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.

Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph: “We suck”

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As I mentioned in the recaps this morning, Baltimore lost its 107th game last night, tying its 1988 mark for the most losses in Orioles history. They will certainly break that record and will almost certainly blast by the all-time franchise loss record of 111, set by the 1939 St. Louis Browns. That team only played a 154-game schedule so the O’s likely won’t be the worst team in the franchise’s 118-season history by winning percentage, but it’ll be close enough.

Over at The Athletic Dan Connolly reports that one Oriole, catcher Caleb Joseph, is well aware of how bad the Orioles are and he is not mincing words about it:

“I’m not a loser. So, to be associated with that severity of losing is embarrassing. It’s shameful really . . . I don’t blame [fans] at all [for not attending games]. We suck.”

That last bit was in response to Matt Olson of the Athletics coming up to him before a recent game, noticing how many empty seats there were in Camden Yards and asking Joseph if it was always like that. Let that sink in: a player for the Oakland Athletics who, year after year, have some of the worst attendance in baseball, is shocked at how poorly Baltimore is drawing.

As for Joseph, he spends a lot of time talking about how the attitude is all wrong with the Orioles, how there does not seem to be any accountability and how things weren’t like that when he came up back when the Orioles were winning. Which, well, yeah.

Baseball players often attribute winning and losing to whatever attitude is prevailing around the clubhouse. Maybe that’s true on greatly underachieving teams or borderline teams that aren’t catching the breaks, but it seems far more likely that winning makes teams happy and instills camaraderie while losing makes teams sad and makes people look inward. Players tend to get the causation wrong about all of that because, I suspect, they don’t want to admit that they’re not as talented as the competition so it has to come down to some motivational or mental defect. Which, if that makes a player feel better, fine, but these O’s weren’t going to win many games even if they came in with smiles on their faces while singing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” out of their rear ends every day. They just aren’t good.

Whatever you think of all of that, one thing is clear: the O’s need to clean house in a major, major way.