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.
Jul 23, 2014, 10:25 PM EDT
Kyle Bogenschutz of Scout.com and Detroit’s 97.1 The Ticket reports that the Tigers have acquired reliever Joakim Soria from the Rangers for pitching prospects Jake Thompson and Corey Knebel. FOX Sports’ Jon Morosi says the deal is only pending physical exams.
Jul 23, 2014, 9:44 PM EDT
As we covered earlier, St. Louis got a bonus pick for the 2015 First-Year Player Draft (just after the first round) in Wednesday’s Competitive Balance Lottery. And it’s not sitting too well with an executive of the Cardinals’ traditional rival — Cubs president Theo Epstein.
Jul 23, 2014, 8:58 PM EDT
Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, who’s currently rehabbing from thumb surgery, sent a couple packs of crackers to home plate Wednesday for his older brother Jose.
Jul 23, 2014, 8:05 PM EDT
CSNPhilly.com’s Jim Salisbury has heard from sources that the Phillies are considering cutting ties with struggling first baseman Ryan Howard after this season, despite the fact that he’s owed $60 million in guaranteed money.
Jul 23, 2014, 7:19 PM EDT
Pirates outfielder Starling Marte took a pitch off his helmet last Friday night. A concussion was initially ruled out — the Bucs were instead calling it “head trauma” — but now there’s this …
Jul 23, 2014, 6:24 PM EDT
As first reported by Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Cardinals have decided to move Shelby Miller back into the starting rotation and Carlos Martinez to the bullpen for their upcoming three-game series at Wrigley Field. Miller will start Saturday afternoon against the Cubs.
Jul 23, 2014, 5:33 PM EDT
Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic has some enlightening numbers about what’s gone wrong with the Diamondbacks.
Jul 23, 2014, 5:17 PM EDT
Springer got off to a slow start following his mid-April call-up and his strikeout total leads the league, but he’s smacked 20 homers with a .900 OPS in 61 games since early May to rank as one of the league’s better all-around players during that span.
Jul 23, 2014, 4:46 PM EDT
Matt Guerrier began this week with a nice-looking 2.67 ERA in 26 appearances for the Twins, but a 12/8 K/BB ratio in 27 innings showed that he was anything but impressive.
Jul 23, 2014, 4:16 PM EDT
Ruiz hit poorly on a minor-league rehab assignment at Single-A, going 3-for-17 (.176) with three strikeouts and one walk in five games, but he’s avoided any post-concussion symptoms and the Phillies are convinced he’s ready to return.
The poor, downtrodden Cardinals receive a bonus pick in next year’s draft thanks to the Competitive Balance Lottery
Jul 23, 2014, 4:01 PM EDT
Small market/small revenue teams get an extra pick. At least some of them.
Jul 23, 2014, 3:10 PM EDT
I’m guessing this is not a prank by the Padres minor leaguers.
Jul 23, 2014, 2:48 PM EDT
Don’t worry. He escaped through the ceiling.
Jul 23, 2014, 1:48 PM EDT
Kelly Johnson isn’t as needed in the Yankees’ lineup following the trade for Chase Headley and now he won’t be available at all for a while, as the utility man has been placed on the disabled list with a strained groin.
Jul 23, 2014, 1:35 PM EDT
From the “no duh” files
Jul 23, 2014, 1:23 PM EDT
As expected Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman has been placed on the disabled list after injuring his hamstring during last night’s game.
Jul 23, 2014, 12:30 PM EDT
David Price? Cliff Lee? And to where?
Jul 23, 2014, 12:16 PM EDT
Tom Glavine crafted his Hall of Fame career with plenty of skill and wit.
Jul 23, 2014, 12:16 PM EDT
So when are Javier Baez and Kris Bryant getting here?
Jul 23, 2014, 11:51 AM EDT
After back-to-back terrible seasons Jeff Francoeur’s chances of returning to the majors looked so bleak that last month he decided to take up pitching at Triple-A for the Padres’ affiliate, but now San Diego is actually calling him up and presumably he’ll mostly serve as an outfielder.
- Tigers acquire closer Joakim Soria from the Rangers 9
- Phillies officials “have contemplated the possibility of paying off” and releasing Ryan Howard 29
- The dizzying intellect of Tom Glavine 17
- Verducci: baseball should think about an “illegal defense” rule to combat shifts 158
- Chase Headley plays the hero in his first game in pinstripes 30
- And That Happened: Tuesday’s scores and highlights 29
- Rockies place Troy Tulowitzki on the disabled list 18
- Rob Manfred “heavily favored” to be Bud Selig’s replacement 29
- Verducci: baseball should think about an “illegal defense” rule to combat shifts (158)
- Luke Scott released from Korean team after calling coach a “liar” and a “coward” (108)
- Yankees acquire Chase Headley from Padres (108)
- Who is the next Face of Baseball? (97)
- David Ortiz passes Carl Yastrzemski on the all-time home run list — is he a Hall of Famer? (92)