Pittsburgh's prize catch

Young Tony Pena is the latest in the Pirates' long line of Latin luminaries
May 02, 1982

Pittsburgh Pirate Scout Howie Haak has spent much of the last 25 years holding tryouts on fields that are more like cow pastures than baseball diamonds, in towns that sometimes aren't on the map, for young men whose names he often can't pronounce. Still, there have been rewards, like Julian Javier, Manny Sanguillen, Rennie Stennett and Omar Moreno, all Latin Americans Haak signed for Pittsburgh. But he thinks his biggest reward is yet to come.

"In the long run," says Haak, the Pirates' chief scout, "Tony Pena will probably be the best of all of them."

That's a mouthful. For example, Sanguillen, the most notable of Haak's other signees, was a three-time All-Star and a frequent .300 hitter during the '70s. But the 24-year-old Pena, also a catcher, has already shown that he'll perform up to Haak's high expectations. In 1981, his first full season in the majors, Pena batted .300 and fielded his position consistently, if not spectacularly. At the end of last week he was batting .333, with a league-leading nine doubles. Though he has four errors, all on his habitually hurried throws to second, his strong arm has given rise to a new scoreboard message at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium: YOU'VE BEEN PENALIZED. Lonnie Smith and Tito Landrum of St. Louis each got the message last Wednesday when they were cut down trying to steal second.

Pena arrived in Pittsburgh by way of Paloverde in the Dominican Republic. There, in his youth, he chased more pigs and goats than foul pop-ups while dreaming of playing in the majors, as did his Dominican hero, Juan Marichal.

And he has come to the Pirates in the nick of time. He is a rising star on a team of fading ones, a team that after last Sunday's games was fourth in the National League East, six games behind St. Louis. "It would be next-to-impossible for us to trade Tony," says Pete Peterson, the Pirates' executive vice-president and general manager. "He's like a Dave Parker in that respect. We just couldn't get enough for him. Certainly it would take a frontline catcher and maybe a young pitcher who's already winning 14, 15 games. So we're not even thinking about it."

"I'd put Tony in a class with Johnny Bench when he was young," says Pirate Coach Joe Lonnett, himself a former catcher. "Of course, he doesn't have Bench's power, but he can hit for average. And with the glove and everything else, I think he's right there with Bench." Adds St. Louis Manager Whitey Herzog, "He's going to be like Sanguillen, probably better. He and Terry Kennedy [of the Padres] are the catchers of the future, no doubt about it." And Pirate captain Willie Stargell says: "He's as good a talent as there is in the game. If I was a young exec, I'd start my team with Tony Pena."

At which point Stargell glances around and spies Pena going out the clubhouse door to batting practice. Stargell raises his voice as he says, "Except that he's so damn ugly!" Upon hearing this, Pena pops a huge chaw of Red Man into his cheek and plops onto Stargell's lap, the Pirate of the Past and the Pirate of the Future passing an invisible scepter.

"You got how many brothers, three?" asks Stargell. "Are any of them as ugly as you?" Pena feigns thinking about it. "Yeah, one is," he says with a smile. Stargell laughs heartily. He tells Pena that he sampled some of the Presidente beer that Pena's wife, Amaris, had brought from the Dominican Republic. "Willie thinks it's the best beer in the world," Pena says later with some pride. When Stargell accepts a player, he has a secure place among the Pirates.

Haak first saw Antonio Francesco Pena during a tryout camp at Villa Vasquez, a town about 50 miles from Paloverde. "He hit a ball over the rightfield fence, the centerfield fence and the leftfield fence," says Haak. "And we timed him in 7.1 for the 50, good for a catcher. He was crude but good. We saw enough to offer him a contract."

The figure was $4,000, but it could've been $40,000 and it wouldn't have impressed Tony's father, Octaviano, who wasn't a baseball fan. "He didn't even know which hand the glove went on," says Tony with equal degrees of affection and amazement. Octaviano wanted his son to attend college or at least stay home and continue caring for the cattle, pigs and goats the Penas raise on their small farm. Finally, Octaviano's wife, Rosalia, intervened and Octaviano agreed to allow their son a year to try pro baseball. The father eventually extended the offer when he realized it was futile to try to keep Tony down on the farm. Tony signed the contract two days later.

Rosalia's interest in Tony's baseball playing wasn't merely that of a mother trying to help her son find a career. She pitched to Tony and his brothers, 20-year-old Ramon (a pitcher whom the Pirates signed in 1980 and released this spring), Andre, 26, and Luis, 16, when they were younger. Two brothers would be in the field, one at bat and one on deck, with Rosalia on the mound. She had been a local softball star in her own right, and Tony says earnestly, "She could play anywhere. She could do it all." Mama Pena's batting practice was about the only relief Tony and his brothers had from the drudgery of tending the livestock.

"Tony wasn't thought of as a great prospect," says Peterson, who was the Pirates' minor league director when Pena was signed. "Nobody said, 'Hey, wait'll you see this kid.' " Certainly no one said such things at Brandenton, Fla. in the Gulf Coast League or Charleston, S.C. in the Carolina League where Pena, a righthanded hitter, batted a combined .214 in 1976 by swinging at bad pitches and overswinging at good ones. And the front office thought so little of his catching that first season that he was moved from leftfield to first base to third base because the Pirates felt they had a better prospect in Alfredo Torres, who is still with their Class AA team in Buffalo. "There were times when I thought I wasn't going to make it," says Pena, "but then I only tried harder."

His watershed year was 1979 at Buffalo, where he hit .313 with 34 home runs, often going the opposite way to take advantage of a very short rightfield fence. Pena has never had more than nine home runs in any other season, but the batting average was no aberration. He hit .329 at Class AAA Portland the following season and .429 in eight games after the Pirates called him up in September of that year. Pena's strength is bat control. As he leaned against the cage at Three Rivers Stadium before a game with the Cardinals last week he said, "In BP, I try to always hit up the middle." He then went into the cage and hit six straight balls up the middle.

Pena himself was in the middle—of a sticky situation—as a rookie in spring training last year. Ed Ott and Steve Nicosia, who only two seasons before had split the catching duties when the Pirates won the world series, were ahead of him. To complicate matters, he didn't speak English well, though he had taken English courses in the 1977 off-season.

Because a catcher is expected to be a team leader, Pena must work to overcome the language barrier. Sanguillen, who visited his former teammates last week in Pittsburgh, says that gaining the confidence of the pitchers and overlooking the jokes about one's unsteady English are difficult to do.

But Pena's promise couldn't be ignored and by April 1, 1981, Ott, who had been having contract hassles, was sent to California in a trade that brought Pittsburgh a much-needed first baseman, Jason Thompson. After platooning Pena and Nicosia early last season. Manager Chuck Tanner started Pena almost exclusively after the strike. If there was any question before this season as to who the Pirates' top catcher was—and Nicosia doubts it—Pena settled it by hitting .431 with two home runs and 12 RBls in exhibition games. Those totals easily overshadowed Nicosia's best spring performance ever: .298, two and five. This followed a season of winter ball in the Dominican Republic in which Pena hit .313 and was the league's MVP.

Pena knows what he has to work on, and he spends much of his idle pregame time watching the opposition take batting practice. "Once Tony learns the hitters he'll have it all," says Pitcher John Candelaria, who sometimes speaks Spanish with Pena in their mound conferences. "I broke in with Nick and I know what kind of catcher he is. I know how he feels. But that's baseball. The reality of the situation is this: Tony is going to be our catcher and that's all there is to it."

For now and quite a while to come.

TWO PHOTOS PHOTOA .300 hitter, Tony PENAlizes pitchers.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)