AS A big league pitcher, Luis Tiant baffled hitters with a contortionist's delivery in which he turned his back to the plate in the midst of his windup. Now, in retirement, the hurler has faced down his toughest challenge—diabetes—head-on.
In 1968 Tiant was an essential though overshadowed contributor to the fabled Year of the Pitcher. Most fans remember Denny McLain's 31 wins (a figure no big league hurler has since approached) and Bob Gibson's mind-boggling 1.12 ERA (lowest in the majors since '14 and also not since approached); each won his respective league's MVP award, the only time other than '24 that pitchers have swept the trophies. Tiant, pitching for the Cleveland Indians, merely went 21--9 with 19 complete games (nine of them shutouts), 264 strikeouts and an American League--leading 1.60 ERA (a mark no AL pitcher has bettered since). So dominant was the pitching in '68 that the following season Major League Baseball lowered the height of the mound by five inches.
After 19 seasons of wizardry with six clubs, the native of Marianao, Cuba, retired with a record of 229--172 and a 3.30 ERA. Though his career numbers are comparable with those of Hall of Famers Don Drysdale and Catfish Hunter, Tiant is still awaiting an invite to Cooperstown. But he's had bigger things to worry about. In 2003, tests revealed that Tiant had type 2 diabetes, a condition that afflicts more than 20 million Americans and can result in blindness, nerve damage and even death. Thanks to alterations of his diet, however, Tiant has the disease under control. "I don't take any more pills," says Tiant, 67.
Each year since '05 the Fu Manchued fan favorite has hosted Luis Tiant's Swing for Diabetes, a golf tournament in Quincy, Mass., that attracts Red Sox players and other New England celebrities. In three years the event has raised nearly $600,000 for the American Diabetes Association.
Tiant plays golf nearly every day. And no, there are no eyes looking to sky or high leg kicks in his swing. "I drive it pretty good for my age," he says. "I play with a lot of young guys, and they get mad when I hit it farther than them. I still got a little strength."
When not on the links, Tiant busies himself headlining charity dinners and making the rounds at Boston-area cigar bars to promote a line of stogies bearing his likeness and nickname, El Tiante. He also makes numerous appearances each year at Fenway Park, where he cemented his cult status with his heroics in the 1975 postseason. That year he pitched a three-hit, complete-game victory over Oakland in the ALCS, shut out Cincinnati's Big Red Machine 6--0 in the World Series opener, then won again four days later in Cincinnati with a 155-pitch complete-game masterpiece in Game 4. Sox fans who seek his autograph and snap his picture outside the Cuban concession stand bearing his name on Yawkey Way often tell him he belongs in Cooperstown. "Maybe I'm not where I should be," says the father of three and grandfather of two. "But I've got a good wife, a good family. I've got everything I need."
HERB SCHARFMAN (TIANT '68)
EN FUEGO El Tiante smoked the AL in '68 with a 1.60 ERA for the Indians.