The brand-new WooSox embraced baseball history in many ways in their inaugural home opener today. The new ballpark is full of baseball relics, from the Roberto Clemente wall, to the glass case full of jerseys and memorabilia from the Negro Leagues and All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, to a wall dedicated to their former home in Pawtucket.
But one particular aspect of their pregame ceremonies connected the present to the earliest days of our national pastime, and I don’t know if the masterminds behind today’s festivities were even aware of it.
Over two decades before the Boston Red Sox came to be in 1901, the Worcester Worcesters were the professional ball club in Massachusetts. They were even in the National League from 1880-1882, before being replaced by the equally-creatively-named Philadelphia Phillies. But in 1879, the Worcester Worcesters – who I’d like to think were call the WooWoos by their fans – became the first American professional baseball team to visit Cuba and play there. It wasn’t a particularly successful visit, and records show they only played two games there. After the team’s attendance fell to dismally-low numbers (one 1882 game had a total of six fans in attendance), they were dropped from the National League.
One-hundred and thirty-two years later, professional baseball returned to Worcester. And on hand for today’s first pitch was Luis Tiant, the beloved former Red Sox pitcher known as ‘the pride of Cuba.’ Tiant was born into a baseball family in Havana. His father, Luis Tiant Sr. pitched for Cuba’s professional league, Cienfuegos, and the New York Cubans of the Negro Leagues, with whom he won the 1947 Negro Leagues World Series. Junior always said that his father was the better pitcher, and followed in his footsteps with a 19-year career in the Majors, including pitching for the Red Sox from 1971-1978. But playing baseball in the United States meant he could not go back to Cuba. In August of 1975, at the urging of some United States senators, Fidel Castro gave Tiant’s parents special visas allowing them to travel to Boston to see their son for the first time since 1961; Senior threw out the first pitch while his son held his coat. That fall, he watched proudly as his son pitched a shutout in Game 1 of the World Series.
The Tiants never went back to Cuba. They lived with their son and his family in Milton. Barely a year after they were reunited with their son and finally able to see him live out his dreams, both of Tiant’s parents passed away suddenly, within days of each other in December 1976.
El Tiante finished his time in Boston ninety-nine years after the Worcester Worcesters went to Cuba. But today, the past and present collided at Polar Park when he threw one of the first pitches. And as I watched hundreds of families enjoying the festivities, I thought of Tiant and his father, and how baseball has always been about families, and sharing memories and making memories with your loved ones.
Here’s to many years of making memories at Polar Park.