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.

And That Happened: Saturday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the rest of Saturday’s scores and highlights:

Athletics 10, White Sox 2: Matt Olson, Jaycob Brugman and Franklin Barreto stole the spotlight on Saturday, going deep for the first home runs of their respective major league careers. Not only was it a franchise first for the Athletics, but it was the first time three rookies accomplished the feat for any major league team to date. The last trio to pull it off did so for the Kansas City Packers of the Federal League, when Duke Kenworthy, Art Kruger and John Potts went yard for their first home runs in 1914.

Lost in all the mayhem? James Shieldscareer 2,000th strikeout, a 1-2 knuckle curveball that caught Khris Davis looking to end the second inning.

Rangers 8, Yankees 1: Aaron Judge may be unstoppable, but the Yankees are not. The rookie slugger collected his league-best 26th home run on Saturday afternoon, putting the Yankees on the board with a solo shot during the sixth inning.

It was a mistake Texas’ right-hander Austin Bibens-Dirkx wouldn’t make again, shutting down four of the next five batters he faced and leaving the bullpen to polish off the win with two scoreless frames.

Royals 3, Blue Jays 2: Jason Vargas may not have the pinpoint control of Ivan Nova or the sheer strikeout power of Chris Sale, but as of Saturday afternoon, he now owns the best record in the American League. He cruised to his 11th win against the Blue Jays, spinning seven innings of two-run ball and striking out just two of 27 batters. Marco Estrada matched him pitch for pitch, but lost the edge after Alex Gordon tripled to break the 2-2 tie in the seventh.

Nationals 18, Reds 3: It’s safe to say this was not the season debut Homer Bailey had been anticipating. The veteran right-hander was activated from the 60-day disabled list on Saturday and lasted just 1 2/3 innings against the Nationals’ blistering offensive drive. A six-run second inning forced Bailey’s early exit and brought his ERA to a bloated 43.20 mark after he surrendered eight runs on six hits and two walks. Trea Turner and Michael Taylor were the centerpiece of the Nationals’ 18-run drubbing, combining for nine hits, two home runs and five RBI as the Nats coasted to their 45th win of the year.

Orioles 8, Rays 3: Goodbye, ugly losing streak. Hello, Dylan Bundy. The Orioles pulled within five games of the division lead on Saturday, giving up fewer than five runs for the first time since June 2. Bundy led the charge, issuing three runs on five hits and four walks and striking out eight over seven innings for his eighth win of the season. An explosive four-run effort propelled the club to a comfortable lead in the seventh inning, while Manny Machado‘s eighth-inning sac fly put the finishing touches on an 8-3 finale.

Cubs 5, Marlins 3: After 12 years in the majors, Cubs’ veteran lefty Jon Lester still had some career firsts left to record — including his first win against the Marlins. He cut through Miami’s lineup with expert precision during Saturday’s win, giving up a J.T. Realmuto home run in the first inning and settling down to retire 18 of the next 20 batters he faced. The next team on his list? The Red Sox, whom the Cubs are not scheduled to face this season (barring a chance meeting in the World Series, of course).

Braves 3, Brewers 1: Is R.A. Dickey… good again? The knuckleballer commanded his third quality start on Saturday, squelching the Brewers’ offense with just one run and six strikeouts over seven innings. His only snafu came in the first inning, when he turned to pick off Travis Shaw at third base and was instead penalized with a balk, his first of the year.

The Freeze, meanwhile, was not nearly as successful as his parent club, missing the finish line by mere inches during the customary between-inning sprint around the warning track.

Twins 4, Indians 2: There’s nothing more tragic than a solid pitching effort gone to waste. Corey Kluber allowed two runs and fanned 13 batters for his fifth quality start and second no-decision of the month, dropping what looked like a guaranteed win after Brian Dozier and Chris Gimenez reclaimed the lead with a pair of home runs in the eighth and ninth.

