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Red Sox great Tiant makes impact off field

At charity event, Cuban legend discusses countrymen like Dodgers' Puig

BOSTON -- Luis Tiant has a mesage for Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig: Don't ever change.

That is coming from one legendary Cuban pioneer in Major League Baseball to one of the game's newest young stars. Puig -- leading a wave of Cuban talent that is MLB's most prolific in decades if not ever -- was a study in extremes this season as a rookie, taking the National League by storm and sparking Los Angeles before an epic crash-and-burn finale against the Cardinals.

"He's good, and you know what, that hot dog thing, that's what we bring from our place," Tiant, 72, said with some pride Tuesday at the Boston Children's Hospital, where he helped MLB and the Red Sox donate a Starlight Fun Center system for use by sick and recovering kids.

"You watch [Tigers shortstop Jose] Iglesias, he does the same thing on simple plays. That's the way they play, see? That's the problem. When you come here, they want to change you. It can take away if you change. But that's the way you play; that's the way you feel comfortable playing. You don't want to change that, especially when you are doing good. When you do bad, it's a different thing. As long as you're doing good, why change?

"Let him keep playing the way he plays, having fun, go out there and give it 200 percent. He's great. He's got all the tools. He can be whatever he wants to be as long as he doesn't get hurt. He got hurt a little bit and came back. That boy can play. He's gonna learn. I came here and learned the same thing. I maybe didn't do the same things like that; I just wanted to go beat you. That's how my mind worked: I wanted to beat the enemy."

El Tiante brightened the faces of children here much the same way he has for generations. The event was part of MLB's fifth annual World Series community initiatives platform, which includes the presentation of a Starlight Fun Center at a hospital like this one in each World Series city.

Tiant appeared along with Red Sox executive vice president Charles Steinberg; MLB vice president of community affairs Tom Brasuell; Beth Donegan, director of child life services at Boston Children's; and Wally the Green Monster. Tiant said he had been coming to this hospital since 1972.

"You don't want any kids getting diseases like these kids have," he said. "It really breaks your heart when you see them in this situation, and you want to help. I don't know why the reason is. It's sad when they come in here and all the treatments they have to go through. We want to help them."

Wearing the 2004 and '07 World Series rings he was given as a club legend and ambassador, the still-mustachioed four-time 20-game winner won 229 games over a 19-year Major League career. He was 2-0 in three starts for Boston during that fabled 1975 World Series, which Cincinnati won in seven. Tiant would spin around in his windup to look out at center field before delivering, and he likes to point out what happened when someone tried to change the unorthodox style that came with him from Cuba.

"The American scouts didn't want to sign me in Cuba because they said the way I used to throw, I was never gonna make it," he said. "I pitched 25 years, plus winter ball.

"I can die tomorrow and feel good knowing it."

Tiant spent 46 years living in Massachusetts, then last November moved to South Florida. The humidity in the South, however, was too much for him, he said. He grew up with heat in Cuba, but heat and humidity are different. Tiant is moving next month to Wells, Maine, where the beach is a popular summer destination. It is the culmination of a long journey, one that leaves him with no reason to complain.

"It was not an easy journey, but I can call myself lucky," Tiant said. "I worked hard for it -- nobody gave me anything. I had to go through a lot of stuff. But not a lot of people in life can say they fulfilled their dream. I fulfilled my dream: I started, I finished, made it to the big leagues. As a kid, that's what I wanted to do. It happened."

Tiant said he was delighted by the number of Latin players in the Majors today -- nearly one in every four.

"You feel good because even though they're not countrymen, they are Latino," he said. "That makes you feel special. You worked for years to make those things happen. You open the door for those kids. They come in and most of them, they're good players. That's great for us, great for our country, great for baseball. You hope they keep coming."

And Tiant is especially proud to see the wave of Cubans like Puig making their mark. Minnie Minoso, Tony Oliva and Tiant were among those forerunners of this, and to this day Tiant is outspoken against the wall that exists between Fidel Castro's Cuba and countries like the U.S.

"There is no reason why you can take something away from somebody," Tiant said. "Whether you do baseball, basketball or whatever, you should have the opportunity. A lot of guys before never could get out, and they wasted it. That's not right. You shouldn't live that way. You should have all the chance in the world to do what you do, especially when you are a kid and you have a dream, to be in the big leagues, to play football, whatever.

"And then because of the government, because of the times we live in ... it's kind of crazy. It's a great chance, and they're getting a chance to come more now than maybe 20 or 30 years ago. That's good for the country, good for us, keeping the Cubans in the big leagues. We were No. 1 in Latin America in players in the big leagues, and then Dominicans took it over. I think we have players like Dominicans that are as good as anybody. Yasiel Puig, the guy in Chicago (Alexei Ramirez ) ... they're good players.

"Now I guess they're open a little bit more; they have more chances to get out. I hope they open it to more. It's better for them, because they can come back if they want to, back to their country. It's hard. People don't understand what it's like when you can't come back to your country like I was. The first time I went back in 2007, that was the first time after 46 years.

"They revoked my visa, over there and here. Both governments, twice. It's hard; people don't understand when you can't come back to your country, 90 miles away from Miami and Key West -- it's crazy. I never could understand that. You should be free; you can go whatever you want to go. Especially with Russia, dominating that side over there -- in that country, you can't get out; you can't do anything. In the 21st century, I don't know why we keep doing these things. There's no reason for it."

Tiant played winter ball in Cuba in 1960-61, "the last championship in Cuba," he said. After that season, he went to the Mexican League. That was when the door closed in Cuba. In '61, he went to Puerto Rico, and that was when the Cleveland Indians bought his contract.

"I came to the United States with Cleveland," he said. "In '62, I was in Charleston, W.V.a.; '63 in Burlington, N.C.; '64 in Portland, Ore. I started there, and then during that year, Cleveland called me to the big leagues.

"That's where my priority was all the time while I was here. I asked God every day: Please don't do to me like happened to some of my friends. They were in another country and couldn't go back to Cuba. Most died here. You can't go to your country, you can't go see your family -- it's hard. People see you play and say, 'Oh, you're lucky, you play in the big leagues.' But they don't know what you go through. I want to tell those people.

"I can't complain. There's no reason to complain about anything, especially when you are here at this hospital and see these challenges kids have. We should never complain about anything."

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of Read and join other baseball fans on his community blog.

Yasiel Puig