Film Review: “The Lost Son of Havana”

August 2, 2010

Born in 1975, I didn’t get to see Luis Tiant at the peak of his pitching prowess. In fact, my few memories of Tiant consisted of his unique, whirl-wind windup and his affable, cigar-chomping post-game interviews with the press after pitching for the Yankees. Only a few years removed from some incredible years pitching for successful Red Sox teams that seemed to come up just short year in and year out through the mid to late 70’s, my father would tell me how Tiant was a fierce competitor with impeccable control and a pure joy to watch on the field. In that era, some would say that if you had a must-win game, the man you’d pick to start it would be Luis Tiant.

As a mixed-race child of divorce, who grew up often feeling alone and displaced in the world, Tiant’s mystique as a Cuban exile captivated me. Even then, there was something about a man with no place that struck a chord with me. The pitcher I saw in his final years was but a shadow of his former self, but the numbers on the back of his baseball card didn’t lie. There was a time when Tiant was about as good as any pitcher in the game. In fact his 1.60 ERA in 1968 was the lowest in the American League since Walter Johnson’s 1.49 ERA in 1919, second in baseball that year behind Bob Gibson’s mark of 1.12, which still stands as the lowest in the modern era. Opposing batters hit .168 off of Tiant in ’68, a Major League record, as he notched 9.22 K/9 over 258 innings pitched. With his funky wind-up, his fu-manchu moustache and his ever present post-game cigar, he was a larger than life figure and his legacy of excellence inspired me to emulate his trademark delivery when I pitched out in the courtyard in front of our little garden apartment in Flushing. Even though he was on his last legs as a professional pitcher, he was one of my first baseball idols, a few years before a young flamethrower named Dwight Gooden would come along to sweep New York City off of its feet.

In 1961 Tiant was a young amateur, touring America as part of a traveling exhibition of Cuban players. Then the Bay of Pigs invasion occurred and Fidel Castro gave those players in the states an ultimatum: return home to play in Cuba or never return home again. Spurred by his father, Luis Tiant Sr., himself a fantastic pitcher in the American Negro League, who never had the opportunity to pitch off of a Major League mound before returning to a working class life in Cuba, young Luis stayed in America and carved out a name for himself as one of the era’s finest hurlers. In 2007, after 46 years spent in exile, Luis Tiant returned to his native Havana, followed by a film crew, lead by director Jonathan Hock. “The Lost Son of Havana” documents Tiant’s bitter-sweet return home.

Tiant’s journey back to Havana is a touching and poignant tale, which shows a side of El Tiante that we’ve never seen before – a man torn with regret, as he returns to find an aged and impoverished extended family that he felt in some ways he abandoned when he decided to stay in America. As much about Tiant’s family as it is about the pitcher himself, Hock does a great job skillfully weaving the stories of both Tiants, father and son, together. With a photo of his old man in tow, his only tangible connection to his past, he reminisces about his youth and talks with others of his generation who saw both him and his father play. We’ll never know, but many say that “Lefty” Tiant, the senior, with his confounding array of pitches was better than his son. Said by some to have invented the screwball, he once struck out the mighty Babe Ruth in an exhibition game and held him to lone single while facing him as a starter in both games of a doubleheader.

With Cubans living and breathing baseball, many in the streets of Havana knew of Tiant’s triumphs in the majors and welcomed him home like a conquering hero. A fun moment occurs when they visit a Havana park where men gather to talk baseball. When asked “who is the greatest Cuban pitcher of all time,” the mostly young crowd rattle off names familiar to current baseball fans, such as Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez and Jose Contrares, before one young man knowingly barks out, “Luis Tiant,” as the aged legend stands their behind them with a grin. As testament to Tiant’s tremendous success, Hock intercuts the film with a wealth of old footage from Tiant’s playing days, as well as interview clips from former teammates such as Carlton Fisk and Carl Yastrzemski. Along the way we hear of all the highs and lows of Tiant’s career, from his early days with the Indians, where he threw his hardest stuff, to his reinvention as a pitcher and the development of his tornado wind-up, after he suffered an injury plagued campaign in 1969. From his return to dominance in the 1970’s to his multiple comebacks in the early 80’s, Tiant comes across as a man who loved nothing more than to take the mound and pitch. Of course, we see his greatest on-field moments with the Red Sox, where Tiant became one of Boston’s most beloved athletes, averaging an astounding 280 innings pitched a season from 1973 through 1976 and ultimately leading them to a World Series appearance against the Big Red Machine in 1975. There Tiant put the team on his aching back, going the distance in complete game victories in Game 1 (a five-hit shutout) and Game 4 and received a no-decision in Game 6.

