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The Power of Tony Pena

Mar 20, 2013, 12:27 PM EDT

Dominican Republic manager Pena holds his country's flag before playing the Netherlands in their semi-final round of World Baseball Classic in San Francisco

Well, Tony Pena is in the news again, having managed the Dominican Republic to eight consecutive victories and a dominating championship in the World Baseball Classic. It is a good excuse to tell a story, one of my favorite ever stories in sports. Then, Tony Pena is one of my favorite ever people in sports.

Ten years ago, Tony Pena was manager of the Kansas City Royals. And those Royals were terrible. I realize that this is obvious since the Royals have been terrible for almost 20 years now, but those Royals were PARTICULARLY terrible. Their opening day starter would be Runelvys Hernandez. Yes, I know you haven’t heard of him. Hernandez had made 12 undistinguished starts in his career. Twelve. And he was the Royals Opening Day starter. And to be honest, nobody else was really that close.

Pena, though, would not hear negativity. He was simply incapable of hearing it. He kept talking about how good the Royals were going to be, how they were going to compete for a championship, how these players had more inside them than anyone realized, more inside them than the players themselves realized. He more than talked. He handed out “We Believe” T-shirts. He ran from field to field during spring training to impress his optimism on everyone. I have always believed that while spirit and chemistry and belief are important, they carry only so much magic. The Royals’ Opening Day starter, I will repeat, was Runelvys Hernandez.

But you know what? Runelvys Hernandez threw six shutout innings on Opening Day. And the Royals won their first nine games. They won 16 of their first 19. They were in first place by seven games at the All-Star Break. They were in contention, real contention, into early September. And they did it with almost nothing. There were a handful of good players on the team, and a few more who played above their talent. But mostly, I thought then and think now, it was Pena. He was irrepressible. Every day, he showed up full of life and hope and energy, and he pumped that stuff into his players and into people around the club like no big league manager I’ve ever seen. It was barely real — like something out of the movies.

It didn’t last — couldn’t last, I suspect. The Royals lost 100 games the next year, and Pena resigned under pressure the next when the Royals lost 100 games again, and then they lost 100 games again just to make the point clear. But I have always thought that for one season, Tony Pena did what no other manager could have done.

Which leads to the story: Where does that sort of conviction and ebullience and determination come from? I’ve written this before. I was working for The Kansas City Star then, and I went back with Pena to the Dominican Republic. We drove to where he grew up, to Villa Vasquez, and I saw the home where he grew up. The floors were dirt. On the cracked walls, you could see strips of sunlight that slipped through splits in the roof and a photo of Pedro Martinez. “Right there,” he said, “there used to be a picture of Jesus.” We went to the field where the legendary Pirates scout Howie Haak discovered Pena. We went to banana fields where Pena had expected to work. We went to the patch of land where he had grown up playing baseball — it is now a well-groomed field with neatly mown grass and a raked infield. Pena makes sure of that.

Then, only then, Tony Pena told me this story. He said that when he signed with the Pirates, he received a $4,000 signing bonus — so much money that no bank in the area could handle it. He went to Santiago with his family to put the money in an account. He tried to give the money to his mother, Rosalia, but she would not accept it. She said it was his money. She was not especially happy about him going to the U.S. to play baseball and was convinced he would not make it. That money would support him when he failed.

A few days later, the Penas had their furniture repossessed. Tony begged his mother to take the money to get the furniture back, but she would not accept. He finally snuck behind her back, went to the furniture people, paid $800 to have it returned to the house. Rosalia was so furious, she would not talk to Tony for a long time. He left without hearing his mother say good bye.

Of course, life took many happy turns for Tony Pena. He became an All-Star catcher. He became a baseball star. He made more than $17 million as a big leaguer. He is now bench coach for the Yankees, and he just brought the Dominican Republic its greatest ever baseball victory.

But he never lost what he felt as a child, never lost the joy for baseball, never lost the hope that burned within him, never lost the fear of failure that kept him focused. He saved baseballs from every important hit he ever got, just in case it was his last. He saved the bats he used for the day when they might spark memories. He saved every memory, clung to it, held it close. Once, later in his career as a player, Tony was in the car with Rosalia, and they drove around Santiago. They had made a drive like this many times. Tony was driving this time, and he made one turn, then another, a third, winding through Santiago though there was no place in particular they were going.

And then they found themselves in a familiar neighborhood, one they had been through before. “Isn’t this nice?” he asked his mother.

“Yes,” Rosalia said. “It is beautiful.”

Tony kept driving, randomly it seemed, until they found themselves on a street of beautiful homes. “I love these,” Rosalia said, and Tony smiled and pulled up to the nicest of the homes.

“What do you think of this one?” he asked.

“It is the home of my dreams,” she said.

“It is yours,” he said, and he reached into his pocket and pulled out the key to the front door.

Rosalia Pena lived in that home until she died two years ago.

Tony Pena did not want to tell me this story for a long time. It was almost as if he wanted me to see everything I could in the Dominican before he could trust me with it. It is a story that is so personal to him — because it doesn’t just speak to the joy of buying his mother a home. It speaks to the life of a poor boy in the Dominican Republic, the power of hope, the power of belief and, perhaps most of all, the power of remembering what matters. If you forget where you came from, he told me, you forget who you are.

I ended my Kansas City Star story this way.

In Santiago, there is an open bank account. In it $3,200 plus 25 years or so of interest. It is every remaining penny of the bonus the Pittsburgh Pirates gave Tony Pena a long time ago.

  1. Jason Lukehart - Mar 20, 2013 at 12:49 PM

    Great story, Joe.

    I know that as an American, I was “supposed” to be pulling for Team USA. I’d have been happy to see them win the WBC, but I found myself pulling for the Dominicans. I’m happy for Pena, who certainly served his time with the Royals, for Carlos Santana, my favorite player on my favorite team, for Fernando Rodney, who cracks me up, and for the hundreds of thousands of people in the Dominican who can take so much joy from their nation’s performance.

  2. nolanwiffle - Mar 20, 2013 at 12:49 PM

    Awesome.

  3. teesmitty - Mar 20, 2013 at 12:50 PM

    Joe,

    Thanks for retelling this story. As a KCMO resident, I won’t soon forget Tony or his optimism, especially from 2003. Watching Ken Harvey and Jose Lima with Tony Pena willing that team to win was sure fun. I remember a late season, sold-out game, and my dad telling me, “Finally, a playoff feel in KC!” My father experienced the World Series, and the 1980’s in KC, I was born 1986 and missed the entire party and still have yet to see it… But it was so close in 2003 because of Tony Pena.

    What a great story Tony Pena has. And congrats to him and the DR for winning the WBC. Come back to KC as bench coach anytime Tony.

    Also Joe, can you write another “Royals are going to win the AL Central” columns for old-time, optimistic sake?

    • blacksables - Mar 20, 2013 at 3:41 PM

      It’s not surprising he did well with the Dominican team. He’s great with the Latin players.

      Problem is, Joe forgot the part about how Pena’ catered to the Latin players, while excluding the non-Latins, and lost the clubhouse at the end of the season when they still had a chance to win it.

      It’s no an open secret in Kansas City. It’s just out in the open. Pena’ could learn some lessons from Ozzie Guillen.

  4. ajcardsfan - Mar 20, 2013 at 12:52 PM

    That’s a nice story, I’m glad you shared it with us. Definitely a story that no movie could do justice to

  5. indaburg - Mar 20, 2013 at 12:53 PM

    Great tribute to a classy guy. I don’t often talk about it, but Peña is a family friend. My mom grew up (and still is best friends) with his cousin. They all grew up playing together in the DR. As a member of the Pirates and Cardinals, he would often leave us tix to see him play when he came to Shea. I was a big Mets fan as a kid. We always waited for him after the game, and he would come over and eat my grandmother’s sancocho. One time, after a particularly tough loss in which he struck out seemingly 10 times against Doc, he took one look at my Mets cap, picked it off my head and threw it to the ground in disgust. Immediately, I could see the remorse on his face. He picked it up, ruffled my head, and put the cap back on my head. “Sorry, negrita,” he said, calling me by his pet name for me. I never wore the cap again when we went to see him play. That’s the first time I realized how much the games meant to him too.

    That’s interesting about Rosalia being so against him playing professionally. His family’s lore is that she taught him how to play the game. They were very close. She probably didn’t want to lose her son and risk seeing him fail.

    As for him being fired, the version I always heard is that he resigned because he didn’t like how the higher ups were running things, but families do have a way of spinning things.

    • elbravo31 - Mar 20, 2013 at 1:12 PM

      Mmmmmm… Sancocho

    • lingerie00yardsale - Mar 20, 2013 at 2:53 PM

      Thanks for sharing that tale! Perhaps YOU could answer my question….

