The Power of Tony Pena

38 Comments

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.

Giolito spins 4-hit gem, White Sox shut out Astros

Leave a comment

HOUSTON (AP) Lucas Giolito was forced to speed up his pace near the end of his last start for the Chicago White Sox because of rain. The results were so good he decided to try it again Thursday night against the Houston Astros, even though there was no need to rush in the climate-controlled confines of Minute Maid Park.

The tactic certainly paid off.

Giolito pitched a four-hitter for his first major league shutout, rookie Eloy Jimenez hit his third homer in two games and the White Sox beat the Astros 4-0.

“In the last game in the fifth inning, I really picked up the tempo because it started raining,” he said. “I was like, why not just try and do that every time? So I was just getting in attack mode early, filling up the zone, and luckily I had my good stuff and we were able to mix sequences really well. It was a good one.”

Chicago manager Rick Renteria was asked what superlative he would use to describe Giolito’s performance.

“Every one that’s in your book that you can put on a page,” he said. “If there was 1,000 of them, use all 1,000.”

Yoan Moncada had an RBI double and Tim Anderson added a run-scoring single for the White Sox, who earned a four-game series split by handing Houston its first set of consecutive losses since May 1-2.

Giolito (6-1) struck out a season-best nine and walked one in winning his fourth start in a row and fifth straight decision.

“He was doing really anything he wanted to,” Houston manager AJ Hinch said. “He was really good, so hats off to him for coming in and throwing all of his pitches for strikes. He’s changed his delivery, his arm action a little bit. He came in and really commanded the game from the very beginning.”

It was the first nine-inning complete game by a White Sox pitcher since Chris Sale beat Kansas City 7-4 in September 2016, and their first complete-game shutout since Sale threw a two-hitter in a 1-0 win at Tampa Bay on April 15, 2016.

In his previous outing last Saturday, Giolito was credited with his first career complete game when he beat Toronto 4-1 in a game called after 4 1/2 innings because of rain. After that one, the 24-year-old right-hander said he didn’t consider it a complete game until he went nine innings.

Didn’t take him long to check that box, too.

Giolito threw 82 of his season-high 107 pitches for strikes against a first-place team that began the day leading the majors with an .860 OPS and had homered in 19 consecutive games.

All the hits Giolito allowed were singles. Previously, his longest start was 7 1/3 innings.

“The Astros are a team I always look forward to facing,” Giolito said. “A lot of good hitters in that lineup. It’s always a fun challenge. They won a World Series a couple of years ago so when you do well against them, it makes you feel pretty good about yourself.”

Jimenez, who was 0 for 7 in the first two games of the series before hitting two homers in a win Wednesday night, connected off fellow rookie Corbin Martin (1-1) for a solo shot in the fourth inning that made it 4-0.

Martin gave up six hits and four runs over 3 1/3 innings in his third career start.

Yolmer Sanchez, who had three hits, doubled to start the third before Martin walked Charlie Tilson. Moncada followed with an RBI double to put Chicago up 1-0. A single by Anderson came next to score Tilson. Moncada scored on an error by Martin when his pickoff attempt to first was high.

Missing injured sluggers Jose Altuve and George Springer, the Astros couldn’t get anything going on offense. Their streak of 19 straight games with at least one home run was tied for the longest stretch in franchise history.

Michael Brantley hit his second single for Houston with two outs in the sixth. Giolito retired Carlos Correa to end that inning and pitched a perfect seventh before Max Stassi singled to start the eighth. Giolito struck out Jake Marisnick and Josh Reddick before Alex Bregman lined out to end the inning.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Astros: Springer, who has missed the last four games with stiffness in his lower back, took batting practice on the field and will likely return Friday night, Hinch said. … Altuve (hamstring) continues to make improvement but there still isn’t a target date for his return.

TOUGH ON RIGHT-HANDERS

Anderson had two hits and a walk and is batting .344 against right-handers, which leads the AL.

THEY SAID IT

Jimenez on hitting three home runs in two games: “It’s been good. It means a lot. It’s more fun coming (to the park). It’s just the beginning of something good.”

UP NEXT

White Sox: RHP Reynaldo Lopez (3-4, 5.14 ERA) starts Friday when Chicago opens a three-game series against the AL Central-leading Twins. Lopez has been strong in his last three starts, posting a 2.29 ERA.

Astros: LHP Wade Miley (4-2, 3.51) is scheduled to start Friday in the opener of a three-game series with Boston. He didn’t factor in the decision last time out when he allowed seven hits and three runs – two earned – in five innings of a 4-3 loss to the Red Sox.

More AP MLB: https://apnews.com/MLB and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports