For a moment Wednesday night at BB&T Ballpark they stood together, two Cubans born decades apart who have both achieved their dream of making it to the United States and playing professional baseball.
Charlotte Knights second baseman Yoan Moncada and former Major League pitcher Luis Tiant had met before. In fact, Tiant played an crucial role in his former club, the Boston Red Sox, signing Moncada to a contract that included a record $31.5 million signing bonus in February 2015.
Such money wasn’t available when Tiant signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1961. Neither were the English courses or several other Cubans in the sport that are now at Moncada’s disposal.
Instead, the world Tiant grew accustomed to during his pursuit of reaching the Major Leagues, which included a stop in Burlington during the 1963 season, was filled with racism.
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“It was harder for me than it is for them,” Tiant said. “Now they’ve got everything. We didn’t have anything when we came here. … For us, we were not treated like a human.”
Tiant’s professional career began in Charleston, W.Va., where he said he returned to his room each night and cried because of how he was treated. He also faced similar prejudice once he arrived in Burlington.
Every time he took the mound in Burlington, Tiant said fans called him names. Some teammates demanded he speak English. “You’re an American now,” Tiant recalled them saying.
They weren’t nice to us. And then I said to myself, ‘You’re going to have to earn your respect. How can I do that?’
Luis Tiant, on facing racism from fans as a minor-leaguer
On the road in the Carolina League, Tiant often stayed in a different hotel than his white teammates. Meals at all-white restaurants were spent on the team bus. If he could enter a restaurant, Tiant said his lack of English forced him to point at the menu to place an order, hoping the waiter understood him.
Times were tough. Yet, Tiant said he attempted to ignore the world around him.
“They weren’t nice to us,” Tiant said. “And then I said to myself, ‘You’re going to have to earn your respect. How can I do that? Go out there and try to do my best on the mound and pitch my best game, do whatever I can to show them that it’s no different.’”
Tiant said his next outing following that revelation came on May 7, 1963. In Burlington’s 4-0 win over the Winston Salem Red Sox, he threw the first no-hitter of his career — and extended his scoreless innings streak to 35 1/3.
According to The Daily Times-News, only 797 fans attended the game. Some, Tiant told the Burlington newspaper, gave him $7 as a congratulatory gift.
“After that, people changed,” said Tiant about his no-hitter. “They came and saw me, they clapped for me and they were pulling for me.”
A different Boston then
At 23, Tiant made his Major League debut with Cleveland in 1964. He spent 19 seasons in the big leagues, posting a 229-172 record and a 3.30 ERA, with his best years coming with the Red Sox.
Tiant's time as a player in Boston coincided with one of the city’s most turbulent periods, when racial tensions mounted after a federal court instituted and enforced busing to desegregate the city's schools.
But Tiant, now an instructor for the Red Sox, described Boston in a different light when he recruited Moncada.
“They used to say Boston was the most racist town in the United States in those years,” Tiant said. “I’m still here. People like me, people show me love and people show me respect.”
When I was younger, I thought I was never going to see them (his parents) again.
Luis Tiant, who went went 17 years without seeing his parents
Tiant’s clutch performances endeared him to Red Sox fans. In the 1975 World Series, he pitched two complete games against the Cincinnati Reds, including a shutout in Game 1.
Tiant didn’t return to Cuba until 2007, 46 years after he left. He said he went 17 years without seeing his parents before they were allowed to come to Boston to watch the 1975 World Series.
“When I was younger,” Tiant said, “I thought I was never going to see them again.”
Knights star relates to Tiant
Moncada said he also struggles being away from his family. Although he talks to them on the phone almost every day, he hasn’t seen his parents since he left Cuba in June 2014.
That and a motivation to earn respect through their play are two of the constants that remain for Cubans pursuing a professional baseball career. Yet, for today’s players, the blueprint for thriving in the U.S. has been established by Tiant and other Cuban greats.
“A person like (Tiant) who played a lot of years in the big leagues,” said Moncada through a translator, “it helps every Cuban player, not only just for Boston but for Cuban players on any team. It’s great to have that chance to know someone like that.”
Whether he’s at a restaurant or around baseball fans, Tiant said he still sees a difference in how people treat him because of who he is and what he accomplished.
However, he’s tried to forget the problems he faced upon his arrival in the U.S., such as the racism directed toward him when he played in Burlington.
“I’ve lived 76 years, so I don’t complain,” Tiant said. “God has been good to me, been real good to me, and is still good to me … I can die tomorrow and I’ve had a good life.
“I did more than I ever thought I was going to do in my life coming from my country, not speaking any English, doing what I did, going through what I went through and to be here making a name for my family and making a name for myself. What more do you want?”