'El Tiante' Former Red Sox star coaching small college team
SAVANNAH, Ga. - Luis Tiant stands on the mound and looks in at the batter, gripping the ball in his right hand. This is a scene seared in the minds of baseball fans who grew up in the 1970s, particularly those who watched the historic 1975 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds. Tiant at Fenway Park. Pavarotti at the Met. It seemed like he pitched every game in that World Series. Maybe that is because in one game he threw 172 pitches. People were awestruck last year when Livan Hernandez - a kid with a young arm - threw 142 pitches in a Series game. But it wasn't just how much Tiant pitched, or how well he pitched - very well, good enough to win 229 games in an 18-year career - it was how he pitched. He was perhaps the best performance artist ever to grace the mound. Tiant's motion was dance as much at it was baseball. He jerked and moved and jingled, twisting his body and head away from the plate before finally sending the ball to do his bidding. He was the original Fernando, except that he did it better than Valenzuela. For one thing, he did it successfully longer. He was not a pitcher with a gimmick that eventually flamed out. And he did it with personality, combining his showmanship - a quotable, colorful, carefree character off the field, known for his trademark cigars that he reportedly would keep in his mouth while in the shower - with an intense desire to win and a charisma that led his teammates to follow him. Consider what Carl Yastrzemski said in Peter Gammons' book "Beyond the Sixth Game" about Tiant when the Red Sox failed to re-sign him in 1979 and he went to the New York Yankees: "When they let Luis Tiant go to New York, they tore out our heart and soul." But Tiant would not be delivering any such performance on the mound this warm April day in Georgia. The stocky 57-year-old Cuban native with the Fu Manchu mustache stood behind the protective fence on the mound at Grayson Stadium, took the ball, and simply pitched it. "I was hoping he would show us his old stuff," said one local businessman who came just to see Tiant. "I'd love to see that motion again." But this was batting practice, and Tiant was pitching to an 18-year-old kid who was 2 years old the last time Tiant performed on a major league mound. For Luis Tiant to use that wonderful motion here would be like Nureyev using his best dance moves in a stretching exercise. This was not the time or the place. For that matter, who would have thought "El Tiante" would be in this place? If you made a version of "Where in the World is Luis Tiant?," the hardest answer you might come up with is coaching the Savannah College of Art and Design baseball team. But he is here. And he hopes that in the long road he has traveled in baseball, from Cuba to Cleveland to Boston and points in between and since, this is his final stop. Tiant was one of the last players to make it out of Cuba before Fidel Castro put a halt to the refugees leaving the country in 1961, pitching in the Mexican League at the time. He came up with the Cleveland Indians in 1964 and established himself with an outstanding rookie season, going 10-4 with a 2.83 ERA. He would go 45-35 in his first four seasons before breaking out and having a career season in 1968, going 21-9 with a 1.60 ERA and 264 strikeouts. But Tiant fell on hard times after that. He lost 20 games (9-20) for the Indians in 1969. He suffered through shoulder problems and other injuries and was traded to the Minnesota Twins. But despite putting together a 7-3 record in 1970, he didn't have the velocity he used to and in 1971 wound up in Boston, his third team in three seasons. It looked as if that would be his last year; Tiant posted his worst record, going 1-7 with a 4.88 ERA. However, with the combination of a healthy shoulder and adjustments Tiant made, he went 15-6 in 1972 with a 1.91 ERA. It was in Boston that he would become a baseball legend, going on to win 20 games or more in three of his next four seasons and his two victories in the 1975 World Series. Tiant would leave Boston to sign as a free agent with the New York Yankees in 1979, where he went 21-17 over two seasons, and his best days were behind him. He went 2-5 with a 3.95 ERA with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1981 and then 2-2 with a 5.76 ERA with the California Angels in 1982, his final season. The veteran pitcher thought he had established his credentials to land a big league job as a pitching coach, but year after year, offers passed him by. "You see guys in the big leagues coaching and managing, and they've never done anything in baseball," he said after practice one day, swatting away the sand gnats as he spoke. "A lot of guys who were good or great players, they can't have a job. And if you want a job, you have to call them. And even when you call, they tell you we don't have nothing open. We'll let you know. Then the next day you watch TV, and they hired somebody else for the same job you were asking about. That makes you feel upset. It