The story about now-Yankees bench coach Tony Pena ran in The Kansas City Star back in 2003. I went to the Dominican Republic with Tony … and though it may sound goofy to say this, well, for me the experience was almost, spiritual. So this is one of my favorite stories … and I thought it might be fun to dust it off in anticipation of the Yankees and Rangers playoff game tonight.
On the road to Villa Vasquez, Tony Pena cried, not for the first time that day and not for the last.
“No,” he said. “Not that story. I will not tell that story.”
His Mercedes raced through dust and bugs and waves of heat, past emptiness.
Nobody lives on the road to Villa Vasquez. It is too hot and too dry. They say that when revolutionaries were killed — in the Dominican Republic, revolutionaries were often killed — their bodies were buried here.
They say that at night, you hear ghosts.
“Not that story,” Pena said again. He shook his head. “I will tell you everything. But not that story. Some things, the heart cannot bear to hear.”
He stared through the windshield ahead and did not talk for a moment. The silence was unlike him. Pena cannot bear quiet. He has always needed noise in his life — music, applause, laughter, bat cracks, glove pops, cheers, whistles, chatter, snores, the ringing of cell phones. Pena has three cell phones. When one does not ring for even a short while — a rare occurrence — he instinctively checks to make sure it works.
“No,” he said again, and then “No” again to fill the silence. Tears trickled from beneath his sunglasses. His hands tightened on the steering wheel, and blood rushed to his fingertips. He pushed the car even faster. The cactuses blurred past. After a while, a small shack appeared. Another. A farmer. A goat. We had reached Villa Vasquez. The ghosts were behind us.
“Now,” Pena said, his tears already dried, “I will show you where it all began.”
* * *
Every year, Tony Pena takes this sentimental journey. It is something he must do. The journey begins at the baseball field in Villa Vasquez. Pena stood outside, wrapped his fingers around a chain-link fence. As always, dozens of children played baseball on the field. Some wore gloves. Others wrapped their hands in rags. Some threw baseballs, others threw stones swathed in tape.
“They are me,” he said.
Pena had come to this field more than 25 years ago to try out for the legendary old Pittsburgh scout Howie Haak. In those days, in the smallest towns of Latin America, there was only Howie Haak. He was la esperanza. The hope. Haak was the kind of man who could chew tobacco for hours without spitting. He was the only man who would hold a tryout camp in Villa Vasquez.
“I was just a skinny little kid,” Pena said. He pointed at one of the thinnest kids on the field, one who wore a torn Houston Astros T-shirt.
“Like him,” Pena said.
Memories rushed back at him like 95-mph fastballs. He called over Royals general manager Allard Baird and pointed at different children, some who threw with a certain snap in their wrists, some who wore tattered sandals on their feet, some who reminded Pena so much of himself.
Look now. Pena is manager of the Kansas City Royals. He caught for almost two decades in the major leagues. He owns one of the biggest bottled-water plants in the Dominican Republic. His driveway is jammed with luxury cars that can push high speeds on the narrow two-lane roads that wind through his country. His swimming pool is shaped like a baseball. He is rich and utterly beloved.
He keeps coming back to the field in Villa Vasquez.
“I was so hungry,” he said of that day when he tried out for Howie Haak. Pena lived in Palo Verde, some 30 miles away. He was 18. He slipped out of school early, ran part of the way, hitched a ride the rest. He had not eaten for a day and a half. When he got to the field, he felt weak. He could not have weighed even 140 pounds.
But he still hit home runs to left field, center field and right field. He threw low and hard to second base. There were 50 dreamers there. Howie Haak chose only him.
“Mrs. Pena,” Haak said to Tony’s mother, Rosalia. “We want your son to play baseball in America.”
“I have heard you,” Rosalia said. “Now get out of my house.”
* * *
“Look,” Tony Pena said. He was driving away from Villa Vasquez on the bumpy two-lane road toward Palo Verde, where he grew up. People along the road recognized the car and waved wildly.
“Look,” he said again, and he pointed out the window to the top of a distant mountain. “Can you see it? If you look very hard, you can see the crane up there. Can you see the crane? Can you see where they are building?”
He kept pointing to the spot.
“That is the highest spot in the Dominican Republic,” he said. “From up there, you can see everything. You can see the valley. You can see the ocean. You can see the whole island. I used to look up there and dream.”
“Now,” he said, as he rolled up the window, “they are building my house up there.”
* * *
In Palo Verde, the old woman nodded and shrugged. And Tony Pena walked in.
Sunlight slipped through cracks in the roof. The walls warped inward. Pena pointed to a wall and a framed photograph of Pedro MartInez, perhaps the greatest player to come off this island. “Right there,” Pena said, “there used to be a picture of Jesus.”
