"I went to an all-boys high school. Detroit Catholic Central. It was about seven miles from my home, but I wanted to go there because I saw this picture of one of their basketball players driving for the hoop on the front page of the sports section. That impressed me. Front page. I could see myself there."
He was there often enough. At Catholic Central, Tanana was all-state for two years in basketball. His pitching record was 32-1 in a league that allowed only three balls and two strikes. "The idea was to speed up the game, I guess," Tanana says. "It speeded it up, because if the pitcher couldn't get the ball over, he was out of there in a hurry." Tanana was never out of there. Then, in his senior year, during a game against Austin High, something snapped in his left shoulder. "I threw sidearm to a left-handed hitter, something I never do," he says. "I felt really cocky, like I could do anything. So the first lefthander I saw, I dropped down on him. It was an unnatural motion. The shoulder went. I grinned and bore it for the rest of the season. I was suffering, but I still won. Then in the city Catholic championship game, I went four innings and couldn't take it any longer. I walked off the mound and asked to be put at first base. I had pitched hurt all season. This time, I just said, 'To hell with pitching hurt.' I'm amazed anybody drafted me after that. I'd had college basketball scholarship offers, and I'd pretty well decided on Duke, so when I walked off that mound, I said to myself, 'That's it, Frank. You're going to college.' "
To his own surprise, he did not. The Tigers were no longer interested in him, but the Angels were. They drafted him first in 1971 and signed him to what Tanana calls "a substantial bonus. I figured, 'Great, I'll be ready to pitch next season.' But they sent me right away to Idaho Falls. I couldn't pitch. I couldn't even comb my hair. Here I am, 18, away from home for the first time, with a big bonus, and I can't play. I tell you, I didn't have many friends on that team. I was not what you call good people then. Here were guys being cut off the team, and I, who couldn't throw, was staying because I had this bonus. I was like an outsider on the inside. I was a total basket case—or at least a half-basket case. 'Now,' I thought, 'the college scholarship is gone.' I said to myself, 'Frank, you should've been a brain, a student. Then, unless you lose your mind, you'd be O.K. The body is just too weak.' I had tendinitis on both sides of my shoulder. The rotator cuff was gone. They shot me so full of cortisone. I was like a pincushion."
Tanana did no more pitching in 1971, a dark year in an otherwise sunny life. Rest, something he can adapt to, proved the proper therapy. Midway through spring training of 1972 he was throwing with gusto again. He won seven and lost two for the Angel farm club in Quad Cities and was 16-6 the next season for El Paso, a team then managed by Sherry. "He struck out 14 in his first game for us," Sherry recalls. "Right then, I knew he could pitch." The following year, Tanana joined the Angels, and he has been with them ever since, baffling opponents with his stuff, enraging them with his aplomb. "That confidence he exudes on the mound makes you so damn mad," says Seattle First Baseman Dan Meyer. "You want to hit him so bad that you get too anxious and start swinging at pitches he wants you to swing at."
But there would be one more dark time. In 1974, his first full season in the majors, Tanana injured his elbow and endured seven consecutive losses. At one point he found himself with a 4-13 record. "That was tough for me to grasp," he says. "I'd never lost more than two games in a row in my life. I was fortunate then that the club was going nowhere. They just kept throwing me out there, even though I was getting rocketed. My confidence was taking a beating, but I knew it wouldn't last forever." Indeed, the elbow recovered, and he finished the season with a 14-19 record. In 1975, a year Ryan was injured, Tanana was 16-9 and led the league in strikeouts with 269 in 257 innings. On June 21 of that season, against the Texas Rangers, he became the first American League lefthander to strike out 17 batters in a game. "Everybody stood up and applauded for me in the ninth inning," he says. "I felt invincible."
Last year he was 19-10 with a decorative 2.44 earned run average, 23 complete games and 261 strikeouts. A strained muscle in his left forearm deprived him of several midseason starts and, probably, a 20-win season. This year, if improved batting support is at last forthcoming, 25 victories would not seem unreasonable. And with Ryan off to one of his better starts, the Angels have the best pair of starting pitchers since Koufax and Drysdale.
Tanana, the quintessential swinging bachelor, and Ryan, the dyed-in-the-wool family man, seem to thrive on their friendly competition. They pitched successive shutouts against the Seattle Mariners in the first two games of the season, and on May 24 and 25 they tossed consecutive three-hitters against the Tigers, Ryan winning 2-1 and striking out 12 and Tanana shutting Detroit out with 11 strikeouts. "If somebody is pushing you, you try a little harder," says Tanana. "Naturally, I want to be the best on the staff, so if Nolan is winning, it's great incentive for me. I hope Nolan wins 30 games. If he does, the team will do well and so will I. We're all in this together. I'm way beyond saying I want Nolan to lose so I can be the best."
Tanana does not throw as hard as Ryan. No one does. But his fastball moves, and it remains his principal weapon. That and his remarkable control. Each of his pitches is made more effective by a delivery that appears orthodox enough to the inexpert eye but that he prefers to think of as unique. Tanana stands as far to the first-base side of the rubber as he can. He kicks high and, with a powerful overhand motion, throws across his body so that the ball seems to pop out of his uniform. His momentum as he flings himself across the mound occasionally causes him to lose his balance, in much the way Bob Gibson would stagger coming from the opposite side, but Tanana, like Gibson, is an agile fielder.
His style would seem made to order for right-handed hitters, but Tanana devours them. "I have never seen a lefthander jam righthanders the way he can," says Drysdale. The secret again is his control. Right-handed hitters do not expect a lefty to be able to throw pitches in on their wrists. Tanana's overhand curveball is another surprise. "Even when the curve is not working, it works," he says. "That's because the hitters haven't seen it by any other lefthander. Vida Blue throws more of a 'slurve,' a big slider, and Bill Travers doesn't throw my pitch either. The things I do are natural. You can bet if I had a couple of bad years, they'd try to change me. That would mess up my head."
Tanana does have some pitching faults. He gives up too many home runs. "My problem is not getting the ball over the plate, but keeping it in the park," he says. "Without the homers, my ERA would be in the zeros." It is a failing common to fastball pitchers with control, as witness the impressive gopher ball statistics of Catfish Hunter and, on an even higher plane, Robin Roberts. Tanana also has had a tendency to "cruise," as he puts it, when his team has staked him to a big lead. A traumatic game against the Yankees last Aug. 22, he firmly believes, cured him of the accursed cruising. Leading 8-0 on a two-hitter entering the ninth, Tanana blew sky high, allowing six runs before he was relieved. The Yankees tied the score that inning, and although the Angels eventually won 11-8 in the 11th, Tanana realizes now that he blew a 20-win season that night.