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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: July 29, 2021 8:37 am PDT
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The way the second half of Frank Tanana’s career unfolded came about, largely, because of the way he lived during the first half of his career. The left-hander, who carved out a spot as part of one dynamic mound duo early in California and then again later in Detroit, found maturity, found stability and found Jesus Christ as the second half of his career began, all of which allowed him to continue pitching and finish his career with more than two decades in the Major Leagues.

Tanana, 67, joined fellow fire-baller Nolan Ryan to form one of the most potent tops of any rotation for much of the Seventies before teaming up with Jack Morris in Detroit for five-plus seasons in the mid-80s. His rise to prominence in California almost cost him dearly, though. Tanana admits that he was destroying his life and his career by living the life of a young Major League hotshot.

Though Tanana was winning with the Angels, he was losing in a way that didn’t show up in the box scores. He was out partying most nights and admits that he was an alcoholic, two factors that contributed to an arm injury that changed his career in the late 70s. The injury, in part, led to his departure from California, caused him to change his approach on the mound and led him down a path where he ultimately found God.

It was this epiphany that helped allow Tanana to have a strong second half of his career, one that, at one point, didn’t seem possible. It culminated with him winning 240 games and being in the conversation as one of the best pitchers who is not in The National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Tanana appeared in 638 games, 616 of which were starts [143 complete games]. Five hundred and eighty-seven of those starts were in the American League, which is the most by any left-hander in history on The Junior Circuit, according to The Elias Sports Bureau. He is seventh all-time among southpaws in starts, trailing only Steve Carlton [709], Tommy John [700], Tom Glavine [682], Warren Spahn [665], Jamie Moyer [638] and Jim Kaat [625].

“Good left-handers would take the day off when I was pitching and at the end of my career they would send a cab to my hotel to make sure I wouldn’t miss the start.”

“The Hall of Fame is a good question,” said Tanana, who finished with a 240-236 record to go along with a 3.66 ERA and 2,773 strikeouts. “If you were to not put the names next to some of the stats, just matched up careers with stats and no names, chances are I would probably be [in the Hall]. My winning percentage plays against me but with so many of the other numbers, without the name attached to the stats, I think I have a chance.

“But, I don’t have any post-season experience and I never really played in the big media cities. So I get it. Honestly, I would say no [on getting in]. But when I look at some of the other guys who are in I say hmmm. Personally, it would be sweet but I’m not living and dying over not being in the Hall. I appreciate the career I had and it was a good one.”

It was a career that saw Tanana reach double digits in victories 15 times, including a career-high 19 wins in 1976. He finished third in the Cy Young voting and 15th in the MVP voting that year after finishing fourth in the Cy Young voting in 1975, the same year he fanned a career-high and league-leading 269 batters.

CALIFORNIA AWAITS

The Angels made Tanana the 13th overall pick in the 1971 First-Year Player Draft. Tanana’s success as a prep star at Detroit Catholic Central High School didn’t come as much of a surprise considering his family history. His father, Frank, Sr., was an All-State ballplayer in 1952 at Detroit St. Andrew and was an outfielder [he hit .290 and had 13 homers] with the 1955 Reading squad that finished in first place in the then Class-A Eastern League.

The younger Tanana, who was also a basketball star, went 32-1 in high school but would suffer an injury that would come back to haunt him nearly a decade later. He threw a pitch sidearm to one batter and injured his shoulder in the process during his senior season. He pitched with pain the rest of the year, ultimately taking himself out of his school’s championship game because of it.

Tanana (left) with Nolan Ryan.

“Honestly, I never looked at myself as someone who didn’t get enough attention,” Tanana said. “I had my moments as a star and as a top dog when I was with the Angels. Nolan was there and he had some pretty phenomenal seasons but I looked at Nolan and me as two Number Ones. I wanted to be the ace of the staff and he was there.

“I think we worked together wonderfully though we weren’t friends at the start. He was a family man and I was a single guy but we were good for each other. We pushed each other. We both had some good years and great years and with us both wanting to be the ace of the staff, the competition was good for us.”