      Do you know Tony’s father’s name? I had a bus driver who went by “Ernie” when I was a very young boy who SWORE that his son was Tony Peña.

      I’ve always wondered if he was putting on a young boy, but why?

      • indaburg - Mar 20, 2013 at 3:58 PM

        I just checked with my mom, and she has no idea. She said Tony’s dad abandoned the family when he was young and he wasn’t around.

    • cur68 - Mar 20, 2013 at 2:57 PM

      I always liked Peña, even as a Yankee coach. Even when he couldn’t believe how bad Juan Guzman’s control was in the All Star game when he caught him, ‘lo those many moons ago.

      Its no secret to you ‘burg that I wanted this guy as as Toronto’s Manager this year, real bad. Either Peña or Dave Martinez but either guy would have made me incredibly happy. I hope he gets another shot to manage and this time a REAL MLB club (sorry KC. . .by the way, are you guys a state or not? I could never figure that out).

      I don’t ask much of pro sports players, just play hard, don’t be an on-field douche and don’t do anything illegal. Reading Mr. Posnanski’s article about him, well he’s over my bar by quite a bit.

      Anther of his excellent points is that he’s Edwin “E5″ Encarnacion’s father in law. Lets hope he’s looking after one of The Mighty Beav’s best offensive threats real well in the off season.

  6. js20011041 - Mar 20, 2013 at 12:59 PM

    Where’s the part about him having an affair (while married himself) with a married woman who left her four kids home alone with nothing more than a baby monitor?

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Mar 20, 2013 at 1:05 PM

      I must have missed the part where Joe referred to him as Galahad.

      • tfbuckfutter - Mar 20, 2013 at 1:08 PM

        Not treating your wife well is proof you can’t treat your mother well.

      • js20011041 - Mar 20, 2013 at 1:14 PM

        Well, Joe’s painting a picture here. One that sheds an overwhelmingly positive light on Tony Pena. All I’m aksing for is a little balance because it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. Maybe other people will share a different view, but to me, cheating on your wife with another married woman, whom you know is leaving her kids alone unattended is a scumbag move. This is a story that is supposedly revealing Pena’s character. To leave out all of the details is like telling a story about Brett Myers and leaving out the part about him dragging his wife down the street while beating the shit out of her.

      • tfbuckfutter - Mar 20, 2013 at 1:35 PM

        Brett Myers, who once dragged his wife down the street and beat the shit out of her, picked up the win in last night’s game. The location of his pitches, much like the location of his punches to his wife’s face, was spot on.

      • js20011041 - Mar 20, 2013 at 1:39 PM

        You’re a sick man, Chubbs.

    • indaburg - Mar 20, 2013 at 1:38 PM

      It’s true–he did cheat on his wife. That woman wasn’t the only one. He’ll be the first to admit he was a shitty husband. (Another lesson he inadvertently taught me. Baseball players are huge sluts. Love the game, but stay far away from the players.)

    • forsch31 - Mar 21, 2013 at 11:37 AM

      Considering the story isn’t a 100,000-word biography, it has absolutely no bearing on a story about how Pena’s childhood affected his outlook on life.

  7. Jonny 5 - Mar 20, 2013 at 12:59 PM

    So in the DR, Pedro has eclipsed Jesus in popularity?

    I love this story.

    • bancacentral - Mar 20, 2013 at 2:43 PM

      Eclipsed? I though Pedro WAS Jesus.

      • Chris Fiorentino - Mar 20, 2013 at 3:15 PM

        Whenever I am confused about something, I always ask WWPD.

  8. steelerfanforlife - Mar 20, 2013 at 1:02 PM

    Awesome story!!

  9. tfbuckfutter - Mar 20, 2013 at 1:03 PM

    I had Runelvys Hernandez on my fantasy team that year.

  10. dreamkafka - Mar 20, 2013 at 1:08 PM

    He wasn’t fired from the Royals–he quite as reported in many places.
    http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/sports/baseball/al/royals/2005-05-11-pena-quits_x.htm
    http://seattletimes.com/html/mariners/2002270384_basegame11.html

    Also he did it suddenly only a few hours after being served for a trial where he was accused of breaking up another man’s marriage.
    http://www.pitch.com/kansascity/together-we-cant/Content?oid=2177686

    • forsch31 - Mar 21, 2013 at 11:38 AM

      Story doesn’t say he was fired.

