“Years is easy to say, but those are days and nights,” offers an anguished Luis Tiant, famed major-league pitcher of the 1960s and ’70s, returning to his boyhood streets and playing fields after a 46-year absence in The Lost Son of Havana, an autumnal portrait of a hero haunted by loss and regret. Leaving home for a three-month ball-playing stint in America at age 20 in 1961, right after the Bay of Pigs, Tiant found himself trapped by the severance of diplomatic relations, and was urged in a letter from his father—himself a former star hurler of the Cuban, Mexican, and American Negro Leagues—not to return, but to seek his professional destiny in the States. After breaking in as an All-Star flamethrower with the Cleveland Indians, Luisito came back from a freakish shoulder fracture by reinventing himself as a crafty artisan—featuring a funky windup where his head turned to centerfield, then bobbed skyward—for the Red Sox, prompting hordes of Bostonians to ritually chant his name. In a storybook climax to his family’s baseball journey, Tiant’s elderly parents were permitted by Castro to join their son in 1975, where they witnessed his stirring performance in the World Series.
From his sobbing embrace by elderly aunts he hadn’t seen in a half-century to somber musings that “it all could have been different,” El Tiante’s narrative is a ready-made tearjerker, and director Jonathan Hock not only wrings them out of the poignant reunion tale, but the nearly simultaneous deaths of both of Tiant’s parents the year after their unlikely furlough from Cuba (“They killed me,” mourns the son). Still, the man’s cigar-chomping bonhomie that so well served his mainland media profile remains magnetic, and he’s authentically bemused by his “lost” status in 21st-century Havana, as when baseball aficionados in mid-debate, prompted to name the greatest native pitcher, toss out the names El Duque and Jose Contreras. As for the politics of exile, the documentary doesn’t delve into ideology or advocacy beyond capturing the undertow of the poverty in his Cuban Tiant family that gnaws at their celebrated prince. “We are barely scraping by,” a cousin declares frankly to Luis just before he departs the island once again, and when he peels off some U.S. bills to meet her discreet but unadorned plea, it’s both the only thing he can do and, in his own mind, not nearly enough.
The Lost Son of Havana @ the Tribeca Film Festival
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.