MLB teams utilize the Rule 4 Draft to fill their organizations and then further supplement their rosters with free agent signings. However, the relatively cheap labor sources outside of the U.S. and Canada are where teams can really hit it big. Lisa Carney explores the Red Sox past, present, and future in Cuba with three of the most prominent Cuban players in the team’s history in Tres Caras de Cuba.
Luis Clemente Tiant y Vega
Luis Tiant is deservedly one of the most adored players in Red Sox history. Born in 1940 in pre-Castro Marianao, Cuba, baseball was embedded in his DNA. His father, Luis Eleuterio Tiant, was an extremely talented and durable pitcher for several Cuban and Dominican teams, and even played a short stint in the Negro National League. The senior Tiant was a southpaw who featured a plus fastball, curve, slider, and a killer screwball. Wise batters took early note that the entirety of the plate was his to control. It was his unconventional wind and twirl delivery that his son emulated and later made famous. Senior wielded it to execute one deadly pick off move after another and, in legendary fashion, was known to walk batters just for the chance to catch them leaning.
Despite his success as a player, the elder Tiant did not encourage his son to play professional baseball. His experience with the game’s racist-laden, complicated politics had dimmed his faith in the sport. In his view, a job in Major League Baseball wasn’t earned through talent so much as through the color of one’s skin. Not a kind path to steer your child towards.
However, young Luis was undeterred, and even encouraged to pick up his father’s trade by his mother Isabel. In 1961, the Cleveland Indians purchased his contract from the Mexico City Tigers. Sadly, as he progressed through the minor leagues, he realized his father’s concerns were valid. “I couldn’t speak very good English,” Tiant would later say, “but I understand racism. They treated me like a dog…”
Next, it was Tiant’s own government that broke his heart. After years of traveling freely from the United States to Mexico and back to Cuba, changes came quick. In April of 1961, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion ratcheted up miserable diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba. At the conclusion of the ‘61 season, Luis Sr. strongly advised his son and new bride not to return to Cuba. It was not an easy decision but this time the son heeded the father’s words.
Without similar life experience, it is impossible to know how Tiant was able to put his heartache to the side. In his words, “I left my family, I suffered. When I left I didn’t know if I would ever go back.” What we can do, though, is admire his strength. Tiant put together a 19-year major-league career worthy of Hall of Fame consideration. In 1975, he was a major contributor for the Boston Red Sox in what many consider to be the greatest World Series ever played. While his father’s grit was established in one-on-one skirmishes, El Tiante was the pitcher you gave the ball to when your team needed a huge win. He had the shoulders that could carry the load. And as his hard-nosed, 163-pitch performance in Game 4 of the 1975 World Series showed, good luck getting the ball back out of his hand once he got a hold of it. .
In early 1974, U.S. Senator George McGovern was moved by poignant comments Tiant made to Boston Herald reporter Joe Fitzgerald and used his political influence to arrange an off-the-books meeting with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. After the Senator’s successful negotiations, Luis Sr. and Isabel arrived in Boston on August 26, 1975, and finally reunited with their son. The Tiants remained together until 1976 when, within days of each other, the mother and father passed away. The reunion had come just in the nick of time.
Remembering the 1975 World Series can bring back frustrating memories for Sox fans. But if we look at it through the eyes of pitching star Luis Tiant and his family, the year could not have gone better. A day after Luis, Jr. had shut out the Big Red Machine in Game 1, a police officer at Fenway Park noticed a man standing near where Tiant was signing autographs. When asked who he was waiting for, the man pointed at Tiant, “That’s my son.” The officer nodded, “He’s a great pitcher.” The father proudly smiled. ‘“He’s an even better son.”
Rusney (Peraza) Castillo
In 2013 the Red Sox shocked the world, and probably themselves, when they morphed into Boston Strong and brought back another World Series trophy to Yawkey Way. Then the 2014 season started, and the team that had given far more than they ever knew they had suddenly began to suffer from fatigue, injury, and ineffectiveness. Words like “future” and “rebuild” became ubiquitous and, for the first time in a long time, it was more interesting to prospect watch than endure another first inning implosion from a starting pitcher.
And then the Rusney Castillo chase began. For fans hoping young talent was closer than it appeared, Castillo provided a fix. Here was this powerfully built (5′ 9″, 195 lb), talented ballplayer who some even whispered could become a five-tool player. At the very least, he’d be a plus defender with leadoff speed and line drive power. Boston fans were giddy knowing their team had a good chance to sign the Cuban phenom.
