Dominican Republic manager Pena holds his country's flag before playing the Netherlands in their semi-final round of World Baseball Classic in San Francisco

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.

Ichiro was happy to see Pete Rose get defensive about his hits record

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 14:  Ichiro Suzuki #51 of the Miami Marlins warms-up during batting practice before a baseball game against the San Diego Padres at PETCO Park on June 14, 2016 in San Diego, California.   (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)
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You’ll recall the little controversy last month when Ichiro Suzuki passed Pete Rose’s hit total. Specifically, when Ichiro’s Japanese and American hit total reached Rose’s American total of 4,256 and a lot of people talked about Ichiro being the new “Hit King.” You’ll also recall that Rose himself got snippy about it, wondering if people would now think of him as “the Hit Queen,” which he took to be disrespect.

There’s a profile of Ichiro over at ESPN the Magazine and reporter Marly Rivera asked Ichiro about that. Ichiro’s comments were interesting and quite insightful about how ego and public perception work in the United States:

I was actually happy to see the Hit King get defensive. I kind of felt I was accepted. I heard that about five years ago Pete Rose did an interview, and he said that he wished that I could break that record. Obviously, this time around it was a different vibe. In the 16 years that I have been here, what I’ve noticed is that in America, when people feel like a person is below them, not just in numbers but in general, they will kind of talk you up. But then when you get up to the same level or maybe even higher, they get in attack mode; they are maybe not as supportive. I kind of felt that this time.

There’s a hell of a lot of truth to that. Whatever professional environment you’re in, you’ll see this play out. If you want to know how you’re doing, look at who your enemies and critics are. If they’re senior to you or better-established in your field, you’re probably doing something right. And they’re probably pretty insecure and maybe even a little afraid of you.

The rest of the article is well worth your time. Ichiro seems like a fascinating, insightful and intelligent dude.

There will be no criminal charges arising out of Curt Schilling’s video game debacle

Curt Schilling
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In 2012 Curt Schilling’s video game company, 38 Studios, delivered the fantasy role-playing game it had spent millions of dollars and countless man hours trying to deliver. And then the company folded, leaving both its employees and Rhode Island taxpayers, who underwrote much of the company’s operations via $75 million in loans, holding the bag.

The fallout to 38 Studios’ demise was more than what you see in your average business debacle. Rhode Island accused Schilling and his company of acts tantamount to fraud, claiming that it accepted tax dollars while withholding information about the true state of the company’s finances. Former employees, meanwhile, claimed — quite credibly, according to reports of the matter — that they too were lured to Rhode Island believing that their jobs were far more secure than they were. Many found themselves in extreme states of crisis when Schilling abruptly closed the company’s doors. For his part, Schilling has assailed Rhode Island politicians for using him as a scapegoat and a political punching bag in order to distract the public from their own misdeeds. There seems to be truth to everyone’s claims to some degree.

As a result of all of this, there have been several investigations and lawsuits into 38 Studios’ collapse. In 2012 the feds investigated the company and declined to bring charges. There is currently a civil lawsuit afoot and, alongside it, the State of Rhode Island has investigated for four years to see if anyone could be charged with a crime. Today there was an unexpected press conference in which it was revealed that, no, no one associated with 38 Studios will be charged with anything:

An eight-page explanation of the decision concluded by saying that “the quantity and qualify of the evidence of any criminal activity fell short of what would be necessary to prove any allegation beyond a reasonable doubt and as such the Rules of Professional Conduct precluded even offering a criminal charge for grand jury consideration.”

Schilling will likely crow about this on his various social media platforms, claiming it totally vindicates him. But, as he is a close watcher of any and all events related to Hillary Clinton, he no doubt knows that a long investigation resulting in a declination to file charges due to lack of evidence is not the same thing as a vindication. Bad judgment and poor management are still bad things, even if they’re not criminal matters.

Someone let me know if Schilling’s head explodes if and when someone points that out to him.