A day after the death of former Cuban president and revolutionary Fidel Castro, many athletes have commented on the impact the controversial leader had on the country’s people, particularly through the sport of baseball.
Luis Tiant, widely considered one of the best players to defect from Cuba and play in the majors, revealed his feelings in regards to Castro’s tenure, and the significance the contentious figure had on athletes within the country.
“(Castro) hampered the development of baseball. Cuba was the country with the most Latin American players in the majors until the regime took over and set everything back,” Tiant told Marly Rivera of ESPN.
“It’s incredible, all those players that were unable to succeed, so many good ones. When I played, when I left, there were 50 or 60 players as good as me or better than me. And they could never get out. They all stayed there.”
Tiant’s path to the majors was a remarkable one. He was a highly regarded pitcher out of Havana, and was noticed by former Cleveland Indians All-Star Bobby Avila, who eventually recommended that the team sign Tiant. The Indians came to terms with Tiant in 1961 for $ 35,000, but due to Castro’s regime and relationship with the U.S., Tiant couldn’t return home, and at 21 years old, defected without his parents who he didn’t see until 14 years later.
Tiant made his professional debut in 1964 with the Indians, and he would emerge as one of the best young pitchers in baseball, going 66-44 in four seasons while leading the AL in ERA in 1968 (1.60) along with a 21-9 record.
His career would last 19 years, including four 20 or more win seasons and another AL-best ERA (1.91) with the Boston Red Sox in 1972.
While Tiant is grateful he was able to make a life for himself, he admitted many weren’t able to fulfill their dreams of making the majors, largely due to Castro’s political stance.
“That’s a hard thing, because everyone in life must have an opportunity to be someone, to be able to do what you love, what you dreamt of as a child. That should not be taken away from anyone,” he said.
“That is what happened: they took away the freedom, the happiness, the dreams that one had as a boy, all you wanted to be and never could. I have to thank God, my wife, my family, that at least I was lucky enough to be able to get here. I left, and I went through all that I went through, but I got here. Of course, it was not easy, but at least I had that opportunity that many others did not have.”