Luis Tiant: Castro's Cuba 'took away the freedom, the happiness, the dreams'

Former MLB great Luis Tiant found fame and fortune in the U.S., but only after he defected from Castro's Cuba in 1961. Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports

Marly Rivera: How did you find out that Fidel Castro had died? What came to your mind?

Luis Tiant: My son Luis sent me a text message telling me that Fidel Castro was dead. I can tell you that I thought more about what’s coming next; what may happen now. How we have to prepare for what comes next, and how things are going to develop. We cannot anticipate what will happen. But we knew this was coming -- it’s been many years, a lot of time has passed. We were all waiting for it. But the problem now is what comes next.

After so many years and everything that has happened ... I did not see my dad for 18 years, and I did not return to my homeland for 46 years, it's just not that easy. I think it’s not time to celebrate, because the regime is still there. We don’t know what is going to happen and one does not know how Raúl [Castro] and all those who are still in power will react. Sometimes it’s better to remain silent and figure things out. Sometimes celebrations can be a little premature. Hopefully everything will be fixed soon, because it has been too much pain for too long; no one can withstand that.

[I also thought] of everything that happened. That will stay with me the rest of my life; nothing will change that. All we have suffered doesn’t change. All the people who died trying to escape, all the missing. No one knows what's going to happen right now. Not the Cubans here or there, nor the Americans. Nobody knows. Hopefully things will work out one way or another. That has been going on for more than 50 years, and a lot of hatred has come out of what they have done. It's very hard.

Other nationalities may not know what we have gone through, because they never went through it. People sometimes don’t understand one's feelings. All those people that left and never came back. Sometimes you could not sleep thinking about everything. I was able to see my parents again, but I never thought I would. And I left in a good way, I went through Mexico, but I was not able to return until 46 years later.

The most difficult thing is that we don’t really know the number of people who lost their lives crossing the Gulf of Mexico, if there are 20, 80, 100 thousand, a million missing. I had a family of friends, that was about 40 people, many people, who went out in a boat, and it broke in half. And they all died. All of them. Just gone. And that’s very hard; those are the things that one knows.

Rivera: What about Fidel Castro and baseball?

Tiant: You couldn’t leave. You had to defect. That was hard, but the worst was worrying about your family and what could happen to them. They lectured you on what they would do to your family if you did not come back. That was the system. So many great players were unable to develop because they couldn’t get out. There were so many good players who stayed.

[Castro] hampered the development of baseball. Cuba was the country with the most Latin American players in the majors until the regime took over and set everything back. It’s incredible, all those players that were unable to succeed, so many good ones. When I played, when I left, there were 50 or 60 players as good as me or better than me. And they could never get out. They all stayed there.

That’s a hard thing, because everyone in life must have an opportunity to be someone, to be able to do what you love, what you dreamt of as a child. That should not be taken away from anyone. That is what happened: they took away the freedom, the happiness, the dreams that one had as a boy, all you wanted to be and never could. I have to thank God, my wife, my family, that at least I was lucky enough to be able to get here. I left, and I went through all that I went through, but I got here. Of course, it was not easy, but at least I had that opportunity that many others did not have.

Rivera: Did you ever meet Fidel?

Tiant: I met him twice. When I played my last year [in Cuba], 1960, 1961, during winter ball. He went to the clubhouse to greet the players. He went to each locker and shook the hand of each player, and that's how I met him. He went to the park twice. I left after that and did not return until 46 years later. I left on May 25, 1961, and was unable to return until my birthday, on Nov. 23, 2007.

Rivera: Do you have hope?

Tiant: I hope things will get better. I hope in God that things improve. That Cuba becomes once again a country like any other, particularly how close it is from here in the United States. This is like a little door cracking open for the future of what may happen in Cuba for the good of all of us Cubans; those who are here and those who are there. I hope one day we can all go back and live in Cuba the way we used to.