Wednesday, July 30, 2014
The end of cool
My guess is that everyone who came of age near the end of a decade has experienced this. But this is my story, and it revolves around Frank Tanana.
As a child of 10, 11, 12, I thought many of my cards were cool. Those cards featured players in action. Ralph Garr in 1975, Mike Schmidt in 1976, Bob Tolan in 1977. They also featured players with mustaches. Ron Cey in '75, Bob Grich in '76, Al Oliver in '78.
I would sit in my bedroom, or in the back patio, or on my friend's porch and shuffle, stack and stare at the cards from the mid-to-late '70s. My greatest concern, other than schoolwork, the jerky neighbor kid, or making too much noise in the house, was where I could find my next pack.
With nothing to clog my brain, I could evaluate which cards were the height of cool. And this 1977 Topps Frank Tanana card was the pinnacle.
This blog is not complete without a detailed dissection of everything that is great about this card.
First, let's consider Tanana himself. He is left-handed. I am left-handed. He was a second-banana to Nolan Ryan. I gravitated toward second bananas. Why pay attention to blowhard Fred Flintstone when his buddy Barney Rubble was so much more pleasant and funny?
Now, let's consider the card. It is a well-framed look at a fastball pitcher completing his delivery. It's difficult to tell, because of the shadow running across Tanana's face, but his expression appears to say, "here it is, try to hit it." He's almost smiling at the thought of what the batter can't do.
The best part of the card -- the part that drew my attention when I was a kid -- is the white blob to the left of Tanana's left hand. It is probably just background glare, but it looked to me as if there was actually SMOKE emerging from Tanana's hand, as if the ball had left a fiery trail.
This was too awesome for an 11-year-old like me to put into words. But I treasured that card like no other non-Dodger in the 1977 set, even the ones with the All-Star bars on the bottom. I didn't even know that Tanana was the reigning ERA champion at the time or the strikeout champion the year prior. All I knew was this photo and the fact that he was No. 200 in the set. I would trade this card for nobody.
1978 came and I was a year older. Tanana remained at the top of his game, a 200-strikeout pitcher with a ERA around 2.5.
When I saw this card, it disappointed me slightly. No action. However, the mustache, which was actually new for Tanana, erased my concern. What a terrific photo. Tanana, brooding -- GLARING -- in the dugout. I thought this card was cool, too.
Tanana was quickly becoming one of my favorite players. And, unbeknownst to me, he was becoming one of the ladies' favorite players. (That article explains the '70s better than I ever could).
Not only had I proclaimed him cool, but the whole world apparently had also. After all, he was card No. 600. Still throwing those double zeroes. Try to hit him.
Then came 1979.
Tanana hurt his arm. He pitched just 90 innings. His ERA soared. And while all of this was going on, I saw THIS card.
What the hell was this? Where was the action? Where was the mustache? Where was the brooding? Is this guy -- who you CLAIM to be Frank Tanana -- LAUGHING? Frank Tanana doesn't laugh. Except after striking people out. He broods, drops guys with a 100-mph burner, and then laughs. But he doesn't laugh in an empty stadium with one eye closed like a goofball.
FRANK TANANA IS NOT GOOFY, HE IS COOL!!!!
I was going through a rough time. I turned 14 in the middle of the year, and everyone knows that when you're 14, nothing is the same anymore. You are too aware. The world and everything you once thought awesome and heroic now sucks.
Add to that, it was the end of a decade. And it wasn't a very good ending. Gas lines and hostages. The decade, my childhood, was ending and never coming back, and neither was Frank Tanana. Or at least not the Frank Tanana that I knew.
It was the end of cool. His 1979 Topps card was the dividing line. For him, for the decade, for everything. God, the '80s were going to suck.
Tanana did come back, but with permed hair. I didn't like permed hair. Every guy with permed hair looked like my mom's female friends.
He also didn't have his old fastball anymore.
And then he didn't have his mustache anymore.
He later left the Angels and went to the Red Sox. His mustache returned, but he was a new pitcher with an array of junk instead of smoke. He couldn't throw fire. So what was the point of showing him in action?
Tanana actually lasted a lot longer after his injuries than anyone ever guessed. He also cleaned up his life and devoted himself to his religion.
I guess the dad in me, the grown-up in me, is required to consider those things cool, too.
But I'm sorry, this picture of a clean-shaven, junkball-throwing, 35-year-old guy would never be considered cool by a certain 11-year-old who was fascinated by his 1977 Topps baseball card.
This will always be the epitome of cool.