Mar 20, 2013, 12:27 PM EST
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.
Dec 11, 2013, 12:06 AM EST
Bob Elliott cuts to the chase in the Toronto Sun: Colby Rasmus is on the market and has been offered to two teams by the Blue Jays for starting pitching. Toronto probably wants a good, cost-controlled starter in return for the 27-year-old Rasmus, who had an .840 OPS, 22 homers and 66 RBI in 118…
Dec 10, 2013, 11:14 PM EST
The Cardinals got most of their offseason shopping done early this year, but the club still wants to add a right-handed-hitting infielder to provide insurance behind young second baseman Kolten Wong. And there may be a specific target in mind. According to Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle, the Cards spoke to the agent…
Dec 10, 2013, 10:17 PM EST
Bob Nightengale of USA Today has the scoop on the Yankees’ reliever search … The #Yankees would love to grab two relievers and have had lots of internal discussions about Joaquin Benoit — Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) December 11, 2013 Benoit registered an exceptional 2.01 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and 73/22 K/BB ratio in 67 innings this…
Dec 10, 2013, 9:21 PM EST
From FOX Sports’ Jon Morosi comes word that the Cubs, Pirates, Royals and Braves are among the teams with interest in free agent Jason Hammel. The Giants requested the 31-year-old’s medical records at one point earlier this offseason, but they’ve apparently moved on after signing Tim Hudson and re-upping with Ryan Vogelsong. Hammel, who’s said…
Dec 10, 2013, 8:37 PM EST
Mark Mulder hasn’t pitched in a major league game since 2008 and chronic left shoulder issues robbed him of his ability to effectively retire batters by early 2006, but the veteran southpaw has been working on mechanical changes to his delivery between rounds of golf and he wants to sign with a team this winter…
Dec 10, 2013, 7:55 PM EST
Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post has the story: Let there be no confusion: [Ryan] Zimmerman will remain the Nationals’ everyday third baseman in 2014. But, Zimmerman confirmed Tuesday afternoon that the Nationals’ plans for him next season include spot duty at first base. Zimmerman will take some grounders at first base during spring training,…
Dec 10, 2013, 7:08 PM EST
As first reported by MLB.com’s Anthony DiComo, the Mets have re-signed right-hander Jeremy Hefner to a one-year contract. No word yet on the financials. Hefner was non-tendered by the Mets earlier this month after undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery in late August. He’s likely to sit out for the entire 2014 season, so this deal…
Dec 10, 2013, 6:43 PM EST
Now that the Diamondbacks have found their coveted power bat in Mark Trumbo, the club’s offseason focus has shifted to starting pitching. David Price of the Rays, Chris Sale of the White Sox and Jeff Samardzija of the Cubs are some of the names that have been frequently suggested, but ESPN’s Buster Olney says the…
Dec 10, 2013, 6:19 PM EST
Pirates lefty Justin Wilson was one of the best relievers in baseball in 2013, posting a 2.08 ERA in 73 2/3 innings while holding left-handed batters to a .200/.266/.235 line. That performance has apparently caught the attention of the rest of the big leagues. FOX Sports’ Jon Morosi tweets that the Pirates “have been overwhelmed…
Dec 10, 2013, 5:46 PM EST
A lot of managers are great in press conferences. It doesn’t mean they’ll be great in the dugout. But given the P.R. week the Seattle Mariners have had, I think having Lloyd McClendon speak off-the-cuff in a funny, smart and engaging way is a good thing. Here were two of his quotes from the press…
Dec 10, 2013, 5:27 PM EST
With second base now off limits for a good decade or so, the Mariners have to be open to moving Dustin Ackley and/or Nick Franklin. According to CBS Sports.com’s Jon Heyman, the Mets, Padres and Yankees have already inquired about Ackley. Ackley, the second overall pick in the 2009 draft, has hit a modest .245/.315/.354…
Dec 10, 2013, 5:14 PM EST
Major League Baseball has apparently made it its mission to reduce the amount of money teams can spend on international and amateur talent. There are now hard caps and slots and it has made it much harder for teams to build on the cheap as opposed to going out into the free agent market. Because,…
Dec 10, 2013, 4:43 PM EST
All the Brett Anderson rumors can stop swirling now: Oakland has traded the left-hander to Colorado in exchange for left-hander Drew Pomeranz and right-hander Chris Jensen, according to Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com. Anderson has been mostly injured since mid-2011, throwing just 80 innings during the past two seasons, but he’s still just 25 years old…
Dec 10, 2013, 4:36 PM EST
Bengie Molina left his position as Cardinals assistant hitting coach to take a job on the Rangers’ coaching staff and now Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post Dispatch reports that David Bell will replace him in St. Louis. Bell retired in 2006 after playing 12 seasons in the majors, including four years with the…
Dec 10, 2013, 4:15 PM EST
Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports that the Rangers are interested in free agent right-hander Bartolo Colon, but that they’re not willing to go beyond a one-year deal. I’d be wary of Colon on anything more than a year-to-year basis too, but given that the Mets, Mariners, Orioles and Royals have all expressed some…
Dec 10, 2013, 4:02 PM EST
Making an already busy day for Arizona even busier, Buster Olney of ESPN.com reports that the Diamondbacks have offered former Yankees right-hander Joba Chamberlain a one-year, $3 million deal. Presumably the Diamondbacks would use Chamberlain as a reliever given that he hasn’t started a game since 2009. He had a 4.93 ERA in 42 innings…
Dec 10, 2013, 3:21 PM EST
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman was a guest on MLB Network Radio from the winter meetings and dropped an interesting tidbit about the Robinson Cano negotiations, saying that Cano’s representatives made New York a counter-offer to re-sign for $235 million. Numerous reports throughout the offseason suggested that Cashman and the Yankees wouldn’t go beyond around…
Dec 10, 2013, 3:00 PM EST
3:00 p.m. EST update: A source told the Arizona Republic’s Nick Piecoro that the deal is done. The Diamondbacks will get Trumbo and two players to be named, and they give outfielder Adam Eaton to the White Sox and left-hander Tyler Skaggs to the Angels. Left-hander Hector Santiago will go from Chicago to Anaheim. Trumbo…
Dec 10, 2013, 2:57 PM EST
LAKE BUENA VISTA, FL — The thing about the Winter Meetings is that, if you have some silly idea, there are a lot of people around you drinking cocktails, convincing you that the idea is not silly. That, to the contrary, it’s important and vital and if you don’t follow through with that idea, you’re…
Dec 10, 2013, 2:44 PM EST
Pirates center fielder and NL MVP Andrew McCutchen is a guest on Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show today, but first … Cutch gettin some diva work in today to prep for @TheEllenShow @TheCUTCH22 @Pirates pic.twitter.com/vd5zuGxR6r — John Fuller (@fullerjoh) December 10, 2013 Follow @AaronGleeman
- Rockies acquire Brett Anderson from A’s 11
- D’backs, Angels, White Sox agree to three-team Mark Trumbo deal 62
- Ranking MLB managers by . . . handsomeness 74
- Curtis Granderson: “A lot of people have told me real New Yorkers are Mets fans” 60
- The Phillies have told teams they’d trade Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels 53
- Robinson Cano agrees to $240 million deal with Mariners (260)
- Report: Mariners willing to offer Robinson Cano a 10-year, $240 million deal (143)
- Report: Yankees have agreed to a three-year deal with Carlos Beltran (125)
- Brett Gardner is drawing “significant” trade interest (113)
- Robinson Cano “didn’t want to play” for Joe Girardi (110)