There was a time when Catholic prep sports were followed, well, religiously — just as closely as the colleges and pros. When I was growing up in the 1960s, some of the best CYO coverage could be found in the pages of the Michigan Catholic, which was delivered to our Detroit home weekly. The newspaper featured the exploits of kids who often had tongue-twisting Polish surnames. Frank Tanana was Polish, but at least you could pronounce his name as you read about his latest athletic feat.
To readers of this blog, Tanana is best known as a former Tiger who put together a long career in the big leagues, the highlight being that memorable pitching duel with Toronto’s Jimmy Key on the final day of the 1987 pennant race. Over the course of 21 big-league seasons, 1973 through 1993, the former Detroit prep star won 240 games for six different teams. Those are the most victories ever by a major-league pitcher without a single 20-win season. His overworked left arm probably should be bronzed and put on display somewhere. He started a remarkable 616 games and at one point pitched 14 consecutive complete games.
For all of Tanana’s diamond success, he was better known in Catholic school circles for his roundball skills during the winter, though the two-time All-State forward/guard was a helluva pitcher when spring rolled around. Athleticism was in his blood, along with the kielbasa and pierogies. His dad and namesake, a Detroit cop, had spent a few years in the Cleveland Indians’ farm system and remained a big deal in local amateur circles after he quit to raise a family.
I first became aware of Frank as kids, in 1967, when he was dominating the competition as an 8th-grade multi-sports star at St. Andrew’s, and I was a 7th-grade catcher at Epiphany, praying to the Patron Saint of Foul Tips to please, please protect me from getting whacked again in the mask or nuts. Ed and Bob, two Polish kids who were my best buddies on the team, later played with Tanana at Catholic Central. I can remember all of us, as 16-year-old knuckleheads, once driving over to his house to see if he wanted to go out, maybe get into a little trouble. He lived in the area of Martin and Michigan, in what many of us were already referring to as “the old neighborhood.” It was early evening, but Frank, the son of an alcoholic, was already gone, getting a head start on the weekend. When it came to partying, Tanana was a major leaguer even in high school.
Tanana closed out his high school athletic career by starting for CC in the ’71 Catholic League championship game against Holy Redeemer at Tiger Stadium. More than 100 colleges offered him a basketball scholarship upon graduation, but his favorite sport had always been baseball. The California Angels made him their No. 1 pick (Detroit decided to select high school shortstop Tom Veryzer from New York instead), and he signed a professional contract. Two years later he was named American League Rookie Pitcher of the Year. He had a wicked curve and great control to go along with a fastball that could hit 100 mph. By the time he was 24, he had already won 84 games, led the league in strikeouts, shutouts, and ERA once each, and been named to three consecutive All-Star Games.
He was a stud, both on the mound and with the baseball Annies (and Wandas and Lindas and Judys). As a friend of some friends, I heard some entertaining stories. Hey, it was the Swingin’ ‘70s, and a local kid was living the life in the land of milk and honeys. He was tall, lean, blue-eyed, witty, laid-back, and liked to have fun. “You have seen him in surfer movies,” Ron Fimrite wrote in Sports Illustrated. He was driving a Benz, making a boatload of money, which was good because there were all those speeding tickets to pay. Some magazine named him California’s bachelor of the year.
Tanana’s well-known self-confidence was considered cockiness by many. I remember one game at Tiger Stadium, sometime around 1975 or so, when he fired a couple pitches too close to Willie Horton’s head and a melee broke out. The umps tossed Willie and manager Ralph Houk. Just as things had died down, Tanana made a wisecrack to Willie, and the Tigers’ strongman burst from the dugout, rushed the mound, and started jabbing Tanana in the chest with his finger. The crowd was on its feet, going crazy. Just a few years earlier, Tanana had been a kid in the stands, cheering on Horton and the rest of the Sock-It-To-Em Tigers. Now he was going mano-a-mano with a childhood hero. Tanana was about 6-3, 195 pounds, but Willie would have torn him in two if the umps and half the team hadn’t interceded.
Tanana and Nolan Ryan were one-half of the Angels’ starting rotation for several years in the ‘70s, and every season the pair of fireballers typically rang up about 450-500 strikeouts between them. By the end of the decade, the speed of Tanana’s fastball fell off and so did his hedonistic lifestyle, both from overuse. He reinvented himself as a pitcher, mastering a variety of off-speed stuff, and reinvented himself as a person, mastering the teachings of the Bible. Ultimately, after 13 seasons in California, Boston, and Texas, the born-again Tanana found his way back to his hometown.
“When I came home, it was awesome,” he said of his 1985 debut as a Tiger. “My first game wearing that English D, I was every bit as excited as I was ever in baseball. The adrenaline was pumping, and I was very, very excited and ended up beating New York, 2-0, at Tiger Stadium in the first game I ever pitched for them.
“Returning home was just huge. Man, oh man, talk about dreams being fulfilled! And then to have it last for seven more years.”
Tanana pitched eight seasons for the Tigers, from 1985 through 1992, including a couple home openers, which was a thrill for him and his family, if not Sparky Anderson. Asked once why he had selected Tanana for the assignment, the Detroit manager replied, “Well, I got to throw somebody.” Tanana laughed at the diss. “There was Sparky in his own inimitable way, just boosting me up big time.”
The game Tanana remembered best from his tenure as a Tiger wasn’t an opener, but the final game of the 1987 season, when he pitched a 1-0, complete-game shutout against Toronto to clinch the divisional title. I recall how electric Tiger Stadium was that October Sunday. A couple of days earlier, I had stood in line for hours to buy four box-seat tickets for the one-game, winner-take-all playoff on Monday that never happened, thanks to Frank’s gem of a performance.
Tanana retired at age 40 in 1993, having spent a final season with the Mets and Yankees. He and his wife, Cathy, raised four daughters in the Detroit area. Today, the 61-year-old Tanana regularly speaks before Christian groups and attends Tigers fantasy camps. During a charity auction a couple of years ago, a non-baseball fan asked Tanana what he had done for a living. He had played a little ball here and there, he said with a smile.
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