CHANGE OF PACE : Tanana Once Lived as Fast as He Threw--Now, He’s in Slow Lane

Times Staff Writer

Eleven years ago, the challenge of properly describing the personality of 20-year-old Frank Tanana was a chore nearly equal to facing him in the batter’s box.

Searching for adjectives that would capture his true nature generally was a fruitless task, akin to waving at one of his 95-m.p.h. fastballs or being unmercifully humiliated by his deceptive curve. They tried in vain, few realizing there was no need to go any further than his first name to discover what he truly was about. Back then, his candor was the quality that set him apart from his peers.

More than a decade later, that candor remains.

“Brash, arrogant, selfish,” Tanana said, remembering his reputation as an Angel with perfect clarity and refreshing honesty.


Earlier this week, as he sat in the visitors’ dugout at Anaheim Stadium, the ballpark in which he established himself as one of the premier pitchers of his time, he peered into his past and did not like what he saw. But not once did he hedge or exercise caution in examining the kind of person he says he used to be.

“Very self-centered,” he said. “That’s about it in a nutshell.”

No longer is that an appropriate description of Frank Tanana. His life style seemingly has changed completely, in a manner similar to his transformation as a pitcher. Over the years, his pitches have slowed considerably. His existence off the field has done the same.

Others among the Texas Rangers are able to find good things to say when they are asked about his pitching this season, which has produced a record of 1-7 and an earned-run average of 5.85.


Catcher Don Slaught said: “He’s thrown very well for us.”

Pitching coach Tom House said: “He’s pitched way better than his record.”

Manager Bobby Valentine said: “Frank’s gonna be a real good pitcher for us this year.”

Finally, Tanana himself was asked about his season. The response was far different.


“Awful,” he said. “Absolutely awful.”

He cannot possibly have been referring to the same man the others spoke of in such a positive light. But he was.

“There’s no sense pulling any punches,” he said. “The numbers don’t lie, and my numbers are very poor. I’m a big boy. I can tell you I haven’t been the greatest pitcher without shattering my ego.”

The idea of Frank Tanana’s ego ever being shattered would have been farcical a decade ago. He joined the Angels when he was 20 and immediately earned a reputation for his tremendous ability as a pitcher and his equally tremendous ability to tell you just how good a pitcher he was. His teammates called him the Phenom. He would back up his cockiness with remarkable pitching. And that would lead to even greater heights of brashness.


He once was asked who his idol was. Himself, he responded.

Another time he was asked about his goals. “To be the greatest pitcher of all time,” was the answer. “I’m already one of the greatest.”

But his success apparently came as no surprise to him. “Nothing I do awes me,” he once was quoted as saying.

Now, at 31, nothing Tanana does on a pitcher’s mound awes anyone.


He is not the greatest pitcher of all time, nor is there even a remote possibility that he will approach that stature. His lifetime record stands at 136-137 and he has not had a winning season since 1979. The fastball, which in the past was clocked consistently in the 90s, now checks in at 70-80 m.p.h.

He enjoyed a good year with Texas last season, although his 15-15 record and 3.25 ERA were hardly up to the standards he had set as an Angel. Nevertheless, it was his best season since 1978, and he did it pitching for a terrible team.

This year, the Texas Rangers again find themselves languishing at the bottom of the American League West. But this year Tanana is there with them. Opposing hitters have feasted when it has been his turn to pitch. He has started 12 games and has yet to complete one. Last year, he completed nine. He has allowed 47 earned runs in 72 innings. Fifteen of the 83 hits against him have been home runs. He has struck out 48 batters and walked 21.

And yet it is common to hear that the blame should not fall only on Tanana, that he has been victimized both by the ineptitude of his teammates and by bad luck.


“He hasn’t pitched the way he’s capable of pitching, and we haven’t played as well as we’re capable of playing behind him,” said Charlie Hough, who has been his teammate since Tanana arrived in Texas three years ago.

“He’s having a hard luck year,” Slaught said. “He hasn’t gotten away with anything. He’d make one mistake and they’d jump on him.”

But although Tanana said he has pitched decently in about half of his starts and that he hasn’t always had the offensive support he would have liked, he refused to search for excuses.

“I have thrown some good ballgames that could’ve been wins but you’ve got to go with what is,” he said.


So what Tanana has got to go with and has to accept are atrocious numbers that are uncharacteristic of his career. He scoffs at the theory of bad luck, of being burned by one mistake.

“A home run isn’t bad luck,” he said. “A bad hop is bad luck. But when that ball goes over the fence, you don’t call that bad luck. You call that bad pitching.”

In 1977, Tanana had pitched 14 consecutive complete games when he was sidelined for almost two weeks by an inflamed tendon in his left arm, his pitching arm. He returned to the rotation, but his arm was exhausted. After Sept. 5, he was unable to pitch for the rest of the year.

In the middle of the 1979 season, tendinitis struck in his left shoulder and he missed nearly two months. An intensive therapy program enabled him to return for the last month of the season, but he was no longer the same Frank Tanana.


Physically, there is nothing wrong with Tanana now. The arm problems that once plagued him are only bad memories. Still, he is a different pitcher these days. Those arm problems forced him to change his style of pitching, to relinquish his status as one of the game’s most feared power pitchers and instead try to beguile hitters with finesse. In baseball parlance, he has become a junkman, a garbage pitcher.

The fact that last season was a success for Tanana and that he is in good health may have led to this year’s miseries. The idea that too much of anything is not good seems to relate to Tanana’s difficulties.

