¡Cuídate, Tony Peña!by Craig Burley
May 12, 2005
TUESDAY - 5:45 PM
I'm ensconced in the parlour bar of the Duke of Argyle in downtown Toronto. Outside is the gorgeous day I've been enjoying, sunny and finally warm; inside there is beer and baseball talk. I'm with Coach Kent Williams, my fellow Batter's Box author. Naturally, we're talking about the game we're about to see. It feels like the whole world is buzzing.
"Oh, man, eight and twenty-four."
"The Jays need to take care of business in these games. It's going to be ugly with these guys against Doc tonight. It's going to be just like last night against Towers - Doc is just like Towers, but faster, sharper, more on your heels."
"Maybe some of these guys will be ready in two years. Look at John Buck, who I drafted in our league thinking that he'd be ready to step out. It's not happening yet, he looks further away than ever."
"He's got Kevin Cash Disease. He's so worried about improving his defense, learning to be a big-league catcher, that his hitting is an afterthought."
The Blue Jays are about to face off against the Royals in a terrific pitching matchup, with Roy Halladay facing Zack Greinke. The Jays took the series opener the night before, as the Royals couldn't solve Jays starter Josh "Control" Towers. Tonight, Doc looks like an insurmountable mountain.
PREGAME - 6:48 PM
Having located our seats, we're wandering the concourse down the right field line, taking in the revamped, terrific-looking SkyDome (now the Rogers Centre). On the field, a few Royals are doing their pre-game stretching. I'm checking out some of the Royals I haven't seen in the flesh before; relaying my impressions later to some friends, one cracks that I was "checking out their asses." It's no joke - I do think for a ballplayer, everything starts in the butt. Kent and I notice Mark Teahen, who is stretching with a coach. He looks chunkier and squashier than I remember from photos.
One Royal in particular, though, catches my eye. Or rather, my ear. Smack, smack, smack. It's not a pitcher's pop into a mitt; it's John Buck, who is in full crouch, practicing his throwing. He's playing long toss with a coach (or possibly an injured player), catching the ball in his crouch and firing laser-guided cruise missiles back, rising no more than four feet off the ground for 120 feet. His arm amazes me; his footwork looks great and for the most part he's hitting the glove without it moving, even from 120-130 feet away. The kid is huge; he's big and solid, and looks like an astronaut, blown up 30% from life size.
I watch him for a few minutes. I'm troubled.
"Look at Buck."
"Know what bothers me about that?"
"That he's out there?"
"This kid is STARTING tonight. It's fifteen minutes to game time, and he's working his tail off, in full crouch. He's going to have to catch nine innings after this."
"He's hitting .100!"
"If there were any kind of leadership on this team at all, someone would come over and say, 'You know what, kid, break it off and relax before the game. It's a long season.' But here, he's just throwing, throwing, throwing, working himself into a lather before the game even starts."
"He's lost at the plate. You'd think that if they wanted him to work, or keep him busy, they'd have him look at video - here, kid, watch Doc and see if you can identify ONE of his pitches, give you a chance when you step in against him."
BOTTOM OF THE 2ND - 7:33 PM
With Eric Hinske on third after a leadoff triple, the Royals up 1-0, and two men now out, Kent leans over.
"This is the same sort of thing I saw last night that I told Leigh about. Where are their advance scouts, what are they doing?"
With men on first and third and one out, Russ Adams was at the plate with Ken Huckaby in the on-deck circle. Huckaby, a slow groundball hitter, would have been the perfect double-play candidate, whereas Adams was hitting the ball well. "If they throw Adams a strike," Kent recalled saying, "it shows they don't have a clue what they're doing." Adams got his strike, laced a triple to right-center to score two runs, and Huckaby followed with what would have been a double-play grounder, but which managed to score Adams from third.
I can't deny that Kent was right; and now they're pitching to Adams again, one night after being burned by him!
"It's not that he's necessarily a bad manager. As a guy to handle a veteran team or a contender, make them believe in themselves, as a leader of men, he'd be well-cast. But a team like this, can they really use him? Is he setting an example that is worth following?"
TOP OF THE 6TH - 8:11 PM
The Jays now lead 3-1 thanks to a Shea Hillenbrand homer and the Royals have been dominated by Roy Halladay, but they're fighting. Ruben Gotay drops a bunt and Halladay is in superb fielding position. He turns and fires to first and Gotay is, incredibly, already there. The ball hits him in the back, and in the blink of an eye, Gotay is on second.
He's lightning, I think to myself. But the reverie is interrupted immediately. With a runner on second and none out, we're laughing to bust a gut as the Royals order up the sacrifice bunt. Down two. With David DeJesus at the plate, one of the three Royals who has looked likely to hit Halladay. A bunt.
The quips are flying now. "Quoth the Peña, Little Ball!" makes an appearance, as does an updated baseball maxim: "Play to tie at home, play to lose by one on the road - we're the Royals after all." "Way to go, Tony, no danger of a big inning now."
Now, 24 hours later, I still don't understand it. Was Peña thinking to give the RBI opportunity to Berroa to give him some confidence? Does he think that little of DeJesus? Did DeJesus bunt on his own? With the leadoff hitter on, down two on the road, I can't imagine a manager so imprisoned by fear that he's thinking not of how to score three runs, or even two, but how to get one.
Back at the Rogers Centre, the bunt brings up Angel Berroa, who's looked terrible tonight, and promptly strikes out rather abjectly as Halladay's stuff gets momentarily nastier. With Mike Sweeney up and two out, Gotay is thrown out trying to score on a ball that gets away from Ken Huckaby, and the threat is ended.
Halladay goes back to putting up zeroes, FAST, and Greinke is doing the same. Note the time above; the sixth inning began with just over an hour elapsed in the game, and the pace is increasing as Halladay (normally a very fast worker anyway) smells blood in the water and the Jays start hitting Greinke's pitches right at the outfielders.