  11. elbravo31 - Mar 20, 2013 at 1:09 PM

    What a great story! I grew up in the Dominican Republic and a story of this kind is not rare: a boy from a family of very low means making it big in the majors. Tony’s story is extra special to me, though.

    I might be a bit biased, but it’s perplexing to me that his is not the skipper of a MLB club now. What he did with the Royals that first season was amazing and incredibly fun to watch. As hard as it is for me to think about it, the Dominicans won’t have Tony for the next Classic… Four years from now he’ll be managing some major league team in spring training.

    Tony is one of my favorite players of all time and will always admire his passion and dedication. Even though I was born and raised in the capital, Santo Domingo, I was a fan of Tony’s team: Aguilas Cibaeñas. One of my greatest memories is seeing him play winter ball back home.

    LEÑA!

  12. vanmorrissey - Mar 20, 2013 at 1:12 PM

    What an amazing story, so humble even with success. Bravo to him and his team, they deserve the accolades. And how some team does not pry him away as a manager is pretty unbelieveable. Those Royals teams were horrid, anyone could see that.

  13. ranoversquarells - Mar 20, 2013 at 1:13 PM

    If they don’t want that money, I’d be happy to collect it :)

  14. mdpickles - Mar 20, 2013 at 1:31 PM

    Thanks for sharing this story, Joe. I really enjoyed watching how excited the DR players and fans were to root for their countrymen. I am now a huge fan of the WBC after this past month.

  15. earpaniac - Mar 20, 2013 at 2:11 PM

    Joe, you have quickly become my favorite writer on this site. Keep up the good work!!

  16. dreamkafka - Mar 20, 2013 at 3:18 PM

    Pena didn’t quit the Royals; he was fired. It was reported as such in many places. Poz himself said he resigned suddenly in his original reporting. That’s behind a paywall but:
    http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/sports/baseball/al/royals/2005-05-11-pena-quits_x.htm
    http://seattletimes.com/html/mariners/2002270384_basegame11.html

    Also, it leaves out that Pena quits only hours after being served papers in a case where he was accused of breaking up a marriage.
    http://www.pitch.com/kansascity/together-we-cant/Content?oid=2177686

    The entire article is just an updated one Joe wrote for the Star back in 2003 which he reposted on his blog in 2010.
    http://joeposnanski.blogspot.com/2010/10/tony-pena-story.html

    • dreamkafka - Mar 20, 2013 at 3:37 PM

      I said it backwards. Pena wasn’t fired from the Royals, he quit.

      • forsch31 - Mar 21, 2013 at 11:44 AM

        >>>”The entire article is just an updated one Joe wrote for the Star back in 2003 which he reposted on his blog in 2010.”

        Only the last part of this post was from that story.And he refers to it at the end of this post.

  17. eoneil32 - Mar 20, 2013 at 7:39 PM

    Great read Joe!

  18. joewilliesshnoz - Mar 21, 2013 at 12:14 AM

    When he was a Bucco, he did a lot of community stuff for the little leagues in the area, a great guy and decent player.

  19. brownsapologist - Mar 21, 2013 at 6:15 AM

    1995, bottom of the 13th in game one of the ALDS against the Red Sox, he hit a walk off home run giving the Indians their first postseason win in 48 years. Later that night, he broke up 3 marriages

  20. nbjays - Mar 21, 2013 at 7:50 AM

    Another great Posnanski story that ends up making me teary-eyed by the end. I don’t know how you do it, Joe, but your posts are ALWAYS a great read. Thanks!

  21. harloringo - Apr 3, 2013 at 4:59 PM

    Great story, Joe — love the blog. I get a little defensive when I read the Royals had “nothing” in 2003 because they did have Beltran, Sweeney, Ibanez and Relaford (and a great bullpen with Affeldt, MacDougal and an illegally amplified Grimsley). They finished five games better than their Pythagoreon, and congrats to Tony Pena for that. And then again…
    I watched them that year, in early May. I interviewed George Brett and sat behind home plate a couple games and even tracked down a foul ball off the bat of Manny Ramirez. The Royals couldn’t have been nicer to a scribe from Billings (where Brett played his rookie ball). There was a huge tornado outbreak while I was there… All in all, a really memorable few days.
    But I also clearly remember how much better the Red Sox were than the Royals. I left with one of those “Nostromos Creemos” T-shirts, and I wanted to believe they’d hold off the Twins. But I think I knew better.

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