#CardCorner: 1982 Topps Tony Peña
“It really shocked me,” said Peña, visibly crying as he was comforted by Pirates manager Jim Leyland. “My heart is breaking.”
Thousands of Pirates fans felt the same way. And though the trade would serve as a building block for the Pirates’ three straight National League East titles in the early 1990s, it also marked the end of an era for Pittsburgh and their ebullient catcher.
Born June 4, 1957, in Monte Cristi of the Dominican Republic, Peña was raised in an athletic family and eventually – like so many other athletes in his country – sought a tryout with legendary Pirates executive Howie Haak, one of the few big league scouts on the island in the 1970s. Peña traveled 30 miles for the opportunity.
Haak offered Peña a contract with a $4,000 bonus. His mother, Rosalia, reluctantly gave her blessing, and Peña signed on July 22, 1975.
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The Pirates sent Peña to their Gulf Coast League team in Bradenton, then promoted him to Class A Charleston, where he hit .224. They soon moved Peña behind the plate, but he struggled at Class A in 1977 and Double-A in 1978 while making the adjustment to life as a catcher.
Then in 1979, Peña burst onto the scene as a prospect when he hit .313 with 34 home runs for Double-A Buffalo of the Eastern League, taking advantage of the short right field fence at War Memorial Stadium. The 22-year-old Peña also reaped the benefits for offseason work, honing his right arm into a whip-like weapon that discouraged baserunners.
After he hit .327 with nine home runs for Triple-A Portland in 1980, the Pirates brought up Peña in September. He hit .429 over eight games, stamping himself as the club’s future catcher and earning a spot on the Topps Triple-A All-Star Team.
The future arrived in 1981 when Pittsburgh traded veteran Ed Ott to the Angels a week before the regular season in a deal for first baseman Jason Thompson.
“I think I’m ready to play in the big leagues,” Peña told the Bradenton Herald prior to the trade. “I don’t want to play in the minor leagues again. If I get the chance to show what I can do, I’ll be happy.”
Pirates manager Chuck Tanner started veteran Steve Nicosia – like Ott, a veteran of the 1979 World Series champions – in the team’s first 11 games. But with Nicosia hitting .133, Tanner turned to Peña.
As the starter for the remainder of that strike-shortened season, Peña hit .300 and finished in sixth place in the NL Rookie of the Year voting while flashing arm strength that would one day help him earn multiple Gold Glove Awards.
“He and Johnny Bench were the two best catchers I ever saw,” Astros All-Star Jose Cruz Sr. told Knight Ridder Newspapers. “Soft hands. Strong arm. A leader.
“That’s what made Tony Peña special. He was a leader.”
In 1984, the Pirates led the National League with a 3.11 ERA as Peña directed a veteran staff that featured John Candelaria, Rick Rhoden and John Tudor. Peña hit .286 with 15 homers and a team-best 78 RBI. But in a snake-bit season, Pittsburgh finished last in the NL East with a 75-87 record despite outscoring its opponents by 48 runs.
It was the first of three straight last-place finishes for Peña and the Pirates.
“They’ll probably shoot me,” Thrift told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of the team’s fans following the trade. “I think Tony’s our most popular player. That’s why I didn’t sleep well last night.”
Leyland, however, saw the future when the trade was made.
“We got better today,” Leyland told the Post-Gazette. “It’s not going to sit well with some people, but that’s the way it is. If you think you can help your ball club, you make the trade.”
In St. Louis, Peña was seen as a piece that could help the Cardinals return to the World Series. And though he battled injuries and struggled at the plate throughout the hot St. Louis summer, the Cardinals won the NL East title.
Peña hit just .214 in 116 regular season games but batted .381 in his first postseason appearance in the NLCS vs. the Giants as the Cardinals won a tightly-contested seven game series. Peña was even better in the World Series against the Twins, hitting .409 with four RBI – but the Cardinals lost to Minnesota in seven games.
“(Peña is) one of the premier defensive catchers in baseball,” Red Sox general manager Lou Gorman told the Associated Press.
At age 32, Peña was becoming a defensive specialist as his bat speed slowed. He hit .263 with seven homers and 56 RBI in 1990, leading all AL catchers with 142 games and finishing second in the league with a .995 fielding percentage as the Red Sox won the AL East. Peña hit just .214 as Boston was swept in the ALCS, but his work behind the plate during the season was so impressive that he finished 21st in the AL MVP balloting – the first time since 1983 that he received MVP votes.
Peña won his fourth-and-final Gold Glove Award in 1991, becoming just the second catcher (following Bob Boone) to be honored in both leagues.
The Indians swept Boston and defeated Seattle in the ALCS before falling to the Braves, denying Peña a ring in his second appearance in the World Series.
After hitting .195 in 67 games in 1996, Peña joined the White Sox as a free agent in 1997 before being traded to the Astros for a minor leaguer on Aug. 15. He helped the Astros win the NL Central before they were defeated by the Braves in the NLDS.
Peña joined the Yankees as a coach in 2006 and stayed through 2017. In 2013, he managed the Dominican Republic team to a win in the World Baseball Classic.
As a player, Peña hit .260 with 1,687 hits, 107 home runs and 708 RBI. He retired in fourth on the all-time games caught list with 1,950.
With his ever-present smile, however, Peña certainly ranks at the top of any list of players who most enjoyed the game.
“I have seen people forget where they came from,” Peña told Knight Ridder Newspapers. “I cannot forget. I must not forget. If you forget where you came from, you forget who you are.”
Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum