The Power of Tony Pena

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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.

A second study confirms that home runs are up due to a change in the baseball

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Two weeks ago Ben Lindbergh and Mitchel Lichtman released their study at The Ringer which convincingly argues that changes in the composition and construction of the baseball is responsible for the dramatic spike in home runs we’ve seen since the middle of the 2015 season. Yesterday their work was corroborated.

Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight, who had last year conducted a study with Lindbergh which proved inconclusive on the matter, has revisited the baseballs as well. Specifically, he used baseball’s data with respect the speed of the ball when it is released from a pitcher’s hand and when it crosses the plate and, based on the loss in velocity in that short period, calculated the ball’s drag coefficient. From that he could compare the drag on the ball from before mid-2015 and the drag since mid-2015.

His conclusion: there has been a significant decrease in the drag on baseballs over the past two years and that decreased drag can account for about five feet of carry on a given fly ball. That, in turn, would account for a 10-15% spike in home runs on average, and a bigger spike in any given month depending on other factors. Arthur:

It’s highly unlikely that we’d see that kind of difference by chance without a real change to the ball: The monthly variation in estimated drag coefficients in the past five seasons varied from around 0.34 to 0.355, a far wider range than we’d expect from random variance alone. In total, the practical effect of shifting from a high-drag month to a low-drag month could be around a 30 percent difference in home run rates.

Arthur cautions us not to become conspiracy theorists here. The change in the ball need not be nefarious as even small alterations in the manufacturing process could lead to these changes. At the same time, he reminds us, that we should ignore MLB’s statements that the balls still fall under the league’s manufacturing requirements and performance parameters, because those parameters are quite broad and allow for these significant variations in ball flight. Even if no one is intentionally doing this and even if the balls are officially up to snuff, they can nonetheless have changed significantly and are the likely culprit for the dramatic home run spike.

Stepping back from the research, this makes a lot of sense. As we’ve noted in the past, there is a long and rich history of changes — even slight changes — to baseball composition leading to dramatic increases and decreases in offensive levels. The dead ball era ended, in large part, because different wool was used beginning in 1919. The National League changed balls in order to intentionally boost offense in 1930 and it worked almost too well. There was a change of baseball manufacturers in the late 1970s which led to a mini spike. 1987 was the year of the so-called “rabbit ball.” That was never fully explained, but there are strong suspicions that Major League Baseball messed with the ball that year.

Other factors matter — new parks with shorter porches, batters making a point to swing with an uppercut, diluted pitching, PEDs, etc. — but none are as significant as changes to the ball itself and none account for the almost immediate spike in homers in the middle of the 2015 season.

Anyway, enjoy the dingers. They’re here to stay. Or at least until the baseballs change again.

 

And That Happened: Wednesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Nationals 8, Cubs 4: Stephen Strasburg struck out 13 Cubs in seven innings on a day when they had to cut Miguel Montero to head off clubhouse strife and had to meet Donald Trump. Opinions may vary as to which of those — the Ks, the strife or the Trump — was the worst part. Washington built a 5-0 lead after two innings and a 6-0 lead after three. Anthony Rendon, Matt Wieters and Daniel Murphy all homered for Washington. Trea Turner stole a base. Willson Contreras managed not to slam his teammates for it afterward, so I guess that’s progress. The Cubs have lost four of six and are back down to .500. Oh, and they lost Kris Bryant to an ankle sprain. That may actually be the worst thing about the day.

Pirates 6, Rays 2: Josh Bell homered, Jose Osuna doubled twice and drove in two runs and Elias Diaz added two hits and drove in two of his own. Bell’s homer tied a rookie record for the Pirates: he’s only the second Buccos rookie, after Ralph Kiner, to have 15 homers before the All-Star break. After the game he said this:

“It’s cool to be mentioned in the same sentence as a great like that,” Bell said. “So hopefully more to come. Just going to keep trucking along.”

It’s cool that he knows who Ralph Kiner is. But does he know who Jerry Seinfeld is?

Phillies 5, Mariners 4: Down 4-3 in the ninth, the Phillies rallied for two, coming via a home run from Tommy Joseph and an RBI single from Tyler Knapp. The M’s lose both games of the short, two-game series and have now lost four in a row. Every time they look like they’re about to right the ship, they seem to get blown off course.

Giants 5, Rockies 3: Jae-Gyun Hwang got called up just before he would’ve been able to opt out of his deal with San Francisco and head back to Korea where he could make some serious bank. But he debuted yesterday and wouldn’t you know it he hit a tie-breaking homer in the sixth inning. Welcome to the majors. After the game his teammates gave him a beer shower. He said “I was actually more surprised about how cold the beer was.” Welcome to America.

Yankees 12, White Sox 3: A good day for rookies making their big league debut, as Miguel Andujar — an infielder, playing DH last night — had three hits and drove in four. Aaron Judge, a grizzled old man by comparison, hit his 27th homer. Masahiro Tanaka allowed two runs over six as the Yankees romped.

Mets 8, Marlins 0: Steven Matz — an uninjured Mets starter — tossed seven shutout innings and Asdrubal Cabrera and Curtis Granderson each hit two-run homers. The Mets have 50 homers in June, the most in a calendar month by any team since 2006. They’re also 12-14 in June, so it takes more than homers I suppose.

Astros 11, Athletics 8: Josh Reddick and George Springer had three hits each and combined for five RBI. The A’s hit five homers with two from Khris Davis — who hits two homers all the dang time, it seems –and one each from Ryon Healy, Matt Olson and Jed Lowrie. The A’s also struck out 17 times so it takes more than homers I suppose.

Blue Jays 4, Orioles 0: Marcus Stroman pitched five-hit ball into the eighth inning and Jose Bautista and Justin Smoak homered. Bautista later knocked in a run on a fielder’s choice. Bautista has been hitting leadoff for a little over a week. He’s 11-for-29 with a couple of homers, six RBI and four walks. Not too shabby.

Twins 4, Red Sox 1: Rookie lefty Adalberto Mejia shut out the Sox for five and two-thirds innings and the Twins bullpen was steady. Max Kepler singled in a run and hit a two-run shot. That’s Mejia’s second scoreless start, having blanked the Indians for five innings a in his last outing. Those are two good offenses to be shutting out.

Indians 5, Rangers 3: Trevor Bauer outdueled Yu Darvish, allowing one run over six and a third to Darvish’s three runs — two earned — over six. All of the Indians runs came on RBI singles, two from Michael Brantley. Texas mounted a mini rally in the ninth off of Cody Allen via an Elvis Andrus homer and a Rougned Odor RBI single, but it was little, too late.

Royals 8, Tigers 2: Sal Perez and Alex Gordon each drove in three, Perez with a two-run homer and an RBI double, Gordon with a single, a double and a run scoring groundout. Mike Moustakas went deep as well, as part of a four-run fourth inning. Ian Kennedy allowed two runs over seven steady innings. Kansas City is only two and a half back in the Central.

Reds 4, Brewers 3: Down 2-1 in the third, Scooter Gennett hit a two-run homer to put the Reds ahead, but Travis Shaw tied it at three late in the game with a homer. Billy Hamilton helped manufacture the go-ahead run, however, leading off the bottom of the eighth with a walk, stealing second, stealing third and that scoring on Adam Duvall‘s infield single. That’s what speed do. Bad news for the Brewers, as they lost starter Chase Anderson to a strained oblique in the second inning.

Cardinals 4, Diamondbacks 3Adam Wainwright pitched into the seventh inning, allowing two runs, and Yadier Molina and Jedd Gyorko each drove in two. Trevor Rosenthal got the save, but it was rocky as he uncorked a couple of wild pitches and allowed a run. This a game after he allowed two runs and the Cards bullpen blew a late lead and the game. There’s always something to worry about in baseball, even if you win.

Angels 3, Dodgers 2: Down 2-0 in the eighth, Trayce Thompson homered and down 2-1 in the ninth Yasmani Grandal homered to tie things up for the Dodgers. Then, in the ninth, the dang wheels came off. Ben Revere reached on an error and then reached second base on a wild pitch by Pedro Baez. Baez bore down to strike out Cameron Maybin for the inning’s second out, but the ball got away from Grandal, Maybin sprinted for first and then Grandal threw the ball away, allowing Revere to score all the way from second. What a way to lose a game.

Padres 7, Braves 4: Luis Perdomo pitched five scoreless innings and Hunter Renfroe and Cory Spangenberg each knocked in two. Bartolo Colon came back off the DL and allowed six runs over four innings to lose it. Guys: his injury was not an oblique or whatever the Braves said it was. He was suffering from acute puncture wounds due to the giant fork stuck in his back and severe burns because the man is toast.