SI Vault
Ron Fimrite
July 11, 1977
Although he is a teammate of the fabled Nolan Ryan, the Angels' Frank Tanana takes a backseat to no one when it comes to throwing hard or living easy
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July 11, 1977

This Guy Tanana's No Second Banana

Although he is a teammate of the fabled Nolan Ryan, the Angels' Frank Tanana takes a backseat to no one when it comes to throwing hard or living easy

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The language of baseball, especially and most lamentably the pitchers' idiom, has suffered in recent years from creeping grandiloquence. Where once a pitcher merely threw "hard," now he propels the spheroid with "outstanding velocity." And whereas analysts used to be content to say that a pitcher had "good control," now, alas, it is determined that he possesses "superior location." Worse yet, the jabberwocky of pitching is catching. Everybody uses it. Take Billy Muffett, a portly and ordinarily folksy Louisianan who coaches the California Angels' staff. Asked to explain how it is that Frank Tanana, a stripling who turned 24 this week and a lefthander, should pitch with the wisdom of a 15-year veteran, Muffett paused for a moment, groping for the mot juste, and then plunged headlong into the mainstream of sesquipedalianism. "Frank," he said, "has excellent maturability." He paused again. "If there is such a word, that is." Well, there certainly is now, and we may expect to hear it again and again from pitching savants—"He's got good velocity and location. It's his maturability we're worried about."

The word is just inflated enough to make it into the new vocabulary, but it will not work with Tanana, a wry, notably unsolemn young man who enjoys nothing more than deflating pomposity wherever he finds it, even within himself. Ask Tanana to explain what the experts mean when they say a pitcher has lost his "rhythm," and he will reply without hesitation, "That means the poor s.o.b. is being ripped." After he spent the eve of a recent pitching assignment perched on the dugout steps intently watching fellow ace Nolan Ryan in action against Detroit, he was asked if he had learned anything from the experience. "Not a thing," he responded. "I just like to sit out there so I can check the action in the stands."

The Angels have been shut out in three of Tanana's five losses this season, and they were no-hit by Cleveland's Dennis Eckersley in another. In that game, Tanana pitched a five-hitter and near-shutout himself, the only run scoring on a suicide squeeze. Was he, despite the narrow defeat, thrilled to have been a part of history? "What that game meant to me," he says, "was that afterward I was 8-2 instead of 9-1." He won his ninth, shortly thereafter, gained his 10th on a two-hitter and his 11th with a shutout. His 12th victory, on Sunday over the A's, made him the first major-leaguer to win a dozen victories. His 1.89 ERA is also the best in both leagues. But for the catchpenny Angel bats, which contributed only one run and seven hits to Tanana's cause in his two previous starts, his record would be even more stunning. It is no wonder then that Tanana is so demanding of himself. For example, he gave up but one run to the Tigers in winning his ninth, but was grievously disappointed at his effort. "What I would like to know," he moaned afterward, "is where the hell is my curveball?"

It is a question most American League hitters have been asking since Tanana appeared in their midst four years ago. They know it exists; they just cannot find it, because the Tanana curve is among the most wicked in all of baseball. But then so are his fastball and his changeup. And all three are thrown with withering accuracy. Unlike Ryan, with whom he forms the most devastating one-two pitching entry in the game, he has complete control. Ryan averages nearly seven walks a game; Tanana averages barely two, while striking out nearly as many hitters—eight per nine innings this season to Ryan's 11. It is this command of his pitches that most astonishes baseball's elders. Tanana throws too hard and he is far too young to have this kind of control, they say. And, Lord help us, he's a southpaw.

So was Sandy Koufax. Don Drysdale, now an Angel broadcaster, does not use the name of his old teammate in vain, but he can mention Tanana in the same breath without embarrassment. "At Frank's age, Sandy couldn't hit the batting cage," says Drysdale. Warren Spahn was also a lefthander, and Del Crandall, who caught him for many years and is now an Angel coach, does not use Spahn's name in vain, either. But he, too, can draw a comparison: "This kid has the poise, the grasp of pitching technique, the knowledge that Spahn had when he was 35." Angel Coach and sometime Catcher Andy Etchebarren also does not use the name of Jim Palmer in vain. When he was with Baltimore, Etchebarren caught Palmer, who was, like Tanana, precocious. Still, Etchebarren says straight out, "Frank is farther along at the same age." And Palmer was 16-4 at his age. Tanana's manager, Norm Sherry, says of his young star, "He's probably the best pitcher in our league. He has great confidence, poise and know-how. I've never seen a young man with more control on the mound. And he has an uncanny ability to reach back in a jam, to throw harder than you've seen him throw before. With all that, he's one of the best fielding pitchers in baseball." " Frank Tanana," says teammate and former opponent Bobby Bonds, "is the best young pitcher in the world."

The recipient of these encomiums could easily pass for a Southern California beach bum. Tanana is 6'3", lean at 195 pounds and tanned from many hours of soaking up the rays. He has brown hair, blue eyes, knitted black eyebrows and the suggestion of a mustache. He is unabashedly a ladies' man, clever at parties, Captain Smooth on the beach.... "Honey, would you mind doing my back?" He is unfailingly gregarious, buying rounds for friend and stranger alike. He will strike up a conversation with anyone. Waiting for a table in Seattle's El Gaucho restaurant a few weeks ago, he held a number of patrons and bartender Al Black in thrall for several hours. "He's a genuinely classy young man," said Black, who is 57. Tanana is also intelligent, witty and self-confident to a point just this side of cockiness. Except for the hours he spends on the field, he refuses to take either himself or his game seriously. Not that he doesn't work at it. He is considered by his manager and coaches to be among the most diligent, best-conditioned and most fiercely competitive of athletes. It is just that, to Tanana, most everything is "no big deal." You have seen him in surfer movies.

On a day in June when the Southern California sun fairly embraced its worshipers, Tanana lay in a chaise longue by the pool at his condominium in Corona del Mar, only minutes from the Pacific beaches. A six-pack lay between him and an extraordinarily fit young person he identified only as "Kathy." She was "a good friend," a senior majoring in dance at Long Beach State, a charming companion of an afternoon. Kathy rubbed suntan lotion into his back.

Tanana adjusted himself for maximum exposure to the rays. "For three years, the Angels have been losers," he said of his team, which is improved this season but so far is still barely at .500. "Losing is no fun, but if I had to pick a place to be on a losing club..." his left arm swept the scene—gorgeous companion, sun dancing off orange tile roofs, bright blue pool—"this is it." He rolled onto his back. "During the season I don't do a thing but this and concentrating on baseball. But in the off-season, I...well, I guess I do the same things." He smiled. "I'd have to say this is just a tad different from my life-style in Detroit."

Tanana is the only son (he has three sisters) of a Detroit cop, himself a former minor league player. "My dad was in the Cleveland organization, but he had his family too fast, and minor league ball just don't make it under those conditions," Tanana says. "So he joined the department. I grew up in a baseball home, but I was never pushed. Still, I always seemed to have a ball and glove around. Before I knew it, I had the fever. My folks gave me the time to play. The three meals were always there. I didn't have to work unless I wanted to. For that, I am forever grateful.

"We lived in the northwest section of town, and the kids I hung around with played sports all day long. We'd get out of school, take half an hour to get rid of the books, and then we'd play until dark. We played everything—baseball, basketball, football, street hockey. I was always throwing a ball at some kind of a target. When I got old enough, they told me, 'Kid, this is called home plate. Throw the ball across it.' I said, 'O.K.' It was just another target. People ask me about my control. Hell, I always had it.

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