Ron Cook: Tanner has a lot of life left

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So you think the intensive care nurses at New Castle's Jameson Memorial Hospital saw a different side of former Pirates manager Chuck Tanner when he faced a life-threatening situation a few weeks ago because of a loss of blood from a bleeding ulcer?

You are so wrong.

"They said they never had a patient like me before," Tanner said. "They told me I picked them up."

Amazing how the man has that effect on just about everyone.

It was hard not to think of Tanner earlier this month when a Sports Illustrated poll asked the current baseball players to pick the friendliest among them. Detroit Tigers first baseman Sean Casey won in a landslide. Anyone who knows the Upper St. Clair kid -- appropriately nicknamed "Mayor" -- understands that vote. But if they picked baseball's all-time nicest man, Tanner surely would win. He's that good of a person.

That's why it brings great joy to report that Tanner is doing well, so well that he plans on being at the Pirates-San Diego Padres game tomorrow night at PNC Park in his role as a Cleveland Indians scout. Seeing him last week, first at his home just north of New Castle and then over lunch at the delightful nearby restaurant named after him, where he takes all of his meals, he looked as if he has at least 30 good years left.

"Thirty? I was thinking more like 40," Tanner said, winking. He will turn 78 on the Fourth of July.

Tanner was typically upbeat, remarkably upbeat considering the tough year he has had. It wasn't just his serious medical condition. He lost his wife of 56 years, Babs, in August after she fought a decade-long battle with a variety of health issues.

The house on East Maitland Lane, where Tanner has lived since 1959, is a lot quieter than it used to be, so quiet that he still struggles to come to grips with it. The family room has its share of souvenirs from his baseball career and even the odd Joe Paterno bobblehead, but mostly it's a shrine to Barbara Tanner. The only things he makes sure to point out are the pictures of her that he so treasures.

(To see much more of Tanner's priceless memorabilia, you have to go to Chuck Tanner's restaurant a mile or so from his home down Route 18. The walls are covered with photographs of anybody who's anybody in sports. It's truly a unique experience to nibble on a hefty club sandwich in the back corner booth at the same time Henry Aaron and Tanner and Paterno and Tanner are looking down over your shoulder.)

"I still can't believe she left me," Tanner said of his wife. "I talk to her all the time. 'Babs, how could you do this to me? I never had to pay a bill in my life ...' "

In a very normal way, his wife's passing helped Tanner to deal with the stress of his medical condition. He went to bed feeling just fine after working the Pirates-Chicago Cubs game April 30. But when he went to the bathroom in the middle of the night, he saw that his toilet bowl was filled with black blood. At 5 a.m., he phoned his son, Gary, who rushed him to the hospital.

"The nurses couldn't believe how relaxed I was," Tanner said. "I told them I had it made. If God takes me, I'll see Babs. If not, Babs will look down on me and help me recover."

A blood transfusion took Tanner out of immediate danger and subsequent surgery took care of the ulcer. He has been home for two weeks, working on regaining his strength.

During his hospital stay, Tanner found out just how many friends he has in baseball. Tigers manager Jim Leyland -- "the best manager I've seen over the years," Tanner said -- sent flowers. Former Pirates stars Dave Parker and Bill Madlock, who played for Tanner, called. So did his longtime lieutenants, Al Monchak and Tony Bartirome.

A lot more baseball people will be thrilled to see Tanner at the ballpark tomorrow night. You think the man is popular among his peers? Houston Astros manager Phil Garner left no doubt about that last summer when he managed the National League All-Star team at PNC Park and pulled all the right strings to get Tanner in the dugout as the team's honorary captain. Like Parker and Madlock, Garner played on Tanner's 1979 Pirates' team that won the World Series, probably the final world championship team that the Pirates will have in our lifetime.

That amazing tribute still brings Tanner close to tears. He wears the National League ring from that All-Star Game.

"I've had the greatest life in the world," he said. "How many guys can say they won a World Series in their back yard? How can that happen to a kid from Shenango?

"But you talk about highlights? That All-Star Game was one of the highlights of my life. I felt so good that night that I said I was going to come back and manage again. I'll go to A-ball if I have to."

Why not?

The man has 30 good years left.

Sorry, 40.

Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Chuck Tanner waves to the crowd before throwing out the first pitch at the All-Star Game last year at PNC Park.
Click photo for larger image.


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