When Tony Pena was a boy growing up in the Dominican Republic, playing baseball for money was a pipe dream. It was the stuff of fantasy. Tony was naive enough to entertain that fantasy, dreaming of being like Manny Sanguillen or Juan Marichal, two of the most successful players to come out of Latin America and heroes to young Tony.
But Tony’s father didn’t play baseball and never showed his son how to play the game, because the Pena patriarch was too busy working on a farm more than 10 hours almost every day. The person who showed Tony and his brothers how to play the game was their mom – Rosalia Pena.
Rosalia knew a lot about playing ball – she was a star softball player in the Dominican for years. According to family legend, Rosalia was as good or better than most of the men she played with and against. She was known for having a strong arm and being a good contact hitter. The traits were passed on to Tony.
In 1975, the 17-year old Tony was spotted in a tryout camp held by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Dominican. They offered him $4,000 to sign a professional contract, but his parents said no. His mother was adamant that her son get an education. In a timeworn story offered by budding baseball prospects for ages, eventually Tony secured her blessing by promising to give up the game and get his degree if he wasn’t good enough.
Tony was good enough. He learned well from his mother. Pena was a good contact hitter and he had a strong arm just like Rosalia. he debuted with the Pirates in 1980, wearing the same uniform as latin legend Roberto Clemente, and playing the same position as Sanguillen. Pena became one of the best catchers in the National League in the 1980s, winning four Gold Gloves, and making the All-Star team five times. His trademark was his unique squat behind home plate, where he extended one leg while crouching on the other leg. Amazingly, he was able to throw strikes to second base from that prone position, and his reflexes were among the quickest from behind the dish.
“Tony was the one of the best catchers I ever threw to,” teammate John Candelaria said. “He made a nice low target and [I] never had to worry about keeping runners close, he took care of the running game.”
One of the first things Tony did when he established himself in the big leagues was to send for his mother to come see him play. eventually Rosalia and his sister lived with him in Pittsburgh for part of his career with the club. She wasn’t just there to cheer her son, she was there to help.
“My mother knows the game,” Pena said in 1982. “If she thinks I am doing something wrong on the field, she will mention it to me.”
Rosalia got to see her son blossom into a star over the course of his 18-year career. When he finally retired at the age of 40 he had caught more games than all but three men in MLB history. But Tony wasn’t done, he became a manager in the minors and eventually earned the job as skipper of the Kansas City Royals, where he earned Manager of the Year honors in the AL in 2003. After he resigned from the Royals, Pena was quickly snatched up by the New York Yankees for their coaching staff. He was one of the few who interviewed to replace Joe Torre when Torre left the team after the 2007 season. A few weeks ago the Yanks gave the Boston Red Sox permission to interview Pena for their head job, but they went a different direction. Pena is one of the most respected men in the game of baseball.
He still hasn’t gotten that formal education his mother (who passed away in 2010) hoped for him, but the education and success he’s achieved through nearly four decades in baseball is impressive. He’s made his mama proud.
Dan Holmes is an author and baseball historian. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and Major League Baseball. He once defeated George Brett in Texas Hold Em poker and faced Phil Niekro's knuckleball. He has two daughters and he writes regularly about baseball and many other topics.