This was his home. Six Penas lived in this tiny house with its dirt floors.
Octaviano Pena worked 14 hours a day in an irrigation ditch. He made the equivalent of a few dollars a week. Rosalia taught school for less. Tony slept with his three brothers in the side room, about the size of a walk-in closet. From the front porch, they could see the banana trees that foretold their future.
“Hope?” asked Luis Silverio, Pena’s longtime friend and the Royals’ first-base coach. “What hope? This was so long ago. There were no baseball scouts in the Dominican then. There were no academies. To dream about playing baseball in America took a big imagination then.”
Pena dreamed anyway. It was Rosalia who taught him baseball. Octaviano was too busy, too exhausted, too beaten down by life. Tony liked to say, with a strange pride, that his father did not even know on which hand to wear a baseball glove. “He worked,” Pena said, “every minute of every day.”
Rosalia taught them baseball. She had been a softball star, and she would place two little Penas in the outfield, one in the on-deck circle and one in the batter’s box. She pitched. “She had some kind of arm,” Tony said. “Hitting her was like trying to hit Nolan Ryan.”
She didn’t consider baseball a career option for Tony. Boys in the Dominican were supposed to play baseball — it added color to a dreary life of farming and burning sunshine. But that was all. Tony Pena’s life was already laid out. His future wife, Amaris, lived three houses down. He was strong enough to work in the banana fields. He would have children and live his life in Palo Verde. When the baseball scout asked to take Tony away to America for baseball, he might as well have asked to take him on a spaceship to Pluto.
“Please,” Tony said to his mother. And then he said something that can only be loosely translated to mean: “Baseball is all that is in my heart.”
Rosalia remained unmoved.
“If I don’t make it in one year,” Tony said, “I will come home.”
Rosalia considered the offer. Octaviano did not agree, but it was Rosalia who would decide. And she nodded. She was sitting right there, Tony Pena would say more than 25 years later, and he pointed to a table under a straw roof. His voice began to choke a little. He walked out into the sunshine.
“Thank you so much,” Allard Baird said to the old woman who had let everyone into Pena’s old house. “Thank you so much. That was so nice.” The woman looked puzzled.
“That was nice of her, wasn’t it?” Baird said to Pena.
“What do you mean?” Pena asked.
“Well, for her to let us into her home.”
“I own this home,” Pena said. “It is my home.”
“Yes,” he said. “I let this woman live here. She is a friend.”
Pena took one more look back at the little house.
“I have only one condition. She must leave it exactly the same. Exactly the way it was when I was a child here.
“Exactly the same,” he said. “Forever.”
* * *
Tony Pena handed out Royals caps outside his old house. Dozens gathered around him. People poured out of their homes to get a hat and to shake Pena’s hand and to tell stories. Allard Baird watched from a distance.
“The first time I remember seeing Tony Pena,” Baird said, “he was with Boston. He was catching. Roger Clemens was on the mound. Clemens was all over the place. He couldn’t throw a strike. He had no command. He was awful.
“And all of a sudden, I see Tony Pena call timeout. Joe Morgan, the Red Sox manager, starts to walk out, but Pena told him to go back into the dugout. He’s got it under control. Tony walked to the mound and just started screaming at Clemens. I mean, he went nuts. He’s pointing and yelling and getting into Clemens’ face. The umpire was afraid to go up there.
“And you know what? Clemens took it. I’ve never seen anything like it. I don’t think there was anybody else on earth who could talk to Roger Clemens that way. He just listened, and when Pena went back behind the plate, Clemens pitched an unbelievable ballgame.”
As Baird finished, Pena walked over to get more Royals caps.
“I was just telling the Clemens story,” Baird said.
“The one where I told him to (bleep bleep)?” Pena asked.
“That’s what you told him?”
“Yes. That’s nothing, though. You should tell the story about when I went to the mound and hit our closer Jose Mesa in the head.”
“You hit Jose Mesa in the head?”
“Yes,” Pena said as he went back to give out some more caps. “He wasn’t paying attention.”
* * *
The grass stopped growing on the field Tony Pena built in Palo Verde. Pena wanted to build a little paradise here, where he had played ball as a child.
When he played, it had been a dirt field, hard as tile, with cracks and bumps and craters. He built outfield walls, carved a soft infield, planted the greenest grass to be found for 40 miles.
The Dominican heat baked the field. The grass stopped growing.
“It used to be … ” Pena began, but he stopped.
“Ah,” he said. “Everything used to be something.”
Tony Pena did not want to come back to his old life. That was what pushed him to play baseball with an almost deranged passion. There was this day, when he was playing in the rookie leagues — and not playing much — when Howie Haak called Pena over.
