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.