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Analysis: Tanner's way was caring, yet stern

Rob Biertempfel
| Saturday, Feb. 12, 2011

By being simultaneously old school and ahead of the curve, Chuck Tanner created the template for the modern major league manager.

"He was ahead of his time, as far as relating to players," former Pirates outfielder Lee Lacy said of Tanner, who died Friday at age 82. "He really was a players' manager."

Yet Tanner also set boundaries.

"He loved the players. He loved the game," said Phil Garner, another member of Tanner's 1979 World Series champs. "But Chuck also understood human nature. If something wasn't good for the team, he would stop it. He wasn't afraid to grab you by the neck, either."

When Garner was hired to manage the Milwaukee Brewers in 1992, the first thing he did was call Tanner for advice. From his playing days, "Scrap Iron" knew Tanner could be tough when necessary.

One of Tanner's rules was rookies don't criticize veterans. Rookie pitcher Don Robinson learned that lesson after jawing at Bill Robinson on the team bus in 1978.

"Chuck physically pushed Donnie down in the seat and said, 'Don't you ever get on a veteran again,' " Garner said. "You wouldn't see a manager do that today. It just wouldn't happen."

Tanner managed four teams over 19 seasons in the majors. He worked nine years in Pittsburgh and went 711-685.

Those who mourn him will vividly recall his ever-present smile and boundless optimism. Lacy remembers the sound of two clapping hands as Tanner confidently stalked the dugout after the Pirates fell behind 3-1 in the Series against the Baltimore Orioles.

"His message to the team was that we were still in this thing until we were mathematically eliminated," Lacy said. "We would go out and play each and every game as if we were top and not behind."

We know how that turned out.

Baseball was still in its tough love era when Tanner got his first skipper's gig in 1970 with the Chicago White Sox. Many managers were buddy-buddy with their teams' stars and ignored the other guys on the roster.

"But with Chuck, if you were on his team, you were his guy," Garner said. "It didn't matter if you were the 25th guy or the first guy, he loved you the same. And you felt that.

"I always felt like I was Chuck's favorite guy. But I bet if you talk to the other players, they'll tell you the same thing."

I did. The players responded just like Garner said they would.

"I played for a lot of great managers," said four-time hitting champ and three-time All-Star Bill Madlock. "(Sparky) Anderson. (Tommy) Lasorda. Billy Martin. Whitey Herzog. But Chuck was the best all-around manager and person I ever played for."

His peers felt that way, too.

"He was a model manager — one of the guys everybody respected," Jim Leyland said. "All the young managers had respect for him. He made you feel you were the best manager who ever managed."

Pirates broadcaster Greg Brown smiled as he talked about watching Tanner interact with the fans.

"Off the field, nobody that I can think of in my lifetime made me feel better about myself than Chuck Tanner did," Brown said. "And he did that with everybody. After a conversation with Chuck, you'd feel better about yourself. There was a glow about Chuck Tanner, almost literally."

Garner said Tanner "was ageless in his ability to touch players." Even well into his 60s and 70s, Tanner connected with 20-somethings.

"Chuck was a good friend of mine," Pirates second baseman Neil Walker said.

Walker grew up Pine, and being just 25 years old, he is too young to remember Tanner as manager during one of the Pirates' golden eras. But Walker understands what Tanner meant to the team and the city.

"To me, personally, he was always a big fan," Walker said. "He always pushed for me. He was somebody I looked up to. When he talked, I listened. He was a great person. He was very dear to me and my family."

Would the Pirates be a different franchise — their legacy perhaps not quite as glittery — had Tanner not come to town• Walker pondered the question for only a moment.

"Yes, I think so," Walker said. "The Pirates were fortunate to have him as part of the organization."

As was all of baseball.

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