The Spanish verb for it is rebotar—to bounce back, to show resilience. And no one in baseball has done it better, or more often, or more dramatically, or with more cigar smoke than Luis Clemente Tiant. Just four days after Tiant's legion of obituary writers were pressed into emergency service last week, Ol' Luis fooled them again by pitching a seven-inning no-hitter in his second outing for the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League. And so begins another improbable comeback for El Tiante, or, as he should be known, "El Rebotante."
The venerable Tiant needed all his powers of resilience after an embarrassing opener on April 14 at Civic Stadium in Portland, Ore. Both the performance and the surroundings were strange indeed for a pitcher of his stature.
That wasn't Robert Merrill at home plate belting out the national anthem. It was the Fair Oaks (Calif.) Presbyterian Church Youth Choir. That wasn't Bump Wills of the Texas Rangers stepping in for the first pitch of the season. It was Jay Loviglio of the Edmonton Trappers. And when Tiant, in the middle of that unusual look-away delivery, glanced into left-center field, he didn't see the monuments of Yankee Stadium. He saw an advertisement for Rico's Pizza.
But if Civic Stadium wasn't a customary setting for Cuba's second-most-famous cigar-smoking pelotero, Tiant's performance wasn't customary, either. After two innings, 56 pitches, eight runs, one grand-slam home run by Gary Holle, and five other hits, the highest-paid minor-leaguer in todo el mundo sat in front of his locker, shrugged, and said, "Eh, nat-ing you can do."
April 26, 1981
"Na-ting you can do" has become something of a credo for this battered but not broken warrior. Na-ting you can do if the Yankees see you with what your agent calls "40-40 eyesight"—a player 40 years old (as Tiant claims to be) is too old to be protected on the 40-man roster. Na-ting you can do if the other 25 teams weigh your age more heavily than your 225 major league wins and decide not to draft you as a free agent. Na-ting you can do if you don't want to take off that uniform and the only route back is the minors. Na-ting you can do if Step 1 in your comeback with the Triple-A Beavers is a two-inning calamity.
But Step 2 turned out to be Tiant's third professional no-hitter, a 2-0 victory at Spokane in the first game of a doubleheader. The others were with Burlington, Iowa in 1963 and with La Guaira in the Venezuelan Winter League in 1971. This time Tiant walked only two and struck out 10. "It's the hardest I've seen him throw in four years," said Spokane's Ted Cox, a former Red Sox teammate. "Before the game I told the guys, 'Don't worry. He won't throw the fastball by you.' But that's what he did." Cox' flailing alone accounted for three of the strikeouts.
"I throw good," Tiant said, as laconic as ever. "All my peetches work. I peetch like me, that's all." Tiant did concede that the performance might help his comeback. "This make people notice," he said. But the biggest immediate impression was made on his wife. After Tiant called her in Mexico, she started crying. "She my No. 1 fan," he said proudly.
The faith of Tiant's most loyal supporter would have been tested by his performance in the opener. But Tiant was phlegmatic then, too. "I peetch a bad game," he said. "What can I do, go around killing myself?"
If Tiant went around killing himself every time something has gone wrong in his 22-year professional baseball career, he would have been laid to rest in a number of American cities. It took him 5½ years and five stops (including Portland) to finally make it to the majors with Cleveland in 1964. The Indians traded him to Minnesota after the 1969 season, and after a year, the Twins released him. Atlanta picked him up and promptly sent him down to Richmond before releasing him. But in May of 71, Boston signed him, and in eight years he was 122-81. After the 1978 season, the Red Sox let him get away to the Yankees as a free agent. The Yankees didn't pick up his option for a third season, which was, in effect, another release. Na-ting you can do.
The improbable saga of a highly paid major league pitcher who has won 57.7% of his games returning to the Pacific Coast League begins with Portland's improbable general manager and majority owner, Dave Hersh. If the Beavers (or the Bevos, as they're known around town) have a phenom, it's probably the 26-year-old Hersh, a fast-talking, highly visible workaholic in a three-piece suit. By his own admission, and the eager testimony of others in the Portland organization, Hersh "has a tendency to go off the deep end sometimes." It was toward that end the Beavers were heading in the first two years of Hersh's profligate reign. But even his critics admitted he wanted a drawing card, which Portland hadn't had since 1964, when its pitching staff included Tiant, Sam McDowell and Tommy John. Tiant had a simple line then: "I peetch, I ween." He was 15-1 in 17 starts before the Indians called him up in midseason.
