Review of The Lost Son of Havana

by Ken Fang on August 9, 2009

This is a review of a documentary that ESPN will air Monday, August, 10 on Luis Tiant’s emotional return to his native Cuba after 46 years.

In 1961, Tiant was in the United States trying to make Major League Baseball as a pitcher in the Cleveland Indians system. But when the United States and Cuba ended relations following the Communist revolution and the Bay of Pigs, Fidel Castro called Cuban baseball players back home. However, a handful including Tiant decided to remain in the U.S. It left Tiant a man without a country.

From 1961 until 2007 when Tiant was invited to accompany a team of US players touring Cuba to take on a group of Cuban alumni players, he had not set foot in the Caribbean nation. In that period, Tiant pitched for the Indians, Twins, Red Sox, Yankees, Pirates and Angels. He had become a U.S. citizen, got married and had three children.

But throughout that time, his mind was never far from Cuba hoping to see his family. When we meet Tiant, he’s driving an SUV and has a bluetooth headset in his ear. He’s truly Americanized. But we note that Luis has some trepidation on returning to Cuba. He’s nervous about the trip so he visits an aunt who lives in Miami to find out more. She tells him that he won’t like he’ll see. She tells him no matter how prepared he is, he won’t be ready to witness the poverty.

Throughout the documentary, we see actual shots of Luis’ father, Luis, Sr. actually pitching in the Negro Leagues in New York. We come to learn that Luis, Sr., nicknamed “Lefty”, had made it to the United States in hopes of making it to the major leagues as a pitcher. However, because of his dark skin, he was relegated to the Negro Leagues as baseball still had the color barrier in place. But the elder Tiant pitched in the United States through 1947.

When Luis, Jr. was growing up, it was found he had good pitching talent as well. Scouts saw Luis’ and signed him to a minor league contract.

As Luis lands in Havana, he’s still looks nervous about the trip. He does the sign of the cross and is off.

After some short scenes of seeing the U.S. team in action, the documentary then focuses on Tiant’s visit to his old neighborhood, talking with aunts, cousins and teammates. And interspliced are scenes of Tiant’s baseball career, most notably his time with the Red Sox especially in the 1975 World Series.

Tiant gets lectured by the brother of former Minnesota Twins outfield Tony Oliva who like Luis, stayed in the U.S. and became a professional ball player, but did not return to his home.

Luis sees that the house where he grew up is still intact, but the neighborhood is run down. We see him talk to a person who lives in the house, but he doesn’t go in.

But he does find one of his aunts who is expecting him. There’s an emotional reunion as Luis cries on the sight of seeing his aunts.

Throughout the documentary, Luis goes to various places where he grew up like the park where he regularly played baseball. One interesting scene is at Havana’s Central Park which is the only safe bastion for free speech where fans are seen arguing baseball. The filmmakers ask one group which is the best Cuban pitcher ever to make it to the major leagues. We hear “Livan Hernandez” and “El Duque”. Luis hears this and laughs. But when a young fan says, “Luis Tiant”, the filmmaker points to him and suddenly, Tiant is surrounded by fans who want to talk to him. Luis is indeed remembered in Cuba.

As we go further into his trip, more and more people learn that Tiant is in Cuba an former teammates come to see him and the reunions are again emotional.

The poverty is noticeable throughout the documentary and it’s noted that there are no grocery stores, convenience stores or hardware stores in Havana. Luis has brought down some of the necessities like needle and thread, diarrhea medicine, gum and shirts. In addition, we see him give money to his aunts and nieces as they all appeal to him for help. Of course, he can’t turn them down. He sees the poverty.

It’s noted that Luis did have the opportunity to see his parents. They came up to the United States in 1975 for an emotional reunion in Boston. Luis, Sr. finally got the opportunity to pitch off a major league mound when he threw out the first pitch at a Red Sox game at Fenway Park and the pitch was a strike to Carlton Fisk. Luckily for Tiant, his parents also got to see him pitch in the World Series.

We note throughout the documentary how much of an influence Luis, Sr. was on Luis, Jr. and how revered the elder Tiant was in Cuba. The site of his picture was enough to bring many grown men to tears.

As Luis prepares to come back to the States, we see that a giant hole in his heart had been filled.

The Lost Son of Havana is directed by Jonathan Hock and produced by the Farrelly Brothers (yes, the ones who gave us Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary) and Kris Meyer. It’s narrated by actor Chris Cooper.

It’s an ESPN Films presentation and an effort that is definitely worth your time. The overall grade is an A minus. Lots of credit goes for finding actual film footage of Luis, Sr. and old footage of Luis, Jr. pitching in the early 1960′s. Very well done.

There are interviews with Red Sox teammates Carl Yastrzemski and Carlton Fisk and ESPN MLB insider Peter Gammons as well as with old school Cuban baseball players.

The Lost Son of Havana debuts on ESPN Deportes, Sunday night at 6 and then on ESPN, Monday night at 10 with replays on ESPN Classic next weekend.

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