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.

Did Tony Clark sacrifice the future in order to make a deal now?

Tony Clark
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We broke down what we know of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement yesterday. Today Yahoo’s Jeff Passan has a far more in depth look at the various provisions in the deal and provides a lot of behind the scenes stuff about how MLB and the union got from A to B.

There’s a lot to chew on there. A lot of minutiae and money talk that, truth be told, most fans don’t care too much about, even if it does have repercussions for how teams do business and, eventually, the product they put on the field. Passan deals with almost all aspects of that, concluding that, while this deal will ensure baseball for the next five years, it may very well lay the groundwork for future labor strife and a possible increase in differences between baseball’s haves and baseball’s have-nots going forward.

You should read it all if you care about this stuff, but there are two takeaways I have from all of it that, I think, suggest serious trouble ahead. Maybe not this year or next, but in future player-owner negotiations: (1) the union, for the first time ever, agreed to a hard cap on player compensation, in the form of a hard limit on international player bonuses; and (2) the union agreed to major provisions without securing player consensus. Both of these developments are described by Passan thusly:

The desire of a vocal segment of players to avoid an international draft at all costs was abundantly clear, and ultimately – over the objection of a number of top players and officials – the union took that position: No deal until there’s no draft. MLB saw an opportunity and instead got the cost containment it desired without having to spend a penny on the infrastructure a draft would necessitate. The league asked for a hard cap on money spent internationally and couldn’t believe its fortune: The union acceded, a stunning reversal from past negotiations when a hard cap of any kind, be it on team salaries, draft spending or international money, was rejected outright.

I and many others had opposed an international draft, but that its avoidance came at the cost of a hard cap was surprising. And, as I noted yesterday, that the cap is as low as it is — $5-6 million — was equally surprising. The owners got the cost containment that they wanted, did nothing to address the concerns they claimed they had about the exploitation of amateurs, and, for the first time in history, got a hard cap on spending. Even draft bonus slotting, which has been in place for a while, has some give and take to it that the new cap does not have.

But I’m more surprised to see that the union was not in solidarity when it came to all of this. Passan quotes one player, who he says speaks for many, who said the international draft negotiation was “hijacked” by a subset of players and that there is great disunity as to how it all turned out. This is new territory for the Players Union. While there has been some infighting among players in recent years with respect to drug testing, there has never been public disunity when it comes to pocketbook matters. The MLBPA’s power — the very reason it was able to beat the owners for over 30 years straight and become, arguably, the most successful union in all of organized labor — came by virtue of its solidarity. A solidarity that seems to be unprecedentedly absent this time around.

For now, this may not matter. A deal is done and there will be baseball for the next five seasons. But it’s easy to smooth over disagreements when everyone is rich. Right now baseball is flush with cash and revenues are increasing. What happens if that stops?

What happens if, as some have predicted, the cable money stops flowing into baseball’s coffers? ESPN has lost over a million subscribers in the past two months. People are cutting cords. I have a lot of faith in cable companies, large broadcast networks and sports leagues to find new ways to sell sports to people and do not predict a shocking doomsday, but the model that has driven baseball’s revenue for the past decade or two is not etched in stone. There will be flux and, if more pessimistic predictions come to pass, there could be a serious disruption in baseball’s revenue streams. An RSN could very well declare bankruptcy or decide that it would cost them less to simply breach a contract with a club or the league than to continue to pay them. Whatever happens, the only constant in media over the past 25 years has been change and there is no law saying networks have to pay baseball teams a billion dollars to show baseball games.

So, flash forward five years and presume, for the moment, that baseball’s revenues have been flat or falling. And say the owners decide that it’s time to revive their 1980s-90s strategy of capping salaries for major league players. Sure, the players will fight it, but they’ve lost the ability to say that hard caps are, by definition, unacceptable. They’ve caved on the topic for the first time, thus making any case they would make to the owners and to their own rank and file that much harder to articulate. Why, might a 2021 union member who was subject to a cap in 2017 think, is a cap that only really affects some veterans on his club such a bad thing? Maybe it’s OK? And why, might an owner’s representative at the bargaining table think, should we believe that Tony Clark won’t cave now? He came off of Marvin Miller and Don Fehr’s hard line in 2016. Maybe he will again. It’s worth a try!

All of which makes more work for Clark and the union to fight serious threats if they are presented to them, and the harder you have to work to shore up your own side in a negotiation, the less power you have to fight the other side. Clark will have to expend far more effort to argue harder and to rally his own troops now that he doesn’t have a baseline principle to which everyone is in agreement. And if that “hijacked” sentiment Passan noted above is any indication, Clark showed that he was either unable to generate solidarity on an important matter this year or, more worrisome, that he was uninterested in doing so. Is there any guarantee that he can do a better job later, when the threats are greater?

