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NEW YORK — “The Lost Son of Havana” is about legendary baseball pitcher Luis Tiant’s return to Cuba after a 46-year hiatus. The documentary, narrated by Chris Cooper, makes more of the aging Tiant’s sentimental journey than is ever expressed by Tiant himself. Director Jonathan Hock, who does Emmy-winning work for ESPN, used his connections to get Tiant, a U.S. citizen, invited to a baseball game pitting Cubans against U.S. players. The hitch was that only athletes received permission to enter Cuba, so Hock and his crew had to join the American team. The entire documentary feels contrived — it’s Hock’s game rather than Tiant’s.
While baby boomers will remember Tiant, young fans will not. ESPN, which picked up the doc at Tribeca, will broadcast it during the August TV doldrums. It might find an audience, but the weaving of several narrative threads, supported by Tiant’s return to Cuba, makes “Lost Son” the story of an expatriate who happened to be a great pitcher. It isn’t a baseball movie.
Tiant had a spectacular major-league debut, a shutout win against Whitey Ford at Yankee Stadium in 1964. He tied a record in 1966 when he pitched four consecutive shutout games. At 68, the cigar-smoking Tiant is “El Tiante” in Boston; he spent the better half of his career there before retiring in 1982.
Hock’s interviews with Hall of Famers Carl Yastrzemski and Carlton Fisk — the latter admired Tiant when they played on the BoSox farm team together — make for a wonderful tribute and will spark interest among fans. Sequences about Tiant’s struggle to regain his major-league status after surgery highlight the changes in baseball at the start of free agency and will interest baseball-history buffs.
On the other hand, footage devoted to Tiant’s return to Cuba, and to his memories of his father who played in the Negro Leagues, test the limits of tedium. The film’s persistent score, which soars to cue the audience to every emotion, is further proof of directorial misconduct.
Tiant, an only child, was 19 and preparing to rejoin his parents in Cuba right before the Cuban Revolution. His father urged him to stay in the U.S., where he could pursue his dream of a career in the majors. Hock views Tiant as a figure caught up in Cold War history, but for those of us who saw him play, he’s a pitcher, one of the best in the game.
Baseball fans would have enjoyed watching the outtakes reserved for the end titles, when Tiant is coaching Hock and his crew. In that training, in the heat of the game and afterward over a few cold ones, we undoubtedly would have gotten to know Luis Tiant better than we do in this documentary.
Screened: Thursday, April 23
Production: Hock Films, 5-Hole Prods.
Director-screenwriter: Jonathan Hock
Producer: Kris Meyer
Executive producers: Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly
Director of photography: Alastair Christopher
Music: Robert Miller
Editors: John Walter, Steven Pilgrim
Sales agent: CAA
No rating, 102 minutes
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