Perhaps the high point of the film comes as we look back at Game 1, before which Fidel Castro allowed Luis’ parents to go to America to watch their son pitch in the World Series. Before a frenzied Fenway Park crowd, Luis Sr. proudly took the hill to throw out the game’s ceremonial first pitch – a strike – that brought a thunderous ovation from the Boston fans. Denied the chance at his beloved sports ultimate glory because of the color of his skin, the father then got to watch the son pitch the game of his life on baseball’s biggest stage. Seeing that footage brought me to tears, as my father, a scouted high-school star, also once dreamed of pitching off that big league hill before his career was curtailed by injury. It’s times like those when the game transcends provincial, generational and cultural boundaries and becomes something greater than what we simply see on the field. It becomes more than just a pastime, but a link to our past itself, both personally and as a nation.

Hock’s crew takes us along with Tiant through his native city, who’s 1950’s architecture and automobiles seem so alien to him now. Sometimes shown in grainy images, as though frozen in time, the city of Havana itself comes alive for the audience as we are lead down its boulevards and alleyways, meeting people such as Juan Carlos Oliva, the brother of former Major League star, Tony Oliva. Juan Carlos was a talented ball-player himself but decided to stay in Cuba and served in Castro’s army as a tank commander before later becoming a baseball coach. Together he and Tiant talk of the many greats who never got a chance to prove their meddle and reap the rewards of glory and wealth in America. We also meet a childhood friend, named Fermin, who while taking a sentimental look at their youth, cannot help but convey his anger and envy at Tiant, whose career brought him riches beyond the wildest dreams of most Cubans. Of course we meet Luis’ extended family, living an impoverished life, far removed from that which Luis came to enjoy in The States. From the old aunts who last days draw near to the young ones who seem somewhat puzzled by all the commotion, it is a bittersweet scene as Luis feels the pain of having stayed away so long and finds out that many of the care packages he had sent home never made it to his family. Haunted by regret, we see Tiant give them necessities in short supply, such as needle and thread and toothpaste, before peeling off dollar bills.

As reviewer Michael Janusonis of the Providence Journal artfully pointed out, the film is indeed two tales. One is the story of Luis’ catching up with a family that he had lost touch with after all those years away. The other story is the tale of Tiant the pitcher and his triumphs in America, succeeding in ways that his father, denied the opportunities he was afforded, could not. The two stories are woven together masterfully and serve to make the film an engaging and rewarding viewing for fans and non-fans alike. Even my wife – who’s hardly a fan of the game and is truthfully sick of it, since it’s always on in our living room – enjoyed this film. If you are a fan of baseball, do yourself a favor and see this film immediately.

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Welcome To Splitsville Part 2

July 16, 2010

Originally published on Advanced Fantasy Baseball. Stats current as of the All-Star break.

…Continued from Part One

Here’s the rest of my 2010 All-Splits team for players owned by 50% or fewer teams according to Yahoo.

Vs. Righties

C: John Jaso (6% owned) Although he’s cooled considerably since May, the 26 year old catcher came seemingly out of nowhere to perform admirably behind the plate for the Rays. Jaso has put together nice numbers against righties, going .295/.412/.397 in 177 PA, while struggling against lefties in limited action. Interestingly enough, Jaso’s MiLB Splits are pretty even throughout his five years on the farm. With enough plate appearances against big league lefties (since returning from injury, the struggling Kelly Shoppach has been getting a lot of appearances against southpaws), Jaso might be able to prove he’s deserving of a full-time gig.

1B: Lyle Overbay (4% owned) It seems like you could pencil Overbay into this list every year and still somehow he manages to hold down a full-time job in Toronto. The veteran first baseman has always done better against right-handers (.264/.353/.443 in 269 PA so far in 2010) while doing little against lefties, but that split is even more dramatic this season as he’s stunk it up to a tune of .192/.232/.308 so far. With first base so rich in talent, there’s no reason to have to roster Overbay outside of the deepest of leagues. If you do however (maybe you own Kendry Morales and Todd Helton, both shelved with injuries), you’d do well to sit him against lefties or platoon him with a guy like Daric Barton or Adam Rosales.