“Kid,” Haak said, “you better start playing. ‘Cause they’re gonna cut you.'”
“How,” Pena asked in halted English, “can I get them to give me a chance to play?”
“I don’t know,” Haak said. “But you better figure it out.”
Figure it out how? Pena did not speak English well enough to talk to anybody. In a way, though, that shielded him from the hard truth: Nobody in the Pirates organization thought he could play. They decided he was too weak to hit home runs, too impatient to lay off bad pitches, too erratic to catch in the major leagues.
He hit .214 his first minor league season, all in part-time duty, and he was shuffled out to left field and third base, where he was completely lost. Soon after, they moved him to catcher, and he set a league records for errors. They were ready to give up on him. It’s a common Dominican story. He did not know how to convince them he could play.
The answer, unexpectedly, came in Buffalo, Pittsburgh’s Class AA team. Pena noticed there was a short fence in right field. And that short fence was his escape. Every winter, Pena returned home to the Dominican Republic, milked the cows, worked the land, listened to his father grumble that it was time for him to give up this baseball foolishness. “It is time for real life,” Octaviano said.
Instead, Tony Pena ran the stairs in front of the biggest church in Santiago to build up his stamina. He taught himself to crouch with one leg sticking out, so he could give pitchers a low target and still spring up and throw out base runners. He would swing a heavy bat for hours every day to gain strength. He prayed at night for God to show him the path.
And when he saw that wonderful short fence in Buffalo, he understood. That was his path. He practiced poking long fly balls toward that short right-field fence. He had shown no power until then. But he hit 34 home runs in Buffalo — more than twice as many as he would ever hit again.
And he was noticed. Two years later, he was in the big leagues, where he would stay for 18 seasons, win four Gold Gloves, play in five All-Star games and two World Series.
“He and Johnny Bench were the two best catchers I ever saw,” said Jose Cruz Sr., who played 19 seasons in the major leagues himself. “Soft hands. Strong arm. A leader. That was what made Tony Pena special. He was a leader.”
* * *
Tony Pena drove slowly on the bumpy dirt road, past banana trees. “Juan Marichal lived not so far away,” he said softly. But his mind drifted elsewhere. He was quiet again. He could not stop looking at the trees.
“People don’t know how heavy bananas are,” he finally said. “You drag them and drag them until you cannot move. People don’t know. Your whole body hurts. You can’t even sleep at night because your whole body hurts.”
Pena said he has never lived a day — not a single day as player or coach or manager — when he did not think about what might have been. He imagined himself pulling bananas, the way all his friends, all his loved ones, everyone he grew up knowing, ended up pulling bananas.
“People in the Dominican are so happy,” he said. “That’s what I love about my country. People are so poor. They have no money. They live in these little houses. Everybody thinks they must be very sad. But they are not. They are so happy.”
He cried again. And he drove over a ditch into a little town. In the center of town, there was a dirt field. Children played baseball.
“Look,” he said. “My country.”
* * *
Tony Pena has a sentimental streak wider than the road to Santiago. He brought pieces of the Dominican with him to baseball. When he hurt his thumb, he holed out a lemon, poured salt inside and kept his thumb in there. “This is how we heal in the Dominican,” he told amused reporters.
But he played that night.
Whenever he would get a new catcher’s mitt, he would spend an hour or more bashing it with a baseball bat. “It’s too new,” he would say. “In my country, you never see a new glove.”
And all during his career, he saved things. He saved every glove he ever used. He saved every bat that delivered an important hit. He saved buckets of baseballs, often asking teammates to sign and date them. Now, the lettering on those baseballs has faded. He cannot tell which ball means what. It does not matter. He has a room in his home in Santiago with every ball, bat, glove, trophy, plaque and photo he could bring back. They all mean something.
“Whenever I go in that room,” he said, “I see something, and it makes me remember. I like to remember.”
His favorite photo is of the last time he went up to hit. He was the manager of Aguilas, a team in Santiago that is probably more beloved than any other team in the Dominican Republic. Every winter, without fail, Pena played for Aguilas. His jersey is retired in Aguilas Stadium, along with the jersey of his brother, Ramon. There were years, Tony suspects, when he caught 170 games in the major leagues, including spring training, then caught 75 more in Santiago. He does not know how he did it.
“People have loved Tony Pena because of the way he played,” Silverio says.”But he became a hero because he came home.”
“Everybody in the Dominican,” Royals second baseman Carlos Febles said, “wants to be Tony Pena.”
In his favorite photograph, Pena is surrounded by his Aguilas players. And they all point toward the field. Pena had decided to send up a pinch hitter. And his players demanded that he go out and hit himself.
Pena looked at the photo. “I can hear the crowd chanting my name,” he said.
