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.
July 10, 1977
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.
"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.
Although he insists he no longer cruises, Tanana, unlike Ryan, prefers to preserve a little of himself for critical situations. Because of this, he doubts he will ever pitch a no-hitter. "I might give them something to hit in the early going, not make too many outstanding pitches," he says. "But with men on base, they'll see a different pitcher. They'll see another speed of fastball and a curve with more bite to it. It's all there when I need it."
On the day of his ninth win, Tanana watched the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Philadelphia 76ers for the NBA championship on the television set in his sunken living room. He is usually somewhat subdued on pitching days, but, as an old player, basketball still rouses him. "Look at Dr. J," he cried out at one juncture. "If his mouth were big enough to get around the ball, the man could slam-dunk with his teeth." After the game, Tanana retreated to his kitchen to prepare a pregame steak. In the adjoining den, there is a bookshelf filled not with phonograph records, as one might expect, but with books. Leon Uris is there and, surprisingly, so is Erich Fromm. "Oh, I haven't read that yet," says Tanana, denying intellectual pretensions. "But I do read a lot. Nothing heavy, though. The Joy of Sex is a particular favorite."
Tanana puttered about the modern kitchen, protesting all the while that he is not a domestic animal. He does not see himself as someone's husband. "I'm having too much fun doing what I please," he said. "I just broke up with a girl I'd been going with for three years. It wasn't fair to her. Here I am on the road half the time, and you know, you don't have to look for women when you're a ballplayer. They look for you. Maybe I'll get all this out of my system in a while. Maybe not. Maybe this is just me. If so, O.K. Damn, that steak looks overdone. I'm so domestic, it's sickening."
He settled before his mid-afternoon repast. "I'll go to the park in a while. Do some stretching exercises, have Jimmy Reese [the 71-year-old Angel coach] hit some balls to me. Jimmy is a great old guy. People are always asking him about when he played with the Babe, but he never talks about himself, which is nice. Gives me more room to talk about myself. Steak's not too bad after all...."
He looked thoughtful. "You know, if my career came to an end tomorrow, I'd be in real trouble. Oh, not financially. I'm being paid an enormous sum to do what I love doing. My contract goes through 1981, and I'll be lucky to be alive that long, let alone throwing baseballs. No, money is no problem. Finding something to do would be. If I'm gonna do anything, I want it to be something I can have fun at. Otherwise, forget it. I think I could adapt to broadcasting. I did a couple of games at the end of last season. I pitched a Friday night game and I was done for the year, so I asked Drysdale if I could come up to the booth the next day. Naturally, that night I partied. So the next day I get a call at 12:45 from Drysdale, who's wondering where I am. Well, where I am is still in the rack. But I get up and make my way out to the park. I'm unshaven, all baggy-eyed, looking pretty bad, pretty much the way I usually do. So Don hands me the earphones, and I'm on. Funny thing is, I did all right. I was much better the next time, though."
He rose from the table and walked to the large window in the front room that looks out on a courtyard populated exclusively, it seemed, with young women in bathing suits. "I guess I better get out to the park a little early," he said. "Might take me a half hour. On a good day, I can make it there in 20 minutes in the Mercedes, but if I get ticketed any more, it'll be cheaper to hire a car and a chauffeur. As it is, the insurance is a killer. They're just waiting for guys like me—young, single, driving a Benz. Yeah, I'd better get going. Sure like to go out to the pool, though. Catch a half hour on each side. But hell, you gotta make some sacrifices in this business."
He shrugged, turned away from the window and the temptations it offered up to him and headed for his sleek car and yet another victory. It was, you might say, an act of real maturability.