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

June 15, 1985|KURT ROSENBERG | 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.

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