2B: Omar Infante (9% owned) The man who may forever be known (through no fault of his own) as the worst All-Star selection ever is the only 2010 All-Star to also make my All-Splits team. The jack-of-all-trades has been consistently mediocre from both sides of the plate through out his nine years of mostly part-time, MLB play. This season however, the right-handed Infante has shown infinite prowess if not power against righty hurlers, posting a .364/.384/.447 in 138 PA in while disappearing against lefties in limited time (.262/.303/.311 in 67 PA). If he receives regular playing time, I would expect that gap to close quite a bit before season’s end.

SS: Wilson Valdez (3% owned) Wait, what? Yeah I put Valdez on this list, what of it? That’s how shallow SS is and the 32 year old journeyman plays in a hitter’s paradise. While starting in place of the injured Jimmy Rollins at short and now Chase Utley over at second, Valdez has proved useful against righties (.283/.300/.449 with all 4 of his HR in 133 PA), while doing next to nothing against southpaws. Outside of a hot streak, I don’t think he’s rosterable in 12 team mixed, but I did have him for a cup of coffee on my 15 team mixed league a few weeks ago.

3B: Chase Headley (45% owned) The Padres every day third baseman started off like a ball of fire in April, only to come back down to earth with a thud in May and June. He’s been picking it up again lately however, and remains solid against right-handed pitching going .306/.351/.427 with 5 of his 6 homers in 251 PA. His weakness against left-handers remains glaring however, as he’s been shut down to the tune of .197/.258/.248 in 129 PA. His sneaky speed makes you want to pencil him in every day in case he swipes a bag, but his ineptitude while facing lefties removes that option unless you like zeros. Cavernous Petco Park saps his power and that weak Padre lineup does him no favors either, so unless you’ve got another 3B eligible guy to platoon him with, I’d stay away from Headley in all but deep leagues.

OF: Hideki Matsui (37% owned) Godzilla is a shell of the player he was a few years ago with the Yankees and he’s been absolutely dreadful against lefties this year – .188/.224/.366 in 107 PA. Against righties however, Matsui can still hit and he’s put up a useful .281/.381/.408 line in 231 PA. Consider him rosterable in deeper leagues, when platooned with an outfielder who can rake lefties like Matt Diaz, Jeff Francoeur or Cody Ross.

OF: J.D. Drew (44% owned) The captain of my all-splits team, J.D. Drew is the epitome of a platoon player – when healthy, of course. Drew demolishes right-handers with a .315/.400/.586 line, along with 9 of his 10 home runs in 210 PA. Conversely, he’s atrocious against lefties, going .185/.265/.235 in 91 PA. If you’ve got Drew on your team, platoon him or else!

OF: David DeJesus (50% owned) The Royals outfielder is quietly having a very nice year all around – 45 R/5 HR/ 36 RBI .326/.395/.460 and his career splits aren’t that far apart, however this season he’s really shined against right-handers, going .344/.403/.478 in 275 PA. I’ve currently got him in my 12 team mixed league and I sit him against lefties in favor of Dexter Fowler, since his .272/.372/.407 line with little pop or speed in 95 PA doesn’t offer much in that format. DeJesus has been mentioned in trade talks with the Red Sox, where I see him in a platoon with Mike Cameron, once Jacoby Ellsbury gets back, which would certainly help his counting numbers against righties.

UTL: Angel Pagan (50% owned) Currently the Mets leader in batting average (.315), Pagan will get the bulk of the playing time in a platoon with Jeff Francoeur, once Carlos Beltran gets back. His speed makes him playable every day right now, but if you can afford to, it’s best to platoon him to take advantage of his splits. Against lefties Pagan has been pretty underwhelming with a .273/.309/.386 line in 96 PA. Facing righties though, Angel has been heavenly, belting out it out at a .335/.398/.512 clip. Platooned with a lefty killer and you’re looking at steady production in the second half.

I’m ending my list here, but there are lots of other players around, who if platooned properly can provide your fantasy team with a nice lift. Who do you think are some other players who could have made the Splitsville All-Stars?

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Bizarro World: Where’s Panda?

