Tanana Lost His Fastball, But Found His Way Back To Detroit

Frank Tanana threw his fastball in the 90s in the ‘70s and in the 70s in the ‘90s. He transformed himself from a long-haired flamethrower to a born-again finesse artist.

“I had a 20-year career, and the first 10 years I didn’t have faith in Christ,” Tanana said. “I was living my own life, doing what I wanted to do. Thankfully I came to place my faith in Christ. It was a personal faith I needed to have.

“I had a great last 10 years as I applied God’s commands to honor Him, to give Him the glory. I played with a different emphasis: not to elevate Frank Tanana, but to put the attention where it’s deserved.”

Tanana was born into a Polish family in Detroit. His father Frank Sr. was a standout pitcher who pitched professionally in the 1950s though he never made it to the big leagues. The younger Tanana inherited the family pitching gene, and after starring for Catholic Central High School, he was drafted 13th overall in the first round in 1971 by the Angels. Just two years later the 20-year old lefty made his major league debut. The following year he struck out 180 batters as a rookie, and in 1975 Tanana was arguably the best pitcher in the American League. That season he led the league with 269 strikeouts, more than his heralded teammate Nolan Ryan. For six years he and The Ryan Express formed one of the greatest strikeout tandems the game has ever seen. Frank was an All-Star and finished in the top ten in Cy Young voting three times. They had a saying in Anaheim: “Tanana and Ryan and two days of cryin’.”

But then Frank Jr.’s left arm went dead. 

Arm Injury Takes 100 Mile Per Hour Fastball from Tanana

Tanana never had surgery on his shoulder or elbow, but he missed two months of the 1979 season and when he returned his fastball was 15 miles per hour slower. In 1981 the Angels traded their injured southpaw to Boston in exchange for Fred Lynn. Tanana pitched poorly for the Sox and left via free agency, signing with Texas. In his first season with the Rangers, he lost 18 games and his strikeouts fell by half. It took a few years for Tanana to adjust to being a thinking pitcher instead of a monster who could throw the baseball 100 miles per hour.  

“The biggest challenge was mentally. Sometimes you get in a jam and think you can just fire this 98 mile an hour fastball by this guy,” Tanana said. “Because when I was younger, I could practically tell them what was coming and they couldn’t hit it. But after the change, it was pitching to spots and believing. You gotta have a lot of belief in your stuff.”

His faith helped Tanana handle the change in his athletic prowess. During the 1985 season he was dealt to the defending world champion Tigers, his hometown team. When Tanana was a kid he wanted to be Rocky Colavito or Jim Bunning, and now he was wearing the Old English D and pitching in front of his family. He ended up having his biggest moment at Tiger Stadium.

Won Final Game of 1987 Season to Clinch Division for Tigers

As Tanana remade himself, he developed a rainbow curveball and set it up with a pinpoint fastball he aimed for the low corners of the strike zone. He also came up with a weird hesitation pitch, where he froze his delivery when his front foot hit the mound, paused his arm, and then tossed a breaking ball. He called it his “stop-slop pitch” and after batters quit laughing at it, they usually swung and missed. “It makes my 65 mile per hour heater look like 90,” Tanana joked.

Tanana won between 10 and 15 games in seven of his eight seasons in his hometown. He never missed a turn in the rotation: he was Sparky Anderson’s most reliable starter. His signature moment came in the final game of the 1987 season. The Tigers were one game ahead of the Blue Jays, and the two teams were squaring off at Tiger Stadium on the final Sunday of the season. Using his lackluster fastball, changeup, and looping curveball, Tanana kept the Jays off balance and pitched a brilliant shutout to win 1-0 and clinch the division title. When the final out was recorded, second baseman Lou Whitaker wrapped his arms around Tanana in a bear hug. The Detroit native received a standing ovation.