The competition certainly seems to have sparked Tanana, who ran off four strong seasons between 1975 and 1978. He went 16-9 in 1975 and led the American League with a career-high 269 strikeouts to finish fourth in the Cy Young voting. He went 19-10 [a career-high in victories] with a 2.43 ERA in ’76, leading the league with a 0.988 WHIP and finishing third in the Cy Young voting behind Jim Palmer and Mark Fidrych. Tanana also finished 15th in the MVP voting and earned his first of three consecutive All-Star berths.

Tanana went 15-9 in 1977 and led the league in ERA [2.54] and shutouts [seven], earning another top-10 finish in the Cy Young voting despite missing the last month of the season with the tendinitis that led to other problems over the next few seasons. It would mark the last time he would finish a season with a sub-3.00 ERA.

He won 18 games in 1978 though his strikeout total dropped below 200 for the first time since 1974. Tanana fanned 137 after striking out 735 in the three previous seasons, an indication that his lifestyle was catching up to him and that his arm was beginning to show wear.

He had thrown 1,294 2/3 innings [an average of 259 per year] through his first five full seasons with the Angels by the time he was 25. This after experiencing shoulder issues in high school.

“I pitched in ’78 and my arm hurt the entire season,” Tanana said. “I knew something was wrong but I continued to pitch. Pitchers learn to pitch with a sore arm. You’re never 100 percent. My velocity suffered of course. I lost the ability to strikeout hitters when I needed to which I could do earlier in my career.

“My ERA early on was 2.50, 2.30, 2.60 which are phenomenal [numbers] considering the DH in the American League. I dominated early in my career and I used to tell the story that early in my career guys wouldn’t see the lineup. Good left-handers would take the day off when I was pitching and at the end of my career they would send a cab to my hotel to make sure I wouldn’t miss the start.”

THE MIDDLE YEARS

Tanana was “out a lot” in 1979, going 7-5 with a 3.89 ERA in 18 games [17 starts] as the injuries began to catch up with him. He would return to California for a full season in 1980, going 11-12 in 32 games [31 starts].

Ryan had left for Houston by then and Tanana and GM Buzzie Bavasi were not on the same page in terms of approach and Tanana’s worth. That, along with the injuries, led to him being traded to Boston, along with Jim Dorsey and Joe Rudi, for Fred Lynn and Steve Renko. It was clear from then through the end of the 1983 season, which also included time with Texas that Tanana was never going to be the young fire baller again.

Tanana made only 24 appearances [23 starts] with Boston in 1981, going 4-10 with a 4.01 ERA. He struggled as a left-hander at Fenway Park. He was 1-3 with a 5.36 ERA in 45 1/3 innings with The Green Monster behind him. It got to a point where Tanana said that manager Ralph Houk began primarily pitching him on the road.

“It [the injuries] contributed to me getting traded,” Tanana said. “One of the interesting things about the trade was that I was no longer a power pitcher. Another one was the fact that the GM and I didn’t quite see eye-to-eye. A lot of time it would just come down to personalities so when I was traded it was no surprise.

“In Boston I wasn’t able to pitch because I hadn’t figured out how to be effective yet. It was also one of those years where we would score, eight, seven, one, nine and five runs and I happened to be the guy in the slot where the team struggled to score. There was nothing you do about it. Sometimes you get the runs and sometimes you don’t. Halfway through the year Ralph just really threw me on the road and I don’t blame him.”

Tanana signed with the Rangers prior to the 1982 season and his first season in Texas couldn’t have gone much worse. He led the league with 18 losses and posted a 4.21 ERA in 30 starts. Slowly, however, he became more comfortable with no longer being a power pitcher and learned how to pitch rather than just throw.

He also had a life-altering 1983, the year in which he discovered his love and devotion to Jesus Christ. It produced a marked change in Tanana personally and may even have had an impact on his pitching because after winning seven games in 1983, he picked up 15 wins in 1984.

First, the pitching. Tanana had come full circle by 1984. He had a decade in the big leagues and been dealing with injuries, so seeing the possibility of his career going away made all the difference.

“I really did become a crafty lefty once I realized I had to change,” Tanana said. “It was a matter of survival. I didn’t think my arm could again stand the tremendous torque of throwing 95 miles an hour. The maturity was in realizing that if I was going to survive and be able to stay in the big leagues, I had to figure out another way besides throwing 95.

