From oblivion and back for pitcher Tiant
Anaheim, Calif. — There is in 41-year-old right-hander, Luis Tiant, an August addition to the pitching staff of the California Angels, the stuff of which characters and legends are made. No one who has watched Luis pitch or fracture the King's English during interviews would ever forget him.
Rediscovered by Angel scouts in the Mexican League, where rumor placed his earned-run average between zero and nothing, Tiant had been frustrating hitters with his usual assortment of fastballs, off-speed pitches, and wild body gyrations.
When Luis turns his back to the hitter before delivering the ball, he looks like nothing so much as a windup toy spinning on a plastic base. There is also that interminable delay, before he releases the ball, that throws opposing hitters into a high state of anxiety. Always there is the tendency to want to reach up and brush away the cobwebs that have formed between the player's cap and his bat.
Even though Tiant was treated roughly by the Minnesota Twins in his first Angel start (a condition he later attributed to trying too hard), he has since redeemed himself by beating both the Twins and his old team, the Boston Red Sox. In fact, he allowed only two earned runs against the Twins and Red Sox. And, in his first 181/3 innings with California, struck out 18 hitters.
Interviewing Tiant is like taking a jumble of words and throwing them casually into the whirling blades of an electric fan. What comes back is the most unusual thing that has happened to literature since Casey Stengel explained the infield fly rule to a group of congressmen investigating baseball.
Luis's winning formula is a variety of pitches never delivered twice in a row from the same height or angle. While Tiant might start throwing overarm by the third hitter he has dropped down to sidearm, gone back up to a three-quarter motion, or sunk the batter with his submarine delivery.
Meanwhile, if the hitter can stay awake at the plate long enough between pitches to make contact, he has the option of guessing fastball, slider, or changeup. That is, if Luis hasn't decided to sneak in a knuckler on him!
Chicago White Sox catcher Carlton Fisk, who was behind the plate for most of Tiant's appearances when both were with Boston in the 1970s, calls Tiant a pitcher in the truest sense.
''Luis doesn't pitch, so much as he slices a batter apart,'' Fisk said. ''He breaks hitters down by making them wait, by nibbling at the corners, by adjusting his delivery so that the ball comes at them by way of third base, and by upsetting their rhythm any way he can. Yet if he finds a hitter who is comfortable taking his time, Luis will rush him. Some people call it gamesmanship, but I call it craftsmanship.''
Even now, frustrated hitters will occasionally yell back at Tiant to look at home plate before he throws.
''I look at home plate before I pitch, only the hitter don't think I look,'' Luis once told me. ''I like the kind of hitters who yell, because then I know he thinking about me and not where the ball is going. The hitter can move, only home plate don't move. It the same place all the time. And something that don't move you can find.
''I tell you something maybe you don't know,'' this former Cuban shoeshine boy continued. ''I weigh the same as I did five years ago and I feel the same as I did five years ago. When I pitch in Boston, everybody tell me to watch out for big green wall in left field (only 315 ft. from home plate) because batters hit a lot of balls there. But wall actually make me better pitcher because it increase my concentration and make me bear down more.''
Something certainly helped, for Luis achieved his greatest fame in his eight years with the Red Sox, winning 20 or more games three times and piling up 122 victories overall, plus two more in World Series play.
Tiant has such a wonderfully expressive face, with a mustache that curls downward into what might be called mutton chops, that most artists who see him for the first time want to paint him. He also has a figure like a butter churn, which once cost the Red Sox an extra $150 that they hadn't allowed for in their budget.
The incident took place several years ago when Tiant, who was pitching in a winter league in Caracas, Venezuela, was to be honored at the Boston Baseball Writers annual January banquet.
Luis, reached on the telephone by former Red Sox publicist Bill Crowley, was ordered to rent a tuxedo and fly back to Boston at the club's expense. At that time Luis was told to present a bill to the Red Sox, who would reimburse his expenses.
In checking Tiant's expenditures, Crowley's eye went immediately to the line detailing Luis's purchase of a custom-made tuxedo.
''I thought I told you to rent,'' Crowley screamed. ''I tried to,'' Luis replied, ''but I have funny build!''