He dug a little trench on the mound of the Seattle Kingdome with his left foot, pawing the earth with the comical ferocity of a terrier. But when he turned to confront the first batter of the 1979 season, his ordinarily sunny visage was beclouded with earnestness. Frank Tanana, pitching the opening game for the California Angels last week, was starting his comeback.
Comeback? Frank Tanana? Why, Tanana won 18 games last season and led the Angels in shutouts, with four, and in innings pitched, with 239. Is that a record requiring a comeback? Tanana thinks so. For one thing, the record was deceptive. He won only six games after the All-Star break and his earned run average of 3.65 was the highest and his strikeout total of 137 the lowest of a career that, though brilliant, has not yet approached its possibilities.
Before last season, the lefthanded Tanana had a fastball that approximated the sonic boomers thrown by teammate Nolan Ryan and a crackling curve that may have been the sharpest in baseball. He had neither during the last few months of the 1978 season, which made his 18-12 performance all the more remarkable. Where once Tanana overpowered hitters, striking out an average of 229 a season from 1974 through 1977, last year he deceived them, changing the speed of his pitches from not-very-fast to awfully-slow. At age 25 he had become a canny old-timer, surviving on guile. not power. It is a credit to his maturity that he adjusted so well.
"I enjoyed the challenge of changing style," he says now. "I had to give my fastball the illusion of being quicker than it was. That's the key to pitching, anyway. You must do something to make the hitter feel uncomfortable. But anybody who saw me pitch last year knew that something was wrong."
Certainly his opponents did. Word spread quickly through the American League that Tanana could be had. And had he was in seven of his last 11 decisions.
Tanana has been troubled throughout his career by a variety of seemingly minor ailments in his pitching arm. The most severe of these was a siege of tendinitis that beset him midway through 1977, a season that until then had been nothing short of sensational. He had won 10 of his first 12 decisions, five by shutouts, and pitched 14 consecutive complete games before he was hurt. He missed the last three weeks of the season but still finished with a league-leading 2.54 ERA, a 15-9 record and 205 strikeouts in 241 innings. As in the past, rest proved the only cure for his aching elbow. The arm was healthy enough at the start of last season, but the memory of the pain was so abiding that Tanana began to favor it subconsciously. He gradually changed his pitching motion to ease the pain, both real and imagined.
"I developed a fear of really throwing," he says. "I had to constantly remind myself to come on top, to throw overhand. I knew the ball didn't have that much life. I was throwing lower than I should have."
Warren Spahn, who knows a little about pitching lefthanded, observed this spring how drastically Tanana had altered his delivery. Spahn, the Angels' minor league pitching instructor, saw that Tanana was not only throwing almost sidearm, but that he was also failing to snap his wrist with the old authority. The fireballing Tanana whom Spahn remembered could generate 95-mph fastballs and 90-mph curves off that powerful flick. The Tanana he now saw was pushing the ball like a shotputter. Originally assigned to help Tanana with his move to first base, Spahn switched his attention to Tanana's move to home plate. It was not an easy chore because, Tanana admits. "It's hard breaking the habits of a year and half."
Last Wednesday, against the Mariners, a team he had beaten five times without a loss in his career, Tanana exhibited flashes of his old form, but the results were not encouraging. The Mariners, scarcely celebrated for their prowess as sluggers, came out swinging against a pitcher they assumed, perhaps correctly, was the old new Tanana, not the new old Tanana. Julio Cruz lofted the first pitch of the season into the glove of Centerfielder Rick Miller, and Bill Stein bounced the second into the hole between short and third for an infield single. The third delivery, to Dan Meyer, was a fine sharp-breaking curve on the outside corner for a strike. But Meyer lined the next pitch to left for a single. Tanana survived the inning without further incident. He was not so fortunate in the second, when Seattle Catcher Larry Cox, possessor of four career home runs, popped a high fastball into the nearby leftfield seats for a two-run homer.
Tanana looked fast and sharp in the third, retiring the side in order, but in the fourth, Designated Hitter Willie Horton led off with a homer into rightfield off an outside fastball. In the sixth, Tanana inconvenienced himself by throwing wildly to first on Meyer's bouncer to the mound. Leon Roberts followed with a two-run homer to left. Horton then singled up the middle but was erased on a double play. Finally Tom Paciorek singled, and Manager Jim Fregosi replaced Tanana with rookie Mark Clear. There was no further scoring, Seattle winning 5-4. Tanana had gone 5⅖ innings and had given up five runs and nine hits, three of them homers. He had struck out four—a modestly good sign—walked no one and committed both an error and a balk.
Mediocre as it had been, Tanana's performance was masterful in comparison with Ryan's in the second game of the season. Ryan is coming back from a 1978 hamstring pull and rib separation; in just an inning and a third, he gave up seven runs to the Mariners. It was a far cry from 1977, when Tanana and Ryan pitched consecutive shutouts in the first two games ever played in the Kingdome. And it was a disappointing start for the Angels, who, with new batting punch in the persons of Rod Carew and Dan Ford, are counting on their two pitching aces to lead them to a long-sought division championship. Now the Angels, who have traditionally been long on pitching and short on hitting, may find that their circumstances are suddenly—and disastrously—reversed.
Tanana, for one, was not about to declare a full-scale emergency. The three home runs, he decided, would have been outs in most major league ball parks. The Kingdome's fences are alluringly close—316 feet down the lines and allegedly 365 feet up the power alleys—and none of the homers was a Ruthian swat. The last, by Roberts, was actually hit off the fists, said Tanana. Still, he conceded, "You've got to pitch the way the ball park is structured. This is the wrong place to be giving up fly balls."
This tactical error aside, Tanana was delighted by the new-old "pop" of his fastballs. "I felt I threw the ball well," he said after the game. "I'm more advanced than I was last year. For this early in the season, this was encouraging. And remember, this is just one game of many." And, for a young man in search of his old self, one to forget.
Tanana gave up five runs and, finally, the ball to Mark Clear.