Mar 20, 2013, 12:27 PM EDT
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.
Apr 23, 2014, 10:38 PM EDT
Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright was pulled at 79 pitches on Tuesday at Citi Field after taking an off step while trying to track down a high-chopper on the infield. He was then diagnosed with a hyperextended right knee, but it sounds like a rather minor injury.
Apr 23, 2014, 9:25 PM EDT
As first reported by Los Angeles Times beat writer Dylan Hernandez, Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw has been cleared to begin a minor league rehab assignment Friday night with the High-A Rancho Cucamonga Quakes of the California League.
Apr 23, 2014, 8:13 PM EDT
Yankees starter Michael Pineda was very clearly using pine tar to get a better grip on his pitches during an April 10 start against the rival Red Sox. He tried it again in his start Wednesday night at a blistery Fenway Park and got caught red-handed.
Apr 23, 2014, 7:59 PM EDT
On May 21, the Angels will give away a bobblehead commemorating Albert Pujols’ 500th career home run, which he hit Tuesday night at Nationals Park.
Apr 23, 2014, 7:04 PM EDT
Tracy McGrady is going to try pitching in an independent baseball league after wrapping up his 15-year NBA career last August.
Apr 23, 2014, 6:17 PM EDT
According to beat writer Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic, Diamondbacks left fielder Mark Trumbo has been diagnosed with a stress fracture in his left foot. Trumbo is headed back to Phoenix, Arizona to have the foot examined by a specialist so that the D’Backs can get a better idea of the injury’s severity.
Apr 23, 2014, 5:02 PM EDT
Another sad chapter in Josh Johnson’s injury wrecked career, as the right-hander will undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery without ever throwing a regular season pitch for the Padres.
Apr 23, 2014, 4:06 PM EDT
Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels is off the disabled list and will make his season debut tonight against the Dodgers after sitting out the first three weeks with biceps tendinitis.
Apr 23, 2014, 3:50 PM EDT
Albert Pujols entered baseball’s history books after belting his 500th home run, but with seven years remaining on his deal in Los Angeles, HBT’s Craig Calcaterra wonders how high of a level Pujols must continue to play at in order to call his deal a success.
Apr 23, 2014, 3:01 PM EDT
Sammy Sosa hit 293 homers at Wrigley Field, but the Cubs are trying to make people forget that happened.
Apr 23, 2014, 2:30 PM EDT
Matt Harrison will come off the disabled list and start Sunday for the Rangers, seeing his first big-league game action in more than a year following multiple back surgeries and Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.
Apr 23, 2014, 1:35 PM EDT
Daniel Nava is headed to the minors one season after hitting .303.
Apr 23, 2014, 1:05 PM EDT
Nick Franklin is trying to find a way into the Mariners’ lineup.
Apr 23, 2014, 12:16 PM EDT
Jesse Crain hasn’t thrown a pitch in a game since June 29 and it doesn’t look like that will be changing any time soon.
Apr 23, 2014, 11:36 AM EDT
It’s been an awful start for the Snakes. Awful enough to get someone fired?
Apr 23, 2014, 11:19 AM EDT
Brewers pitching prospect Johnny Hellweg, who was acquired from the Angels as part of the Zack Greinke swap in July of 2012, has been diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament and is expected to undergo Tommy John elbow surgery.
Apr 23, 2014, 11:02 AM EDT
Mariners right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma was expected to begin a minor-league rehab assignment this week as he comes back from a spring training finger injury, but instead the team had him throw a 58-pitch simulated game yesterday.
Apr 23, 2014, 10:48 AM EDT
Fenway may be the site of more accomplishments, but it’s easier to see ourselves in Wrigley Field.
Apr 23, 2014, 10:15 AM EDT
San Diego is looking to trade one-time starting catcher Nick Hundley.
Apr 23, 2014, 9:29 AM EDT
Not the best call by instant replay officials in the system’s brief history.
- Clayton Kershaw cleared to begin rehab assignment on Friday at High-A Rancho Cucamonga 1
- Michael Pineda ejected in second inning for pine tar on neck, facing a 10-game suspension 82
- Mark Trumbo diagnosed with stress fracture in foot 7
- Josh Johnson needs a second Tommy John surgery 21
- Sammy Sosa wasn’t invited to Wrigley Field’s 100th birthday 45
- Josh Lueke is a rapist. How often does that bear repeating? (200)
- Benches clear in Pittsburgh after the Brewers’ Carlos Gomez bat flips a third-inning triple (183)
- “They Don’t Know Henry” (169)
- Michael Pineda ejected in second inning for pine tar on neck, facing a 10-game suspension (115)
- Chipper Jones chimed in on the Carlos Gomez incident (111)