November 12, 2021

The enduring mystery of Luis Tiant’s 1 season in Minnesota

Luis Tiant, the beloved Boston Red Sox pitcher, forever immortalized for a pitching motion that had him looking at second base before he whirled home, spent a season with the Twins in 1970.

He joined a good Twins team and owner Calvin Griffith paid a hefty price to get him, sending former 20-game winner Dean Chance, future third baseman extraordinaire Graig Nettles, plus reliever, Bob Miller, and outfielder, Ted Uhlaender, to Cleveland for Tiant and reliever, Stan Williams. That’s a deep dive for essentially one key player, especially one coming off a 20-loss season.

Tiant went 21-9 with a 1.60 ERA for Cleveland in 1968, then fell to 9-20 with a 3.71 ERA for the same club the following season. He lost 20 games, but still had a respectable earned run average, which probably says more about the state of the Indians than it does Tiant. Still, he came to the Twins after a significant trade, ready to pitch in 1970. Things quickly didn’t pan out as planned, writes author Thom Henninger in his 2021 book, “The Pride of Minnesota: The Twins in the turbulent 1960s.”

“Amid reports that his fastball had lost some zip, Tiant struggled for much of spring training,” Henninger writes. “He played down the notion that his fastball wasn’t the same, though (Twins Manager Bill) Rigney was convinced the right-hander had lost confidence in the pitch after seeing him rely on his off-speed stuff in camp. Tiant walked more than a batter an inning during spring training, and his control remained problematic early in the season. It may have been affected by a shoulder issue that eventually sabotaged his season in late May.”

Tiant may have missed a good chunk of the season, but he still made 17 starts and finished with a record of 7-3 with a 3.40 ERA. Not bad for a guy who suffered a hairline fracture in his right shoulder blade, author Henninger writes.

And yet Twins fans were left with this: Tiant was let go after only one season. It appears both sides, player and management, had a different understanding of why, according to Henninger’s book. Owner Griffith felt Tiant’s career was done, while Tiant chalked it up to cost-cutting. It remains a mysterious move when one considers the number of players the Twins sent to Cleveland to get him in the first place. It’s a big commitment for a team that finally showed little commitment at all.

Tiant would have the last laugh. He resurrected his career with a resurgent Red Sox team, which had struggled in the 1960s, but rose to prominence again in the 1970s. Tiant was very much a part of that rise, going 122-81 during his time in Boston. Over 19 seasons, Tiant was 229-172 with a 3.30 ERA.

It wasn’t all bad for the Twins. Although Tiant was hurt, reliever Williams came through in a big way, winning 10 games and saving 15 more with a 1.99 ERA. The Twins would go on to win the division in 1970. The Twins were a very good team in the 1960s, but once the go-go world of free agency arrived, Griffith, whose primary business was the team, could not compete. The 70s and early 80s were mostly exercises in mediocrity, the team finally winning the division again and a World Series in 1987.


Hi, I’m Rolf Boone, Twins fan.

I became a fan of the Minnesota Twins after a friendly wager in the early 1980s. I survived Ron Davis, the meltdown in Cleveland, Phil Bradley at the Kingdome and then marveled at a rising generation of stars and two World Series wins in 1987 and 1991. Brad Radke made the 1990s bearable, while Kirby Puckett’s eye injury, exit from the game and eventual death made it almost too much to bear. The new century ushered in more talent — Joe Mauer, Johan Santana, Joe Nathan, Torii Hunter, Justin Morneau — and consecutive seasons of playoff baseball, followed by consecutive seasons of losing baseball. A winning season returned in 2015. So here we are. Go Twins.