“When I threw hard, it was 75 percent fastball mixing in curves and changes. When I lost my fastball, I just flipped the percentages. I was throwing my best fastball maybe 20 percent of the time. The thing that helped me was that I rarely threw the same velocity of back-to-back pitches. I would throw 85, 87, 93, 91, varying speeds on all my pitches.

Tanana admits that it took him a while to make that transition mentally but by 1984, everything clicked. He had turned a corner on the mound yet was traded to Detroit the following June. It marked a homecoming as second part of his career was now in full swing.

Finding his faith in the fall of 1983 had just as much impact for Tanana as figuring out how to pitch did. He became centered and experienced a rebirth, both professionally and personally.

“I wish I had come to my faith earlier in my career,” Tanana said. “I was an alcoholic and that led to me hurting my arm. I would only take care of myself on the night before I pitched. That plus the number of innings I pitched and I was an arm injury waiting to happen. The Lord wonderfully and radically changed my life, though, and I began to do the things necessary to be a good big league player and teammate.

“I began to share my faith wherever I could, churches, outreaches, banquets, golf tournaments. I continue to do that today. I’m more involved in my local church, serving as a deacon and on the elder board. It [getting ribbing from his teammates] was never to my face. One of the things I love about athletes, though, is that they know the real you. The lord made me a better teammate and I began to care about my teammates and work harder at my craft than before I knew Jesus. Over time, my teammates saw that I was genuine and that I didn’t say one thing and do another. My walk matched my talk as far as my love for Christ and the guys.”

THE SECOND HALF

That Tanana had figured out how to pitch as a pitcher and not a thrower combined with his newfound faith propelled him into an eight-year run with the Tigers, to whom he was traded in June of 1985. Tanana won 96 games for Detroit and experienced the joy of pitching on the team for whom he rooted as a child.

Tanana won 10 games in the second half in 1985 for the Tigers then followed that up with 12, 15 and 14 victories over the next three years. Like his time with Ryan, Tanana teamed with Morris to form a potent duo at the top of the Detroit rotation.

“I grew up in Detroit and getting traded to the Tigers, I looked at as a real gift from God,” Tanana said. “To play in the city where I grew up and in the park I went to as a kid was a career saver. At that point in my career, the maturity, playing in front of hometown people, it was a treat to be able to come home and play in front of friends and family.

“They [the Tigers] were a great team and I had some good years, 1987 in particular [when he went 15-10]. Playing for [Hall-of-Fame manager] Sparky [Anderson] was a treat and being on that team was a phenomenal experience. Had they wanted to at the time, they could have been a dominant team if they had been a little more active in the free-agent market. We could have been similar to the A’s or the Reds, that team was that strong. The powers that be were simply happy with being competitive though.”

Tanana signed with the Mets prior to the 1993 season and went 7-15 with a 4.48 ERA in 29 starts before getting traded to the Yankees on September 17. He made three starts for the Bombers, going 0-2. Tanana’s last game was Oct. 1 in Yankee Stadium. He pitched 6 1/3 innings against Detroit and received a no-decision. His last win came as a Met on Sept. 14 against Philadelphia.

He made a brief attempt to pitch in 1994 but to no avail.

“I made every start in ’93 and that’s one of the things I’m most proud of,” Tanana said. “When it was my turn to pitch, I pitched, regardless of how good the team was. That was my lot in life; I didn’t play on many winning ball clubs.

“I knew I was close to done, though. I agreed with my wife [Cathy] that I would pitch one more year if I could. The Angels invited me to Spring Training but looking back on it I think it was more of a PR stunt. They released me in Spring Training. Cathy said, ‘I think you’re done’. We had four daughters at home and they needed daddy at home. Cathy was right. I said if the phone doesn’t ring in the next 24 hours [after being released] that would be it for my career.”

Tanana continued to spread the word about his faith upon his retirement and remains active in his church. He’s done a few fantasy camps as well, throwing just enough batting practice to “be sore for two weeks after that”. He still watches some baseball but not as much as you would think.

“Being involved in the church and my faith and in the lives of a lot of people [takes up most of his time],” Tanana said. “I’m still a big Tigers fan, they’ll always be in my blood. I’ve seen so many games, though, I just watch them when they mean something. I have a hard time now because life has taken me in a different direction.”

It was a direction that almost didn’t seem possible when Tanana began his career 50 years ago.

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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