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.
May 18, 2013, 2:45 PM EDT
With Johnny Cueto slated to return from a lat strain on Monday, the Reds have optioned left-hander Tony Cingrani back to Triple-A Louisville. Neftali Solo has been called up to take his place on the active roster. Cingrani was pretty impressive during his first stint in the majors, posting a 3.27 ERA and 41/9 K/BB…
May 18, 2013, 2:02 PM EDT
Nolan Reimold hasn’t played in a game in a week and now the Orioles have placed him on the disabled list with a right hamstring strain. Reimold has been nursing a hamstring issue since the first week of the season, but he has remained on the active roster until now. However, it’s likely a big…
May 18, 2013, 1:30 PM EDT
The Yankees designated infielder Alberto Gonzalez for assignment this afternoon in order to make room for the newly-acquired Reid Brignac. Some thought that Ben Francisco‘s roster spot could be in jeopardy, as he’s hitting just .114 (5-for-44) in 21 games, but Yankees general manager Brian Cashman joked to reporters today that he’s keeping him around…
May 18, 2013, 12:40 PM EDT
Matt Garza has been cleared to return from the disabled list and will make his season debut Tuesday against the Pirates, according to CSNChicago.com. Garza didn’t throw a pitch after July 21 last season due to a stress reaction in his elbow and was forced to begin this season on the disabled list due to…
May 18, 2013, 11:50 AM EDT
CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reports that the Yankees have acquired infielder Reid Brignac from the Rockies. Colorado will receive cash considerations in return. Brignac was designated for assignment by the Rockies on Thursday after he batted .250/.294/.375 with one home run, six RBI and a .669 OPS in 53 plate appearances this season. Originally drafted…
May 18, 2013, 11:27 AM EDT
Curtis Granderson was moved to left field when he returned from the disabled list this week, but he’ll make his first career start in right field this afternoon against the Blue Jays. According to Chad Jennings of the Journal News, Yankees manager Joe Girardi said Granderson was “fine” with the latest move when they discussed…
May 18, 2013, 10:59 AM EDT
It turns out that Diamondbacks reliever Heath Bell made his return to Marlins Park on Thursday night, not for last night’s series opener. According to Steve Gilbert of MLB.com, Bell said that he took in Thursday’s Reds-Marlins game from the stands. The D-backs arrived in Miami in the wee hours Thursday morning and Bell took…
May 18, 2013, 10:35 AM EDT
The Marlins signed veteran reliever Jon Rauch to a one-year, $1 million contract over the winter, but he has been designated for assignment after making just 15 appearances with the club. Duane Below has been called up from Triple-A New Orleans to replace him on the active roster. Rauch has really struggled in the early…
May 18, 2013, 10:09 AM EDT
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May 18, 2013, 9:32 AM EDT
The Astros aren’t just losing a ton of ballgames, they are losing ugly. After Edgar Gonzalez pitched himself into a bases-loaded jam with two outs in the bottom of the ninth last night against the Pirates, he induced a fairly innocent looking pop-up to shallow right field which would have sent the game into extra…
May 18, 2013, 8:58 AM EDT
After tossing a one-hit shutout against the Angels in his last start on Sunday, Chris Sale got the best of them again last night. Sale struck out a season-high 12 over 7 2/3 scoreless innings as the White Sox topped the Angels 3-0 at Angel Stadium. The 24-year-old southpaw gave up just three hits and…
May 17, 2013, 11:55 PM EDT
MLB.com Twins beat writer Rhett Bollinger spoke to Twins assistant GM Rob Antony, asking how Rich Harden’s rehab was going. Antony replied, ”Slow. Not very well to be honest with you.” The Twins signed Harden to a one-year Minor League contract in December, agreeing to pay him $1 million if he made it to the Majors.…
May 17, 2013, 11:25 PM EDT
Jose Reyes is making progress on an ankle injury suffered on April 12 against the Royals. MLB.com’s Gregor Chisholm reports the shortstop had a walking boot removed and talk part in stretching prior to tonight’s game against the Yankees. Another surprising piece of news: Reyes was expected to be out until the All-Star break, but…
May 17, 2013, 11:00 PM EDT
You’re probably not going to see a prettier grand slam this season, folks. With his team down 4-2 in the bottom of the sixth inning against Dodgers reliever Paco Rodriguez, Braves left fielder Justin Upton crushed a 1-1 fastball deep to left field to give the Braves a 6-4 lead. ESPN Stats & Info reported…
May 17, 2013, 10:25 PM EDT
Phillies third base coach Ryne Sandberg is expected to be the next Phillies manager if and when the Charlie Manuel era ends. Sandberg started his playing career with the Phillies but went to the Cubs in the infamous Ivan de Jesus trade in 1982, arguably one of the worst trades in baseball history. With the…
May 17, 2013, 9:55 PM EDT
Recently, Padres third baseman Chase Headley said he won’t negotiate a contract extension with the team during the season. Headley is eligible for his fourth year of arbitration going into 2014, after which he would become eligible for free agency. Headley has, for a while, been one of the most bandied-about names in trade rumors,…
May 17, 2013, 9:20 PM EDT
At the end of March, the Diamondbacks unceremoniously signed first baseman Paul Goldschmidt to a five-year, $32 million contract extension. Just seven weeks later, that contract is looking like a steal. The 25-year-old entered tonight’s game with ten home runs and a 1.013 OPS, marks that not only put him near the top among first…
May 17, 2013, 8:55 PM EDT
Derek Albin at Pinstriped Bible looked at the numbers and concluded that Yankees right fielder Ichiro Suzuki isn’t likely to be much more productive than he has been thus far in 2013. The 39-year-old has a .239/.280/.328 line in 145 trips to the plate, putting him on pace for the worst season of his career…
May 17, 2013, 8:15 PM EDT
The Pirates aren’t known as one of the more Sabermetrically-savvy teams like the Rays and Athletics, but they do have Dan Fox (formerly of Baseball Prospectus) as the director of baseball systems development. Thanks to Fox and others, the Pirates are able to use stat reports to prepare lineups and pitching match-ups with greater specificity. SB…
May 17, 2013, 7:45 PM EDT
Mark Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times says that although the Rays haven’t announced anything officially, prospect Jake Odorizzi is likely to replace the injured David Price in the starting rotation. The Rays placed their defending AL Cy Young award winner on the disabled list yesterday with a strained left triceps muscle, an injury they…
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