Cook: 'Fam-a-lee' blessed with Tanner
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Go ahead, feel sorry for former Pirates manager Chuck Tanner's family and friends, for anyone, really, who knew the man at all. They suffered a terrible loss Friday when Tanner died at 82. Their world won't be the same, won't be quite as bright, quite as gentle, quite as kind.
But, please, don't feel sorry for Tanner. That's the last thing he would want. It's probably inaccurate to say he eagerly awaited death, although he surely must have had some of those longings during his rough times the past few weeks. But he certainly wasn't afraid of death. He stared it down and saw the positives in it, which is exactly the way he treated his amazing life every day as he lived it.
"The nurses couldn't believe how relaxed I was," Tanner said in May 2007, talking about the surgery he had a few weeks earlier to fix a life-threatening bleeding ulcer. "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."
I'm thinking Tanner would say Friday was a pretty terrific day.
What a reunion he and Babs -- his wife of 56 years -- must have had. He cherished every day they spent together before her death in August 2006, after a decade-long battle with a variety of health problems. Everyone should be so lucky to have such a soul mate.
But Babs Tanner was pretty fortunate, too. Everybody who knew the couple said the same thing: If you had to be sick, you couldn't ask for a better, more devoted, more loving caregiver than Tanner. His wife's struggles wore him out, mentally and physically. But he never once complained. It wasn't just because it was his husbandly duty to care for her. It was the right thing to do.
Tanner did the right thing as much as any man I've known. He was, simply, the kindest, most decent person I've met in sports.
The world would be such a better place if everyone had Tanner's attitude. Talking baseball now, if the Pirates lost eight games in a row, he would insist that really wasn't all bad because a winning streak certainly was around the corner. If one of his players were in an 0-for-25 slump, he would tell you his breakout game would be that night. If you didn't know him, you would think he was phony. No one could be that positive all the time, right? But he was 100 percent genuine. He was the real deal.
I always have believed that Tanner was the big reason the Pirates came back from a 3-1 best-of-seven deficit to win the 1979 World Series against the Baltimore Orioles. That team is remembered as Hall of Famer Willie Stargell's "We Are Family" team. But make no mistake, Tanner was in charge. Never once did he back off from his prediction that the Pirates would keep battling and take the series in seven games. He demanded it, actually.
That wasn't a completely happy time for Tanner. His mother, Anne, died on the morning of Game 5. But he never brought his sadness into the clubhouse. He refused to allow his players to lose focus. He was so happy for them, so proud of them, when they did come back to take down the Orioles in seven. Then, when they and the rest of Pittsburgh planned for a victory parade to honor what's looking more and more as if it will be the last world championship baseball team for our city in our lifetime, he went home to New Castle to bury his mom.
And, no, Tanner never complained about feeling short-changed in any way in the greatest moment of his baseball career.
Tanner was fiercely loyal to those '79 Pirates even if many let him down badly in the next few years. It didn't matter if a player all but quit on him because of problems with the front office or left the team in a huff because he didn't feel as if he were being used properly or was involved in bringing cocaine and drug dealers into the Pirates clubhouse. They still were his guys -- damn it -- and he always would be there for them.
Years later, Tanner would say if his life depended on one game he would give the ball to left-hander John Candelaria, who had such bitterness toward Pirates management that he publicly referred to general manager Harding Peterson as "Bozo." Tanner lobbied long and hard for pitcher Bert Blyleven to make the Hall of Fame even though Blyleven left the Pirates briefly early in the 1980 season -- an excusable act of selfishness -- because he didn't like how Tanner pulled him from games. (I'm sure the news Jan. 5 that Blyleven was elected to the Hall brought one of the final big smiles to Tanner's face). Tanner always said he was blessed to manage the great Dave Parker even though Parker got caught in the cocaine mess, which led to the infamous Baseball Drug Trials in Pittsburgh in the summer of 1985 and assured that Tanner's era with the team would end in disgrace.
Tanner claimed he never knew about the cocaine, although the fallout from the drug trials hurt him badly. If he made a mistake, it was treating his players like men and expecting them to act in kind. They didn't always live up to his trust.
But that didn't stop Tanner from loving his players. "They were such tough, tough guys," he said. They had climbed the baseball mountaintop together, remember? Tanner was a big man physically, but he was a much bigger man as a person. He was way too big to hold a grudge.
Tanner loved seeing the players at the '79 team reunions. This isn't exactly a breaking news story, but they loved seeing him, too. Phil Garner, his old second baseman, managed the National League team in the 2006 All-Star Game at PNC Park. He made sure that Tanner was in the dugout in uniform that night as his honorary captain. Tanner considered it one of his greatest thrills in baseball.
"I've had the greatest life in the world," he told me during that May 2007, interview as he looked around the family room of his home, which he had converted into a shrine for Babs.
"How many guys can say they won a World Series in their backyard? How can that happen to a kid from Shenango?
"I've been awfully blessed and awfully lucky."
Sure, Tanner was.
But so were and are the people who knew him well, who knew him at all, actually.
All of us are better because he was in our life.
First Published February 12, 2011 12:57 am