Flags waved. Feet stomped. Pena shook his head, “No, no, no,” but eventually he did go out to the plate. The photo does not show what happened when Pena went up to hit.
“Base hit,” Pena said. “Base hit off of Jose Mesa. And we won.”
* * *
Tony Pena weaved his car in the twilight, through small towns, through a police checkpoint, around entire families riding on mopeds, past long lines of men walking along the side of the road. “They are looking for work,” he said. “When they get tired, they will go to sleep by the side of the road. And tomorrow, they will walk to the next town.”
He parked by the water in Monte Cristi, where he was born. He stepped out, and mosquitoes attacked with vengeance. Monte Cristi is one of the oldest towns in the new world — Christopher Columbus landed not so far away. Pena walked out to the water, to the largest boat on the docks that overlooked the north Atlantic Ocean. The boat is his. He climbed in and leaned against the railing and looked over the water. He talked about how the Royals would win, despite everybody picking them to lose. They would win because they would believe.
Pena said he has always known how to make people believe.
“You know,” he said, “after I finished playing, there were teams that offered to make me a coach. Right away. Chicago wanted me to be a coach. Houston wanted me to be a coach. I said, ‘No.’ I didn’t want to be a coach. I wanted to be a manager. So I told them, ‘Send me back to the minor leagues.’
“And they said, ‘You don’t want to go back to ride buses and all that.’ And I said, ‘Yes, I do. Send me back.’ They sent me to New Orleans for three years. It was hard. But I learned so much. You have to go back to learn. You have to go back to the beginning.”
He nodded and swatted at mosquitoes. In the Dominican, as the old line goes, they treat Tony Pena as something larger than a man and something smaller than a saint. He played baseball with joy, made millions, became a manager, and then, most important, he came home.
He still comes home. Every day, all winter, strangers come to his door. They need medicine or food. He offers it to them quietly. Politicians seek his approval. Mothers push their children toward him to reach for his hand so maybe something will rub off. His Royals play on television all summer.
“I’m not sure that people in Kansas City realize who Tony Pena is,” one Dominican journalist said. “You have hired our national hero.”
“I have seen people forget where they came from,” Pena said. “They buy expensive things — houses, cars, boats — and they forget. I cannot forget. I must not forget. I tell myself this every day. If you forget where you came from, you forget who you are.”
* * *
“All right,” Pena said softly as he drove through the dark, back to his home. “I will tell you the story now.”
The sun had gone down. The air was cool on the road back to Santiago.
“When I signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates,” he said, “my signing bonus was $4,000. That was more money than my father made in a year. It was so much money, there was no place near my home to cash the check. We had to go to Santiago, to the bank there, to cash it.
“When we got there, we cashed the check, and I tried, I tried to … “
Pena started to cry again. He stumbled on. He tried to give the money to his mother. But Rosalia would not take it. The money was his, she said, to save, to use if baseball failed, to give to his children. Tony told her that he would make it. She did not believe him. And she would not take the money.
“Proud,” Pena said softly and angrily. “So proud.”
A few days later, some men came and took away what little furniture filled the Pena home. Octaviano could not make the payments. Tony ran up to the men and offered his money, but Rosalia shouted at him. “No,” she said. “That’s yours. That’s yours for your life.”
Then, to the men, she said, “You may not have his money.”
Tony pleaded with her. He said they could not live in an empty home. He could not leave knowing that the house was empty. He begged her to take the money. But she would not listen. So one day, he quietly slipped out of the house and went to the company that took back the furniture. He gave them $800 and bought back all the furniture. He had it delivered to the house.
Rosalia was so angry, she would not speak to him.
“Bye, Mama,” he said to her as he headed to America to play baseball. She said nothing at all.
Years later, long after such things were forgotten or at least not talked about, Tony Pena and his mother went driving. They often went driving after Pena bought his first car. By then, he was one of the best catchers in baseball, a rich man, a Dominican hero.
They drove around a beautiful community near Santiago. “Isn’t this nice?” he asked his mother.
“Yes,” she said. “It is beautiful.”
They then drove through a neighborhood of homes. It was a neighborhood they had driven through before, many times. “I love these homes,” Rosalia said.
“I know,” Tony said. “I know.”
And they pulled up to the nicest home.
“What do you think of this one?” he asked her.
“It is the home of my dreams,” she said.
He reached into his pocket, pulled out a key, gave it to her.
“It is yours,” he said. They both cried for a long time.
“All the things I have done in my life,” Tony Pena said, “that is the greatest. I bought my mother a home. It is the greatest thing a man can do.”
Rosalia Pena still lives in that home. Tony Pena still returns to the Dominican every winter.
And, in Santiago, there is an open bank account. In it is $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.