Friday, April 24, 2009

Tribeca ’09: Lost Son of Havana

Luis Tiant can do the impossible—he can get fans of both the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox to agree on something. While loved and respected by Yankee fans for his two years in pinstripes, Tiant’s glory years were undeniably spent pitching for the Bosox. During his Boston stint, Tiant did everything humanly possible to end their World Series frustrations. Yet, more painful for Tiant than the team’s championship draught was his forty-six year exile from his native Cuba. His storied career and dramatic homecoming are now documented in Jonathan Hock’s Lost Son of Havana (trailer here), which premiered last night at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Baseball is a national obsession in Cuba and it was the Tiant family business. At one time, Luis “Lefty” Tiant, Sr. had been a star pitcher for the Negro League’s New York Cubans as well as the Cuban professional league, but his eventual obscurity left him temporarily disillusioned with the game. Then he witnessed his son’s raw talent. Unfortunately, Tiant, Jr. got called to the Major Leagues just as Castro closed his iron fist around the island nation, resulting in the pitcher’s long separation from friends and family.

To Hock’s credit, he seems to harbor no illusions about the nature of Castro’s regime. After all, he and Tiant had a difficult time getting the authorities to authorize their entry permits. They were travelling under the auspices of an American amateur baseball team playing a “good will” game with their Cuban counterparts. As a condition of approval, the small crew of Lost was required to play in the match, essentially guaranteeing a lop-sided American loss, which they note, may well have been the point. Though the political situation is largely unaddressed, a corner of a Havana park dedicated to animated baseball discussions is tellingly described as the probably the only place where free speech exists in Cuba.

In between scenes of Tiant’s tearful reunions with loved ones, Hock details the highlights of his eventful years in the Majors. While showing early promise, an arm injury nearly ended his career. However, the dominating fastball thrower was able to reinvent himself as a crafty pitcher, much as his father has been. Time and again, Tiant was written off, but he kept clawing his way back into the league. His is a career with many highlights, but baseball analyst Peter Gammons convincingly argues Tiant’s game four victory in the 1975 World Series was his finest moment, won on pure guts alone. To use a sports cliché (and this is certainly the time for it), as a player, Tiant had heart.

Lost is a well-crafted documentary, featuring a peppy, Cuban-inspired soundtrack by Robert Miller. The talking head segments are a cut above average, featuring warm reminiscences by Carl Yastrzemski and Carlton Fisk that Boston fans should particularly enjoy. It also has some big names attached to it, including its producers, the Farrelly Brothers of Something About Mary fame, and narrator Chris Cooper. Tiant is star though, and he always seems quite likable and engaging throughout the film. It is a compelling story that should have broader appeal than most sports-related documentaries. It screens again during the Tribeca Film Festival on April 27th, April 30th, and May 2nd.