"All I ever heard around here was people talking about that team," says Hersh. "Luis was such a big part of it that it seemed a natural to go after him. We needed him to boost the gate and make us a winner again. And he needed us to try and get back in the majors. We're not using him like a lot of people are saying. We're using each other."
The deal wasn't struck easily. One complication occurred when the Yankees suddenly got interested in Tiant again and wanted him to pitch for their Triple-A farm team in Columbus, Ohio. As late as Feb. 16 of this year, seven days before Tiant was to sign the Portland contract, Hersh called a press conference to say, "Portland is just not capable of competing with the major leagues, especially in pursuit of a major league pitcher." But just as suddenly as they regained interest in Tiant, the Yankees lost it again. Tiant says, "Cedric Tallis [executive vice-president] wanted me, George Steinbrenner didn't."
Tiant's next-best alternative was to sign the Portland contract, which, with both a $50,000 signing bonus and an undisclosed deferred signing bonus (the only clauses allowed in a minor league contract), will earn him between $140,000 and $160,000. Portland owns his contract outright; if the Pirates, Portland's parent team, or any other major league club want Tiant, they'll have to purchase his contract from the Beavers, who have promised to let him go willingly.
Tiant's contract is believed to be the biggest ever for a minor league player. Hersh and his 11 partners paid for it by reaching into their own pockets for half the money and recruiting three additional partners for the franchise. They had hoped Tiant would pay them back at the gate, but he drew just 4,750 fans in the home opener, 2,750 fewer than they had anticipated.
One of the moneymen is David Lander, who plays the part of Squiggy on Laverne & Shirley. But to Tiant, this comeback attempt is no sitcom. He's in Portland for only one reason—to get back to the bigs—and he realizes that each step backward, like the one he took in the opener, makes that hope more unrealistic. "I still love the game," says Tiant. "I don't want to come in here and embarrass myself. I don't want to steal their money."
He worked hard to get in shape in the off-season and now he looks as solid as a 40-year-old, 5'10", 205-pound pitcher with an ample waist can look. "He reported in outstanding physical condition," says Portland Manager Pete Ward. "I couldn't have asked more from him in that respect. Luis leads by example. He's a manager's dream. He works hard; he's a model for the whole team." And Tiant impressed some of the Pirates in spring training, where he had a 2-0 record but a 6.39 ERA. "I never had to move my glove," said Catcher Steve Nicosia after working with Tiant. "If I set up outside, that's where the pitch was. If I set up inside, that's where the pitch was."
Despite his enthusiasm, Tiant is somewhat the scarred Don Quixote these days: he's ready to do battle with a few more windmills, but he's been through too much to have ultimate faith in the system. "All the time, throughout my career, people have been pulling tricks, doing things they shouldn't be doing, making it hard for me," he says. "I've had to prove myself every year, so this is not new. They've said before I'm too old. Sometimes they say my arm isn't strong anymore. I get used to that." In a statement that will stand in lasting counterpoint to the optimism of Chico Escuela, the former Saturday Night Live sports commentator, Tiant says, "Bèisbol no been easy game for me."
A little self-doubt has crept into El Tiante's thinking, too. "I want to play 3½ more years in the majors," he says. "That will give me 20 years. But I won't do it if I'm making a fool of myself. I won't do it just to make a couple more dollars. I don't really know what are my chances of getting back. But I know one thing: I could be thinking one thing and the other guy is thinking something else."
If Tiant at last hangs it up this season, he has several prospects—to manage or coach in Mexico, to be a major league pitching coach, or to become "director of Latin Affairs" for the Yankees, a job that was guaranteed when he signed with them in '78. Or he can just go back to raising poultry on his farm in La Piedad, outside Mexico City. "The same way I came in, I'll go out," says Tiant. "Nobody will have to tell me it's time." If that time is soon, Luis Tiant knows there's na-ting you can do. Unless, of course, that "na-ting" is a no-hitter.