Accompanying Major League pitching great Luis Tiant on his first trip home to Cuba in 46 years, Jonathan Hock’s “The Lost Son of Havana” relates a fascinating dual narrative — that of the long, astonishing career of “El Tiante” and that of his father, Luis Sr., himself an American pitching legend in the Negro League. The somewhat shapeless docu occasionally founders in nostalgia, tracking the indomitable, cigar-puffing Tiant as he visits elderly aunts and reminisces with old neighbors and ex-teammates. Pic’s leisurely pace, overt sentimentality and slightly jingoistic slant should score on the smallscreen.
If Luis “Lefty” Tiant Sr.’s 20-year American stint was marred by racism and economic discrimination (players in the Negro League received 50 cents a game), he nevertheless ranked as a star in two worlds: He racked up impressive records in the U.S. during the summer (once even striking out Babe Ruth) and was hailed as a national hero when he played in Cuba the rest of the year, as attested to by photographs, newspaper articles and fellow players on both sides of the divide. His son was not as lucky in that regard; his American career exiled him from country, friends and family for most of his life.
As gruffly recounted by Tiant himself, with assists from former Major League teammates Carl Yastrzemski and Carlton Fisk, his career was nothing if not colorful — from his early days with the Cleveland Indians where he developed the jerky windup that made his delivery so difficult to read to his amazing 1972 comeback with the Boston Red Sox after a serious shoulder injury forced him to reinvent his game. Hock deploys a treasure trove of archival footage to demonstrate Tiant’s prowess at its numerous peaks.
“The Lost Son of Havana” doesn’t lack for human-interest fodder, either. Then-Gov. George McGovern tells of his meeting with Fidel Castro, after which the Cuban leader allowed Tiant’s parents to join him in Boston in 1975, and see him pitch in the World Series.
Amusingly, in a twist worthy of the Farrelly brothers, who exec produced the pic, Tiant and the film crew make their way to Cuba disguised as an unlikely, wholly fictional ball team. Yet Hock, instead of playing up the humor, finds it necessary to overlay Tiant’s own account with narration voiced by Chris Cooper, lugubriously bemoaning lost freedom and tugging at political heartstrings.
Hock, a multiple Emmy-winning documentarian, possesses finely honed instincts for an unusual story that fits snugly within the comfort zone of mainstream sports coverage. His previous Tribeca entry, 2005’s “Through the Fire,” about high school basketball phenom Sebastian Telfair, coasted on the charisma of its callow hoopster. Here, however, Tiant’s powerfully mixed emotions belie the pic’s attempts at tidy summation.