the Oakland A’s, in Game One of the ALCS, October 4, allowing an unearned run in the top of the eighth, when Bert Campaneris reached first, E-6, and later scored on a Bill North (E-3) grounder, misplayed by Cecil Cooper. Boston won, 4-1, and swept the A’s, in three straight. It was Boston versus Cincinnati in a World Series, lasting October 11-22, 1975, due to inclement weather. Tiant dominated the “Big Red Machine” with a five-hit shutout, in Game One. In Game Four, he threw 163 pitches; gave up nine hits; and walked four; in a 5-4 CG win, at Cincinnati. Six days later, he was ahead, 3-0, but left the contest after seven innings, with a 6-3 deficit. Bernie Carbo’s three-run, pinch-hit HR, in the ninth tied it; and Carlton Fisk hit a walk-off HR off Pat Darcy, in the home 12th, for a 7-6 Boston victory.

Tiant’s 1975 postseason did resonate with the media, and a national audience, but may have been overshadowed somewhat by Fisk’s dramatic HR, and the Reds come-from-behind win in Game Seven. His six pitches (fastball, curve, slider, slow curve, palm ball, and knuckleball) were delivered from three different release points (over the top, three-quarters, and side-arm). He refined his windup and motion from 1968, his best season, to pitch at a high level in the 1970s.

Five of Cincinnati’s eight regulars in 1975 should be Cooperstown Hall of Famers, including Pete Rose and David Concepción. (Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench and Tony Pérez are in.)  Morgan did not play winter ball. Seven of Cincinnati’s eight regulars had fine Winter League careers—Rose, 1964-65 Caracas Lions; Concepción, Aragua Tigers, multiple seasons; Pérez, Santurce Crabbers, 10 seasons, between 1964-65 and 1982-83; and Bench, 1967-68 San Juan Senators. Ken Griffey Sr., Reds RF, won the 1974-75 Puerto Rico Winter League batting title for the Bayamón Cowboys; helped Bayamón win league and 1975 Caribbean Series titles; and claimed the batting crown, 1975 Caribbean Series. CF César Gerónimo played with the Licey Tigers for 18 seasons, including five Caribbean Series winners (1971, 1973, 1977, 1980 and 1985). LF George Foster is one of four big-league MVP’s who played with the Estrellas Orientales in the Dominican Republic. The others are: Roger Maris, Rollie Fingers and Dale Murphy.

George “Sparky” Anderson, Cincinnati’s 1975 manager, played second base for the 1956-57 Escogido Lions in the Dominican Republic; managed the 1964-65 Magallanes Navigators, in Venezuela; and 1968-69 San Juan Senators, in Puerto Rico. He told the author: “Winter ball is so important for players and managers. I was fired by Magallanes a month into the season…we were losing…got to manage big-leaguers in Puerto Rico.” Anderson never forgot the stands at Bithorn Stadium in San Juan going wild in January 1969 when José Cardenal homered twice off Santurce’s Jim Palmer in Game Seven, San Juan-Santurce semi-final series won by San Juan. Anderson spoke highly of Tiant: “He nearly beat us single-handedly in the [1975] World Series.

With deep appreciation to Luis Tiant, for his time and goodwill. Thanks to José “Palillo” Santiago for insights on Tiant’s signing with Boston, via Louisville (1971); to Sparky Anderson, Orlando Cepeda, Eddie Kasko and Bob Montgomery. Miguel Dupouy Gómez alerted the author to Tiant’s LaGuaira no-hitter versus Caracas. Carlos González-Mariche, who pinpointed its date—November 14, 1971. Germán J. Rivas furnished the Tiant photo with La Guaira.

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