TOP OF THE 9TH - 8:46 PM
Moments after I say that Halladay can't possibly be tired after throwing just 86 pitches through eight innings, Angel Berroa swings through two straight cutters and then somehow connects with an 0-2 pitch clearly intended to be the coup de grace. The ball flies past Alex Rios in right and Berroa stands at second with a double.
Gulp. Here comes the red-hot Mike Sweeney. Sweeney's first-inning homer is the Royals' only run; the game is still 3-1 so he represents the tying run.
Sweeney hits the first pitch with a crack. He's been jammed - the ball floats toward center, over the second baseman, as Wells gets a good jump and floats in.
And here, I believe, and always will believe, happens the play that ends Tony Peña's career with the Royals. Angel Berroa, unsure of what will happen to Sweeney's flare, is well off the bag at second base. Vernon Wells in centerfield appears to pull up, and waves his glove lazily, to react to the bounce off the new and unfamiliar carpet.
And then, suddenly, he catches the ball.
Wells has dummied Berroa, who is now helplessly frozen, having been ready to take off for home on the bounce, even though he was only the second run. Wells almost can't believe his luck; a throw to Orlando Hudson doubles off Berroa who is desperately lunging back to second base, too late. Double play, 8-4. The crowd goes nuts, and the game feels won.
Two batters later, at 8:51 PM, Terrence Long completes an 0-4 night with a flyball to left, and the game is over. The Royals have submitted in just 1:44.
As Berroa is picked off, amidst the high fives in our little group, I am crowing, gloating. "I love fundamental baseball!"
POSTGAME - 12:33 AM
Kansas City Royals General Manager/Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations Allard Baird announced tonight that Tony Pena has resigned as Royals manager. Baird said that Pena will be offered a position within the organization.
"I feel that at this time we have not played to the top of our abilities," Pena said. "The Kansas City Royals are on the right track by committing to their young players and I believe the Royals will be contenders for a long time if they don't change their direction."
WEDNESDAY - 9:04 AM
I'm shocked at Tony Peña's resignation. Perhaps I shouldn't be, but I am. It takes away all the joy from last night's win - we were on the deathwatch, oblivious.
As I sit in my downstairs office, lashing together the final part of a report on the game for Batter's Box, I think about John Buck throwing before the game, and I think yes, that's Tony Peña. Managers always think highly of the types of players who they themselves were. Bobby Cox, a platoon player himself under Ralph Houk, loves his platoon players. Felipe Alou, a high-average, low-OBP centerfielder, loves his low-OBP players, especially in the outfield. Joe Torre, once a big star in his own right, defers to his star players and lets them manage themselves to the maximum possible degree. Ozzie Guillen, the polar opposite of Frank Thomas as a player, had nothing but hatred and contempt for Thomas (his best hitter) once he became his manager.
Tony Peña, who I think is the toughest, most durable player I have ever seen in my life, obviously prizes the kind of hard work and durability that Buck was trying to show. (Incidentally, Buck went 0-3 to drop his average to .163.) Peña would have played a tripleheader every day and loved every minute of it; the man was made of coiled steel. After a long season of catching 150 games, he loved nothing more than to strap on his catching gear every day and ride the bus every night, playing full seasons in the Dominican Winter League. Speaking of a big break in 1978, when the Pirates put him on their 40-man roster, Peña once said, "When God gave me that good luck, I decided I was going to work till I break in two pieces."
Throughout his wonderful career as a player, Tony Peña had the reputation of someone who loved to play the game of baseball, but who hated to lose. Peña is a central character in Rob Ruck's wonderful book The Tropic of Baseball, about baseball in the Dominican Republic, and he emerges as a immensely likable man, just as he was an immensely likable and admirable player. There are few players in my memory who can compare to Tony Peña for both intensity and style - a style born of countless thousands of hours of intense practice.
Seeing Angel Berroa doubled off like that, so lackadaisical, like a Little Leaguer who had never done any tag drills, must have enraged him. Berroa, a Dominican like Peña, who exploded with the team in 2003 and gradually saw the great promise slip away, is symptomatic of what has happened to the Royals, who have so far failed to develop any of their recent young talent into players worth keeping. As Dominican legend Winston Llenas said in Tropic of Baseball, "Tony's anger is like a big wave... once it breaks it's all gone." When the wave broke two nights ago, what was left was an 8-25 team that wasn't getting anywhere with him in charge.
I once wrote a long but rather cold-blooded appreciation of Tony Peña disguised as an essay on his Hall of Fame chances. In it, I said that "Peña certainly has the makeup to be a successful manager in the major leagues."
I still think he does.
Sure, he made some bad decisions. Yes, lots of us made fun of him for his insistence on playing "little ball" before the 2003 season (we shut up quick, though, when the Royals exploded out of the gate and had a surprise 83-win season). Ultimately, though, any manager can learn the rudiments of cost-benefit analysis, and learn to avoid the urge to bunt down two in the sixth inning. Maybe he ordered the bunt as a symbol of giving up, I don't know. But what matters far more than bunts or even teaching fundamentals, is the ability to reach young players and inspire them to great things, to put them in a position to succeed. To lead men.
I'm shocked that Tony Peña quit his job. I didn't think he was the type to do it. I do know that he's one of the most (if not the most) respected baseball men in the Dominican Republic, and to imagine him out of baseball is nearly incomprehensible. As Kent said so aptly last night, "I can see him as a leader of men." We'll see him manage again, and when we do, I'll be cheering. For now, farewell, ¡cuídate!
References and Resources
Thanks to Kent Williams and Robert Dudek for inspiring this piece.
Craig Burley can be contacted via e-mail.