He said he felt so strong that he attempted to do things he was incapable of doing, things he hadn’t done in five years. Images of a youthful Frank Tanana overpowering hitter after hitter were conjured up in his mind. He tried to turn back the clock, to turn memories into reality.

Of course, he was deluding himself. And he paid the price.


“Sometimes you get to feeling so good that you try to be something you’re not,” he said. “What I have to realize is that I’m not the Frank Tanana power pitcher of the 70s that I was. I have to stay within my limitations. I have to trick people and I haven’t been doing that this year.”

But with the help of House, the Rangers’ new pitching coach, he is trying to readjust, to regain his form of last year and to forget about the form he lost. He realizes that he must mix his pitches better, using his changeup to set up his fastball, the reverse of what he did in the past.

“You put all my pitches together and they’re nothing,” he said. “If you can’t throw the ball by people, you have to throw it in front of them. My best pitch is giving the hitters what they’re not expecting.”

The consensus among the Rangers is that Tanana already has started to rebound from his early-season problems and that although he never will be the pitcher he once was, he still can be a valuable part of his team.


“He’s real strong mentally,” House said. “He’s got a real positive attitude, and I see no reason why he can’t bounce back and put up the numbers you’re used to seeing.”

Tanana would like to believe that also. The alternative is not a pleasant one.

“If I hope to play any more baseball in the big leagues, I’d better win a few ballgames pretty soon,” he said. “It’s a matter of survival.”

Transplanted from Detroit, Frank Tanana’s adjustment to Southern California was complete in a matter of minutes. Tall, lean and blond, he looked as though he could have been born at Newport Beach, where he spent a good deal of his time. His reputation as a playboy was equaled only by his reputation as a pitcher, and it was well deserved.


Once, in front of a group of fans, he was asked what his greatest moment ever was. Tanana chose to interpret the question in a manner that corresponded with his image.

“Last night,” he answered.

“I saw her,” teammate Don Kirkwood cut in. “And he’s right.”

The stereotypical image of a young professional athlete--confident, with rugged good looks, more money and women than he knows what to do with--was, in Tanana’s case, not a cliche. He had everything going his way. Or so he thought.


Looking back at his unrestrained years, he speaks openly of his former life style and its effect on his career.

“You think you’re happy ‘cause you’re doing everything Madison Avenue tells you,” he said. “You’re drinking, you’re partying, you’ve got money. I never took that good care of my body. When you do that you’re gonna pay a price.”

It was more than occasionally having a couple of drinks after a game, partying a little too much now and then, or waking up once in a while not fully prepared to go to the ballpark. There is a deep seriousness in Tanana’s voice, and it is clear he is a much different man from the free-wheeling young man of whom he speaks.

“A lot of people drink just to change their moods,” he said. “I just drank all the time. I’d been drinking for a long time and I continued to do it when I got to the big leagues. You drink and you drink, and that’s just the way I thought it was. When you drink practically every day and drink a lot, you’ve got a problem. It was a contributing factor to my getting hurt. The aches stay aches a lot longer when you have alcohol in your system.”


All of this was before Tanana was married. Before he had four daughters. And before he became a born-again Christian. About the same time he was discovering that his renowned fastball was a thing of the past, he came to the realization that his renowned life-in-the-fast-lane existence would have to be abandoned.

“Frank’s gone through a lot of changes,” said Bobby Grich, his former teammate on the Angels. “He came up as a brash, confident, enthusiastic rookie and was an instant success as a power pitcher, and he’s matured into a family man without a fastball.”

These days, he belongs to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, is the local chairman of the cystic fibrosis organization in his community and is the player representative for the Rangers.

“My life style is like night and day,” Tanana said. “I’m sure there’s a lot of laughter, a lot of chuckles, but that’s OK. I can handle that.”


He can also handle no longer being the pitcher who stormed through the American League and made it look easy. He realizes that if boastfulness still characterized his personality, he would be laughed out of baseball, and that he no longer has the respect of major league hitters.

But that isn’t the type of respect he craves, and despite his embarrassing numbers, he says he enjoys the sport more than he ever did.

“Ten years ago I was miserable when I’d lose,” he said. “I’d be a basket case right now. It certainly hasn’t been much fun, but this ain’t the end of the world. Life goes on.”



YEAR CLUB W L ERA G CG SHO IP H BB SO 1973 Angels 2 2 3.08 4 2 1 22 20 8 22 1974 Angels 14 19 3.12 39 12 4 268 262 77 180 1975 Angels 16 9 2.62 34 16 5 257 211 73 269 1976 Angels 19 10 2.43 34 23 2 288 212 73 261 1977 Angels 15 9 2.54 31 20 7 241 201 61 205 1978 Angels 18 12 3.65 33 10 4 239 239 60 137 1979 Angels 7 5 3.89 18 2 1 90 93 25 46 1980 Angels 11 12 4.15 32 7 0 204 223 45 113 1981 Red Sox 4 10 4.02 24 5 2 141 142 43 78 1982 Rangers 7 18 4.21 30 7 0 194 199 55 87 1983 Rangers 7 9 3.16 29 3 0 159 144 49 108 1984 Rangers 15 15 3.25 35 9 1 246 234 81 141 1985 Rangers 1 7 5.85 12 0 0 72 83 21 48 Totals 13 Years 136 137 3.33 355 116 27 2426 2263 671 1695