But Castillo’s path to the United States wasn’t easy. First, he had to orchestrate a hazardous defection from Cuba. It took several attempts, and while he toiled to make it happen, he was unable to play any professional baseball. It also might have been simpler for Castillo to defect directly to the United States, but that would have required him to enter the MLB’s amateur draft. Instead, Castillo chose the freedom of international free agency. This undoubtedly cost him time for skill development.
Still, multiple MLB teams clamored over the 27-year-old from Ciego de Avila. Fans were educated on the signing process and then pumped full of wild expectations for his future. Ben Cherington chased him like a frat boy on spring break waving around daddy’s credit card. Red Sox fans didn’t object, and on August 23, 2014, the $72 million check cleared and Rusney Castillo was Boston bound.
Before an international free agent debuts with their MLB team, fan bases and talking heads collide in debate. Will the player successfully transition to MLB? The short answer is some do and some don’t, and with so many variables at play it’s impossible to predict. Hideki Irabu didn’t prove Japanese pitchers will be mauled by major-league batters anymore than Ichiro Suzuki proved Japanese batters will routinely string hits together in Sisler-esque fashion. It’s not just that it’s hard to play baseball. It is. But it’s really hard to play Major League Baseball. Why else would highly talented players risk the shame of being caught using corked bats, scuffed up baseballs. or PEDs?
It was clear watching Castillo play during the 2014-2016 seasons that the game was going too fast for him. He made mistakes on simple defensive plays – mistakes fans don’t want to see major-leaguers make. Instead of squaring up and driving the ball, he produced ground balls at a disturbing 63.8% rate and sported a measly 12.6% LD rate. His raw speed stole him seven bases. His inexperience got him thrown out 5 times. After parts of three seasons, it was beginning to look like Rusney was a few tools short of a set and on June 19, 2016, he was placed on outright waivers. The $48 million left on his seven-year contract easily went unclaimed, and on June 20 he cleared waivers and was assigned to Triple-A Pawtucket.
It’s possible the demotion takes some pressure off Castillo. Clearly, he’s no longer expected to swoop in and save anything. If waiting for citizenship in the Dominican Republic, followed by injury riddled, sporadic playing time cost him needed development, a protracted stint in Triple-A could get him turned around.
The Red Sox can now be patient. His contract keeps him under control until 2019 and he’s no longer taking a spot on the 40-man roster. The Sox will never see true value from his contract but that doesn’t mean they can’t still benefit from the few quality seasons Castillo may have in front of him. Remember when it looked like the Red Sox had plenty of outfielders for 2016? Things change quickly in baseball – the game goes fast. If Rusney Castillo can catch up to it the Red Sox will happily welcome him back.
Yoan Manuel (Olivera) Moncada
In 1961, a young Luis Tiant made the life-changing decision that he would not return to Cuba when his baseball season ended. The consequence for his decision was to be expatriated and separated from his loved ones for 14 years.
Rusney Castillo wanted to play major-league baseball and in 2013 his only chance for that began with the perilous play of defecting from Cuba. The consequences of his actions were to leave loved ones behind in potential danger and resign himself to a one way ticket from his homeland.
In June of 2014, Yoan Moncada, an infielder for the Serie Nacional Cienfuegos, petitioned Cuba’s National Baseball Commission and the Cuban government for the right to leave Cuba and establish residency in another country for the sole purpose of playing American baseball. As the world watched, the Cuban government not only granted him his release, but provided him with a passport and visa. Unlike his predecessors, there was no dangerous ocean trek coupled with risk of capture and harsh repatriation. Instead he was allowed to leave on an airplane – freely and with dignity. It took 55 years, but mercifully, times have finally changed.
In 2015, a 74-year-old Luis Tiant and a 19-year-old Yoan Moncada met at one of Moncada’s private MLB workouts. Imagine Tiant’s joy at seeing the manifestation of his country’s progress . Tiant and Moncada struck up an immediate friendship and it has been reported that El Tiante was influential in Moncada’s decision to choose Boston over the New York Yankees. Tiant threw his last pitch for the Red Sox on October 1, 1978. Still, he mused with pride that 37 years later he was still doing his part to help the Red Sox win games.
Since joining the Greenville Drive in 2015, Moncada has played well and made steady progress through the Red Sox minor-league system. On June 20, 2016 he was promoted to Double-A Portland. However, he still has not seen a single major-league pitch so it’s unfair to project where his talent will take him. Nonetheless, it’s a welcomed change to see a talented Cuban player succeeding strictly on the merits of his skill. The color of his skin, the politics of his government, and the fear for the health and safety of his family have all been removed from the equation.
¡Felicitaciones, Cuba! ¡Felicitaciones, al mundo!
Lisa Carney has written about the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, Pedro Martinez, and a Yankee legend who can’t keep his trap shut.
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