make you feel bad." Tiant spent his time making appearances, doing fantasy camps and old-timer games, some winter baseball coaching in Latin America and other odd jobs. He got back into the game on a full-time basis in 1992, but on the minor league level, as an instructor, first for the Los Angeles Dodgers and later for the Chicago White Sox, in between serving as the coach for the 1996 Nicaraguan Olympic baseball team. Both the Dodgers and the White Sox organizations, he said, treated him well. But he wasn't really cut out for being the low man in an organizational chain. Tiant has a low threshold for organization politics and a frankness that, while endearing him to his teammates as a player, was not a style suited for baseball's middle management. "Nobody is going to tell me nothing about pitching, I guarantee you that," he said. "The best guys, even the ones that win 300 games, they don't know more about pitching than me." Tiant hoped to land a job running a program at a college. The idea of teaching kids - and being his own boss - appealed to him. "I don't want to be an assistant," he said. "I don't want to be second to anybody. I've never made myself that way. I never raised myself that way. You try to be the first." But educators want education credentials, and Tiant's experience wasn't a substitute for the lack of a college education. "I contacted a few colleges before, a long time ago, but they were looking for someone with a college education, a college degree," Tiant said. Richard Rowan wanted the same thing he wants for everything at the Savannah College of Art and Design, the school that he started 20 years ago that, with 4,500 students, is the largest art and design college in the country. He believes in a strong athletic program, ignoring the snickers of an art college competing in the jock world, and he said he wanted the best teacher he could find. "When you're educating young people, and that's what you're doing, whether you are teaching them a sport or two-dimensional design or architecture, you're teaching. . . . You should always endeavor to find the best teacher that you can," said Rowan, SCAD president. Rowan had followed the philosophy several years earlier when he hired former NBA star Cazzie Russell to be his basketball coach. And he used the same approach when he needed a baseball coach. They sent out letters to former major leaguers advertising the job and interviewed about 30 applicants. Tiant impressed Rowan with his baseball credentials, but he hired him for the same reason that Tiant was so loved and respected by fans and teammates: his character. "We drove around with his wife, Maria, with him, and we went into about five or six buildings," Rowan said. "Every time we got out of the car he would hold the door for her, and every time we got back in the car he would open the door for her. We walked to lunch, and they were holding hands. He's a class guy." It's not surprising that Rowan was sold on Tiant after he met him. It was his presence that won over both fans and teammates during his major league career. "Unless you've played with him, you can't understand what Luis means to a team, what it is to play behind him," former Boston teammate Dwight Evans said in "Beyond the Sixth Game." "Off the field, he keeps a team loose," Evans said. "It is as if he knows exactly when to clown and when to be serious. If you play this game long enough, you know that the bus rides and plane rides along the road are vitally important, and Luis knows exactly when to turn a bus ride into something out of a Saturday Night Live [sketch]. And there's no way of describing it. "Then when it comes to going to the mound, well, as great as Catfish Hunter and Jim Palmer were, if I'd had one game I had to win, I'd have wanted Luis Tiant pitching for me," Evans said. Tiant was with the Yankees for just two seasons, 1979 and 1980, but even in that short time, among the strong personalities in that Yankee clubhouse, he was a leader. "Even though we only played together for a couple of years, I could see he had a big impact on players," said former Yankees catcher Rick Cerone. "He kept everybody loose." Cerone has one particular image of Tiant from his Yankees days. "He loved to roller skate," Cerone said. "It was the funniest thing to see Luis Tiant in the catacombs of Yankee Stadium, with kneepads, armpads, shorts, and a big, old cigar, skating around the inside of Yankee Stadium. "He's one of the best guys I ever met in the game," Cerone said. These are stories of days past to the college ballplayers Tiant coaches. None of them was even born during his glory days with the Red Sox, and while they know about his 229 wins and his success as a major league pitcher, they had only heard stories about how truly big Tiant was in Boston - until the second weekend in April. Tiant took his team to Boston to play the Massachusetts Institute of Technology several weeks ago, and they took a side trip one day to Fenway Park to see a Red Sox game. He was mobbed by Red Sox fans, and the chant of "Looie, Looie," was so loud that it drowned out the public address announcer. "My father had told me stories about him, and we all have a lot of respect for him, but it was remarkable to see the way people loved him up there," said sophomore pitcher Bob Lipovski. Tiant appreciated the reception, because he sees it as a measure of what he earned in the game. "The way the people treated me when I went back up there, you can't buy with any money," he said. "That's what happens when you work hard and respect people and then you earn their respect, and that's how they remember you. You can't get that by talking and talking with a big mouth. You earn that with your ability. You do your job on the field, and don't get into any trouble, eventually, you're gonna win. You feel good about yourself." His accomplishments and reputation have not been enough to land him in the Hall of Fame yet. He has come up short in 11 tries and has just four years of eligibility left. Then he will have to wait for the Veterans Committee to consider him. "It used to bother me but not any more," Tiant said. "I want to be in there, don't get me wrong. I think I deserve to be there. Maybe in two or three years they will put me in. If they don't put me in one way, maybe they will another. Hopefully I will be still alive then. What good is it to put me in the Hall of Fame when I'm dead? What are you going to do if they put you in the Hall of Fame when you're 70 or 80 years old? How can you enjoy that? You can't even have a beer to celebrate. It hasn't been an easy first season for Coach Tiant. He took a while to settle in Savannah, just closing on a house, and in the first 11 games, the SCAD Bees went 2-9. But as he made his presence felt more, and took on a new assistant coach, Eddie Concepcion, they began to jell, and went 9-7 in their next 16 games. But then came a big three-game weekend series with nationally ranked Emory College. Tiant worked out his team at Grayson Field the Friday before a Saturday doubleheader. He walked around the field, speaking with groups of players along the way. He stopped and talked to Lipovski and several other pitchers, going over how to finish their stride when they release the ball. He joked with players and reminded them all when to be there the next day. For a man who once led a clubhouse of men in Boston, for a man who was once the biggest star on the biggest stage in sports, for a man who is used to saying what is on his mind - in the rough-hewn language of pro baseball players - coaching college students has been an adjustment. "You have to be ready to have some mistakes made, and that's why we are losing this year," Tiant said. "We are making mistakes. They know. I don't have to keep telling them. They tell me, `Coach, we play bad, Coach we stink.' I tell them forget about it, just try to do better next game and play a little harder. "You have to be smart enough not to push too much," he said. "You can't be talking tough, that you're going to do this or that. You have to be patient." Dealing with Division III baseball has also been an adjustment - such as the umpires. Tiant got tossed out of one game this year when he came out of the dugout to argue a call. "[The umpire] told me to get back in the dugout and shut up," Tiant said. "I said you're not my mother or my father." He did so with quite a few expletives in between and was ejected. But he has adjusted, and in his own way, he is still "El Tiante," only now he roams the coach's box at third base, giving signals with a touch of the flair he once displayed on the mound. On this weekend, the SCAD Bees play well but make mistakes on the bases and in the field and lose all three games to Emory. They also had to suffer the indignity of having the lights go out in the second game of the doubleheader, with no one around to turn them back on. It's a long way from Fenway Park, and Tiant is demoralized by the three losses. "I can't go out and do it for them," he said, sitting alone in the dugout. "We beat ourselves. We make mistakes." But things are looking up. It's a young team, with only two players leaving after this season. Tiant has already brought in some talented freshmen, and he has been using his contacts to find players to bring in next year. "Next year we will be tough," he said. Tiant gets up, leaving the dugout, putting the losses behind him. He lights up a cigar. He is looking forward to better days ahead. "I'm bringing my family here," he said. "We'll all be together. I have three children, two boys and one girl. My daughter is going to come, my oldest son, his wife and my grandchild. My youngest son is about to graduate from Bridgewater University in Massachusetts. He might come down here, too. That's something that is very important to me, keeping my family together. That counts for a lot. "They've given me an opportunity here, and I think this may be the best decision I ever made in my life," Tiant said. "This might be my last stop." Where in the world is Luis Tiant? Coaching baseball at an art college. Where else would you find Picasso?