June 7, 2010

We’re a third of the way through what has been a historically crazy season of baseball. From extremes of perfection and incompetence to umpires gone wild and a new crop of fantastic rookie pitchers, I dare even the games most knowledgeable experts to try and predict what will happen in the remaining four months of the season. I double dog dare you! Grady Sizemore worthless. Jose Bautista leading the bigs in bombs. Jaime Garcia staking a claim to NL ROY honors. Cries of “replay!” from every mountain top, seas boiling, rain of toads, dogs and cats living together as Yogi would say, “Who’d have thunk it?” Here’s a little round up of what’s been going down are the diamond…

Ken Griffey Jr. had a fantastic career that came to an end 23 years to the day from when the Seattle Mariners first drafted him. Whether at the plate or gliding across the outfield, Griffey was as close to a fucking rock star as baseball had in the 90’s. Injuries cut short his claim to the all-time homer crown, but in an age of ‘roided out freaks, Junior took the high road and accepted his body’s natural limitations. Had he been so deranged as to jack himself up like The Hulk, he probably would have out-banged Bonds. Thanks for the memories Griff, we’ll see you in Cooperstown.

Props to Bruce Bochey from putting his best hitter in the eight hole on Saturday night. It stands to reason that a guy like Panda, who swings at everything, would prosper with the pitcher hitting behind him. That’s sarcasm. Sandoval was back hitting third today and went 2-5 with an RBI and a run scored in todays 6 – 5 Giants win over the Pirates. Sandoval’s been scuffling lately, largely due to a .306 BABIP, handcuffed to a paltry 15.5% LD rate. Last year those numbers were .350 and 18.6% respectively. His power has dropped as well, from a .226 ISO last season to a pedestrian .145 ISO coming into Sunday. While that sounds grim, his .59 BB/K rate isn’t far off of the .63 he posted in ’09 and his contact rate remains high at 82.4% versus 82.6% in the last campaign. While he may not reach 25 homers, like last season, his average should pick up with runs and RBI to go with it. If I could do it again, would I have kept Sandoval? No. However I’m not looking to dump him as he should still prove to be a solid contributor in the remaining two thirds of the season.

Kevin Correia isn’t right. Padre manager, Bud Black isn’t worried, but I am. His latest debacle in Philly cost me dearly in my H2H league. Little surprise here actually. How could he be right after the recent death of his brother? I can’t imagine being able to maintain the focus needed to perform at the major league level, while dealing with such a catastrophic loss. After the 2008 season, much was written about how the death of his father affected Pedro Martinez‘ pitching perhaps more than the injuries he was recovering from. Having lost people close to me, I know how hard it can be to put on a mask of sanity and go out one’s business. Since returning to the mound after the tragedy, Correia’s only had one Quality Start and he walked six in that game. I’m giving Correia one more start, next week against a soft Mariners lineup. We’ll see where we go from there.

Buster Posey is good at hitting baseballs. Not this good however. I see him as a .290 hitter at season’s end and that may be generous. Drawing only his first walk as a 2010 Giant today doesn’t bode well. If I owned Posey in a redraft league, I’d sell while his value is at it’s peak.

Hey Tex, it’s June. You can start hitting now…

I’m really really happy that I traded Nelson Cruz for Kevin Youkilis in the Big Ballers League.

I’m shocked that Armando Galarraga is still on waivers in the BBL. Does a guy have to throw a perfect game to get some respect? I was pretty surprised to pick up Dallas Braden off of waivers this week too after he was dropped. I’m thinking of taking Galarraga over Hisanori Takahashi, who’s been dreadful in his last two starts against the less than intimidating Padres and Fighting Fish. The gracious Galarraga isn’t as good as he was last week against Cleveland, but he showed some positive signs in 2008. Gotta be worth a flyer in a league so deep!

Mike Stanton will bring his minor league leading HR power to The Show this week, showing either Cody Ross or Cameron Maybin to the pine. Maybin’s been a disappointment and it’s easy to see why he’d be benched. After being the centerpiece of the deal that sent Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis (who made his presence felt in his D-Backs premiere this weekend) to Detroit however, I feel the Marlins have to give Maybin every shot to succeed. Hopefully for The Harlem Hangovers, I’m right, but Ross has definitely been the one deserving of playing time.

Jaime Garcia continues to throw Quality Starts as he dances between raindrops. I’m not looking forward to his crash back to Earth.