As I noted at the beginning, it’s good that we will have baseball, uninterrupted, for the next five seasons. It’s good that a deal was done. But the more we learn about the new CBA, the more it seems that reaching that deal cost the union quite a bit in terms of solidarity and principle. The players may not have to pay much if anything for that now, but bills always have a way of coming due.

Breaking Down Today’s Game Hall of Fame Ballot: Davey Johnson

1990:  Manager Davey Johnson of the New York Mets looks on the field before a game in the 1990 season. ( Photo by: Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
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On Monday, December 5, the Today’s Game committee of the Baseball Hall of Fame — the replacement for the Veterans Committee which covers the years 1988-2016 — will vote on candidates for the 2017 induction class. This week we are looking at the ten candidates, one-by-one, to assess their Hall worthiness. Next up: Davey Johnson

The case for his induction:

As we note each year when the Manager of the Year Awards are announced, it’s hard to properly assess managers. A team’s performance is so heavily dependent on talent and health that it’s often difficult to determine what role a manager truly plays in its success. Bruce Bochy won three World Series titles in five seasons but the Giants disappointed in the second half of 2016. Did he suddenly forget how to manage? Of course not. Stuff happens.

Over time, however, it’s a bit easier. No, you can’t simply go on the number of titles a guy won, but patterns certainly emerge and a manager’s influence begins to reveal itself over decades. And there is a definite pattern for Davey Johnson: he, quite simply, won everywhere he went. Teams which hired hims saw marked improvement soon after he came on board and, for some reason, declined right after he left. Funny that.

Johnson managed for 17 seasons and won 1,372 games, posting a .562 winning percentage. He was twice named Manager of the Year. He won the 1986 World Series with the Mets, led his clubs to first place finishes in his division six times and second place finishes eight times, making the playoffs in six seasons overall. He would’ve likely won another division title and made another playoff appearance but for the strike-shortened 1994 season.

Johnson was on the scene as the Mets ascended to greatness and they descended into trash not long after he left. He did his best under a combustible owner in Cincinnati, managed to maintain the success Lou Piniella had there and the team got worse after he left. The Orioles were a sub-.500 team before he arrived, he took them to the playoffs twice, he left and they spent more than a decade in the wilderness. The Nationals made the playoffs for the first time after he took over. Only the Dodgers did not see dramatic improvement under Johnson, but nor did they really decline.

Johnson was also an innovator when it came to analytics. He was a big proponent of lineup optimization, using computers and math to do so way before his peers did. When it comes to platooning and putting players in niche roles which allowed them to maximize their talents, Johnson had few if any peers among his contemporaries. It was him and La Russa, really, with everyone else far behind.

The case against his induction:

His aggregate win total is pretty low compared to modern managers who have been inducted by the Veterans Committee, primarily due to his not managing anywhere from 2001 through 2010. If he had padded that resume with even sub-.500 clubs he’d have win totals which exceeded Casey Stengel, Walter Alston and Leo Durocher. As it is, he’s 31st all-time in wins, just below the still-active Terry Francona and just above Chuck Tanner. Even if his winning percentage is higher than the majority of managers ahead of him, those totals have harmed his case and make him pale compared to contemporaries like La Russa, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre. That’s an unfair standard — those three are among the all-time greats — but that’s who voters will likely compare him to. If he had two or three World Series titles he may have been able to overcome the win totals, but he doesn’t.

A second factor that also has a lot to do with optics as opposed to merit is that Johnson was seen as having great timing, having been hired by the Mets just as Frank Cashen assembled a killer roster of young talent and later being hired by teams which were already poised to win. That should not be held against Johnson — he could only manage the teams he was given — but some people have knocked him in the past for swooping into good situations as opposed to being on the ground floor of winning organizations. It’s dumb, but it’s a thing I’ve heard people say.

One other factor that may or may not play into this: Johnson had a difficult time getting along with the front offices who employed him, leading to short tenures in Cincinnati, Baltimore and Los Angeles. Personally I think not getting along with Marge Schott and Peter Angelos is a sign of good character, but it’s hard to avoid the fact that Johnson was a prickly character himself. Should that affect his Hall of Fame case? No. Will it? Maybe. Depends who is on the committee voting for him.

Would I vote for him?

I would. The only other manager who had the immediate impact Johnson had everywhere he went was Billy Martin. The guy just won and won in many different places under a lot of different circumstances. I wish we could point to some metric that definitively told us who was a good manager and who wasn’t, but in the absence of that I can’t help but look at Davey Johnson and say “man, that guy was a good manager.” One of the best of his era and, I feel, worthy of induction.

Will the Committee vote for him?

I’m pessimistic. Johnson’s win totals, extended absence in the 2000s and subsequent lack of disciples and proteges in the world of baseball make him feel like more of an outsider than a lot of other retired managers. His greatest exploits seem like they happened a long, long time ago and I feel like he has become under-appreciated as a result. I’ll be pleasantly surprised if he gets in, but suspect he will not.