Sunday, May 14, 2006

Tanana A Hall Of Famer -- In Michigan Anyway

He once could throw a baseball about as fast as anyone in the big leagues at the time. He paired with Nolan Ryan -- The Ryan Express -- to give the California Angels a lightning-fast one-two punch -- and righty/lefty to boot. Fans weren't doing it yet, but had they, those big "K's" they hang over the balconies in ballparks would be weathered and worn for all the strikeouts the two of them registered. Back in the day, those ancient words.

Then he blew out his arm, and had to reinvent himself if he hoped to stay in the big leagues. So Frank Tanana went from a man with a rocket arm -- a thrower, really -- to a sage pitcher.


A changer of speeds.

Keeping the hitters off balance.

All these are kind, dignified terms, but what Tanana became -- and even he would agree -- was a junkballer. No longer able to pop it over 90 MPH, Tanana bended and slithered and snuck it past hitters at 70, 75 -- maybe in the mid-80's on certain deliveries.

Tanana went from throwing heat to tossing butterflies

Tanana, a Detroiter through and through, is one of the inductees this year into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame. The announcement was made last month, and he'll go in, along with Jimmy Devellano, Sonny Grandelius, Dan Majerle, Greg Kelser, Dave Diles, Diane Laffey, and Jack McCloskey, during the Hall's dinner in early October.

Tanana won 240 games, and even I, a known walking sports encyclopedia, didn't know he had registered that many W's. But why wouldn't he? He pitched for 20 years in the bigs.

He was a Tiger from 1985-1991 -- missing out on the pennant and World Series fun of '84 by half a season. The Tigers acquired him from the Texas Rangers in mid-season 1985.

But Tanana was also the starting -- and ending -- pitcher on the final day of the 1987 season, which gave baseball fans around here one of the most exciting last weeks of any season ever. The Tigers climbed out of a 3 1/2 game hole with eight days remaining to capture the AL East flag. And Tanana pitched the clincher on that last Sunday -- a 1-0 shutout of the foundering Toronto Blue Jays. The Jays endured maybe the biggest choke job of any final week, enabling the Tigers to sip champagne. They lost their last seven games of the season, incredibly.

Not only was Tanana the artisan of a complete-game shutout, he helped make the final out, fielding Dane Iorg's tapper and underhanding it to Darrell Evans, setting off more baseball pandemonium in Tiger Stadium, just three years removed from the "Bless You, Boys!" season of '84.

As Tanana addressed us media types during the press conference announcing the inductees April 6, he spoke with deadpan humor.

"Sadly, that game in '87 was the last time the Tigers had anything to celebrate," he said to chuckles.

We laughed, because what else was there to do?


Tanana was one of those baseball vagabonds, really. Besides the Angels and the Rangers and the Tigers, he took his crooked left arm and his junk to the Red Sox and the Yankees and the Mets. He was 40 when he hung 'em up in 1993.

Frank Tanana, the local boy who made good, might have missed out on 1984, but he helped give us our most recent baseball thrill.

Too bad it was 19 freaking years ago. And counting.


Blogger Ozz said...

He was also a pretty classy guy. Back in those days, there was a season in which I collected player autographs. I'd mail baseball cards (if it was a duplicate or blank 3x5 cards if I didn't have a duplicate baseball card) to the team with a SASE in the hopes of getting something signed and sent back.

Tanana was one of the guys who came through. In addition to the 3x5 card, he also included a pamphlet for some charity or religious organization he was involved with (can't remember what it was off the top of my head). Sure, it was propaganda, but he signed that too, so it instantly became a unique addition to my collection of Tigers stuff.

1:41 AM  

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