Kevin Gregg’s best chance to keep his closer job involves not pitching. Nobody in the Blue Jay pen seems to want the gig, so Gregg keeps it by default.

Harlem Hangovers fall to 92 points, down to 5th place. Lima Time Forever loses 7 – 4 and finishes the week 15 games under .500, tied for second to last place. It’s not looking good. Changes are in the wind.

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Under The Weather

May 19, 2010

I seem to have been struck with the same stomach ailment that plagued Carlos Quentin over the weekend but like Quentinsity, I’m breaking out! With that in mind, I’ll turn to a few of the latest ballers to nursing injuries and how it might open up playing time and create some interesting fantasy options.

Ass-suck Cabrera fractured a wing the other day. Chief Wahoo calls up Jason Donald to fill in at short. Donald went 2-3 with a BB and a run scored last night in his MLB debut, while hitting in the nine-hole. Yeah that sounds dirty but with uninspired duo of Trevor Crowe and Mark Grudzielanek setting the table in Cleveland, it’s safe to imagine Donald leading off in the not too distant future. Donald is a cheap speed play if you’re in need of swipes and shouldn’t kill your ratios, as he has exhibited decent plate discipline in the minors.

Josh Beckett was sent to the DL with pain in his lower back. Fantasy owners trying to trade him (like my man JP) collectively bury their heads in their hands. I’m not sure what’s more painful, Red-State-Jeter’s bum back or having to watch him pitch. Tim Wakefield will take Beckett’s place in the Sawx rotation. I wouldn’t roster Wakefield with your team. Instead go grab some schmo who pitches in the NL West, like John Ely, Jason Hammel, Jon Garland or Jeff Francis for a safe play. You could also go with…

Atlanta Braves pitcher. Kris Medlen, who looked solid in his start against the Mets last night. Going in place of Jar Jar “I told you he’d end up on the DL” Jurrjens, Medlen cruised through five before giving up solo jacks to Ike and Frenchy and ultimately getting chased in the 7th.  He finished with a no-decision but a tidy 6K, 2BB, 4H and 2ER in 6 1/3IP. There’s a lot to like about the young righty who started the season in the bullpen and now holds a 26/5 K/BB rate in 29 1/3 IP through 2010. With a mix of plus fastballs and a very effective change, he’s sustained that 5-1 K/BB rate through his minor league career so those numbers are not a fluke. I’m looking forward to seeing him go deeper into games and raking up Quality Starts for the Uptown Ham Fighters, as he stretches out and gets more acclimated to starting.

Of course the biggest injury to hamper the hopes of Dodger fans and fantasy owners alike, is the fractured pinky that Andre Ethier suffered in batting practice a few days ago. The hottest hitter in baseball couldn’t swing through the pain, so he was placed on the DL yesterday for some R & R. In his place the Trolley Dodgers call up intriguing power-speed combo, Xavier Paul. Paul was raking for the AAA Isotopes over the last few weeks, before getting the call. He didn’t reach base in three plate appearances while hitting out of the two-hole last night for Los Angeles.

One of the surprise stars of my Ham Fighter squad is Yankee right fielder Nick Swisher. Swish has been a steady producer in 2010, hitting well from both sides of the plate on his way towards approaching the numbers he posted in his career year in 2005. Nagged by a strained left bicep for the past few weeks, the arm flared up last week during the Yanks-Tigers doubleheader split. Making it painful to swing from the left side, he’s been sitting the past two nights, after coming out of the game on Sunday against the Twins. Consider him day-to-day, but be ready to grab a bat if he hits the DL. That bat should not be Randy Winn or Marcus Thames, unless you’re playing in a deep AL-Only league or you hate yourself. Thames might give you a little pop against lefties or Jon Paplebon, but neither are really rosterable.

Back off of the DL is Cardinal infielder, Felipe Lopez. The versatile, if unspectacular utility man hit a two-run bomb in his second game leading off for St. Louis last night. Brendan Ryan will ride the pine as Lopez should see consistent playing time. The holder of a career .269/.338/.401 line has shown flashes of goodness through out his 10 seasons in the bigs but has had nagging injuries that have hampered him. If he could get hot, Lopez could be a good source of runs at with occasional speed and power, that won’t murder your ratios. Leading off for the Cards has its benefits and you could do worse as far as middle infielders go.

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