Angels 6, Red Sox 3: Not everyone was as delighted about Kole Calhoun‘s run-scoring balk as the Angels were. Calhoun plated a run in the seventh inning after Fernando Abad stopped his delivery on a 3-1 pitch, boosting the Angels’ lead to three runs and eventually securing their 6-3 win. Neither Abad nor Red Sox manager John Farrell saw eye-to-eye with crew chief Bill Miller, however, and contested the ruling after Abad claimed that he inadvertently balked after seeing Calhoun call for a time out.

Mets 5, Giants 2: From injuries to slumps, it’s been a rough ride for the Mets this month. Enter Jacob deGrom, who crafted his third consecutive quality start with eight innings of one-run ball, striking out seven and going 1-for-3 with a single against the Giants’ Johnny Cueto. The Giants, on the other hand, became the first team to record 50 losses this season after the bullpen blew a 1-1 tie in the eighth.

Pirates 7, Cardinals 3: Look, there may be plenty of legitimate baseball-related reasons to skip out on a wedding reception. I can’t think of any compelling enough to leave your own wedding, however, at least not just to watch Lance Lynn give up seven runs during the Cardinals’ 40th loss of the year.

Different strokes for different folks, I suppose.

Dodgers 4, Rockies 0: Clayton Kershaw is still very, very good. After faltering in a six-run outing against the Mets last week, the Dodgers’ ace returned with six shutout innings against the Rockies, striking out eight and matching Jason Vargas’ league-best 11 wins. He manufactured his own run support, too, drawing a bases-loaded walk in the third inning to cement the club’s four-run lead:

Padres 7, Tigers 3: The Tigers continued their eight-game skid with a tough loss at PETCO Park on Saturday, marring six solid innings from Anibal Sanchez with a five-run implosion in the eighth inning. Andrew Romine put up two of the Tigers’ three runs on an RBI double and single, but wasn’t able to single-handedly rally from a four-run deficit in the ninth.

Astros 5, Mariners 2: Sometimes, it’s difficult to identify the exact moment when a game swings out of control. Other times, it’s all too obvious. For the Mariners, that moment could be traced back to one line drive in the seventh inning:

In Mitch Haniger‘s defense, clearing 69 feet in under five seconds is a feat few can pull off, even with the game on the line.

Diamondbacks 9, Phillies 2: Nothing the Diamondbacks and Phillies did — not even the Ben Lively home run that made this play possible — was as impressive as the coordination and grace of this lone D-backs fan:

Aledmys Diaz is trying to improve his defense with strobe glasses

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MLB.com’s Jenifer Langosch reports that Cardinals’ shortstop Aledmys Diaz has been sporting a new look around Busch Stadium with a pair of “strobe glasses,” technology-enhanced specs designed to help athletes focus on the ball. Like a strobe light, the lenses of these glasses affect a player’s vision by rapidly changing opacity, giving its wearers the illusion that the objects they see are moving more slowly than normal. Once a player adjusts to the new speed of play, they gain a greater sense of control and are able to time their actions with more precision.

Diaz isn’t the first MLB player to utilize the technology, just the first Cardinals’ player to do so. It’s been tested by Bryce Harper, Corey Brown, Tommy Joseph, Austin Hedges and Joe Mauer, among others around the league, and has been used for everything from refining a catcher’s reflexes behind the plate to tweaking a hitter’s ability to track a pitch. Per Langosch, Diaz has been using the glasses to hone in on the ball during pregame drills, increasing both his confidence and response time on the field and improving his defense at short.

The shortstop has been the focus of some concern this season after seeing a sizable dip in his production at the plate, and his five fielding errors, 0.6 UZR and 0.6 fWAR haven’t helped matters, either. He sustained a minor thumb injury during an at-bat on Friday night, and was left off of the Cardinals’ starting lineup on Saturday, though manager Mike Matheny didn’t rule out his ability to pinch-hit during the series. While the strobe glasses are a good start, Diaz will need more than a pair of specs to match the spotlight-worthy performance he turned out during his rookie season in 2016.