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.