I've never met anyone like Chuck Tanner - and I'm sure I never will again.
Although I knew he was not doing well, the death of the former Bucs' skipper Friday at his home in New Castle, Pa., still came as a shock to me.
It was kind of ironic because I had just watched a program highlighting the 1979 Pirates - one which I'd had never seen, unbelievably enough, since I think I've seen everything regarding the Pirates at least 10-20 times. In it, members of team were talking in the locker room about the death of Tanner's mother, who had died prior to Game 5 of the World Series against the Orioles.
The players assumed Tanner would not be at the game. A few minutes later, the players said they heard what sounded like Tanner's voice down the hallway. Sure enough it was him. And while they knew he was hurting badly inside, he told the players his mother thought they needed some help so she went to heaven to get some. I was getting all misty-eyed watching it. Oh by the way, as most will recall, the Pirates, who were down 3-1 in the series at the time, came back to win the next three games and take the series.
Tanner was like everyone's father. He would literally light up a room. Young and old would gravitate toward him knowing no matter how bad a day you had you knew you would walk away feeling better.
Being a New Castle native, I've had the opportunity to talk to him on several occasions. The first came during my internship at the New Castle News in 1977. Tanner was at a car dealership along with former Pirates Kent Tekulve and Phil Garner. I was pretty nervous and it was pretty obvious, especially because the seating was not the greatest for conducting an interview.
Sensing my problem, Tanner got up, put a reassuring hand on my shoulder as he continued signing autographs and talking to those who filed through. He said, "What do you want to know? I'll answer anything you want. How about if I tell you about these guys right here beside me (Garner and Tekulve) and how they're going to help lead us to a World Series championship."
I remember that day like it was yesterday.
Kind of ironic, wouldn't you say? Although they didn't win it in '77, Garner and Tekulve were two of the key components in the World Series win in '79.
I talked with Tanner during the festivities for the 1994 All-Star Game at Three Rivers Stadium. The guy was literally glowing and having the time of his life talking with the players on the '94 All-Star squad and reminiscing with those players he managed with and against who were taking part in the Old-Timers Game.
Ditto for the 2006 All-Star Game.
I remember seeking out Tanner before one of the events on the field at PNC Park. He was nowhere to be found. As I was heading back toward the dugout I spotted him just as he was coming out of the dugout. I was one of the first to nab him. He was already smiling ear to ear.
One of my favorite stories he told me that day involved the 1979 Pirates and the confidence he had in that team as he did in every team he managed.
He said the opposing team in one game was up by three runs in the seventh or eighth inning. He apparently wasn't too pleased with the actions taking place in the other team's dugout as they were laughing and carrying on. He said he nudged the player or coach next to him and said, "Look at those guys over there, they actually think they're going to win this game."
The Bucs came back to win that game, he said, when someone hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth.
I also talked with Garner, who at that time was manager of the Astros. He had named Tanner as one of the honorary coaches.
Garner pointed to Tanner and said, "If it wasn't for him, I would have never been a manager." When he was still playing for the Pirates, Garner said Tanner would always tell him he was going to manage some day and "be a good manager."
At first Garner said he laughed it off and told him he was crazy. Garner said he then found himself watching his every move and asking him for advice. He said he patterned himself after Tanner in many ways, but especially how he dealt with the players, the media and people in general.
You talk to the guy for two minutes and you'd be ready to take on the world.
He never had an unkind word to say about anyone and, likewise, I don't think anyone could have an unkind word to say about him. He treated a scrawny kid like me back in 1977 with respect - like I was the president or the pope. And he treated me the exact same way the other times I talked with him. And I'm sure he treated the thousands of people he met during his 82 years the same way each and every time.
Many have said in the many articles I've read during past couple of days that he was still sharp as a tack until the very end. That's the way I will always want to remember him. That glowing, bubbly personality of his was something to behold.
If we could all pattern ourselves the way he lived his life this world would be one spectacular place to live in, wouldn't it?
I'm just proud and honored to say I met him.
(Rossano is news editor for the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times.)