The Greatest Summer Ever: Tony Pena

Throughout the 2015 season, Did the Tribe Win Last Night will take a look back at the 1995 Cleveland Indians for the 20th anniversary of their fourth pennant winning season. Included will be historic game recaps, headlining stories and a ranking of the team’s most influential players that truly made 1995 The Greatest Summer Ever. Today looks back at player #16 Tony Pena.

On October 3, 1995, the city of Cleveland was buzzing.  There was electricity in the air and everybody had one thing on their minds…Indians playoff baseball.  Those were three words that had not been spoken in 41 years since Willie Mays and the New York Giants swept the 111-win Indians out of the 1954 World Series.

The Indians were the best team in baseball; fresh off of a 100-win season in only 144 games.  They boasted the best lineup, the best pitching staff, the best bullpen, the best hitter and the best pitcher in the American league.  That summer had been simply that…the best.

All of the accomplishments that the Indians made from April through September meant little, however, come playoff time.  With the regular season behind them, the Indians had to start over from scratch.  Their first opponent was the American League East Division Champion Boston Red Sox, led by MVP candidate Mo Vaughn and former MVP’s Roger Clemens and Jose Canseco.

Even with all the great players that the Red Sox had, the Indians were still the heavy favorites to win the series.  The only real question was which Indian was going to be the hero?  Would it be Albert Belle, the heavy favorite to win the ’95 MVP award?  How about Jose Mesa, the record-setting closer? Perhaps a steady veteran such as Eddie Murray, Orel Hershiser or Dennis Martinez?  Or maybe an All-Star like Kenny Lofton, Carlos Baerga or Manny Ramirez?

How about Tony Pena???

The Indians signed Pena as a free agent in February of 1994 to serve as insurance for regular catcher Sandy Alomar’s brittle body.  Alomar had battled injuries through the first few seasons of his Major League career and Pena was signed to be his backup.  Pena proved to be far more valuable than the average second catcher.

When the Tribe signed Pena he wasn’t the hitter that he was in the mid-80’s, when he was making All-Star teams and slamming 10-15 homeruns each year.  What he was, was a former Gold Glove winner with a steady bat and a great but unorthodox ability to handle a pitching staff.

Pena was never shy about telling pitchers how he felt, and he didn’t care if the whole world saw it too.  Several times during the 1995 season, Pena came out to the mound to talk to Mesa when he didn’t think that the pitcher was 100% focused.  Pena didn’t have to say much on those visits to the mound because his catcher’s mitt did most of the talking.  Pena would take his glove, give Mesa a good hard smack in the face and head back behind the plate to catch.  Far more times than not the veteran’s strategy worked.

When Alomar was hurt to start the ’95 season, Pena became the Indians regular catcher for the first half of the season.  The Indians never missed a beat with Tony behind the plate; storming out of the gate to baseball’s best record by the time that Alomar returned in late June.

Pena did a nice job for the Tribe in 1995, playing in 91 games and batting .262 with 5 homeruns and 28 RBI.  He handled the pitching staff nicely and was a sturdy backup for the injured Alomar.  His biggest contribution, however, didn’t come until the first game of the playoffs when he became the most famous backup catcher in Indians history.

Game one of the American League Division Series matched up the Red Sox former MVP and Cy Young winner Roger Clemens against the Indians All-Star Dennis Martinez.  It had the makings of a classic battle and it certainly did not disappoint.

After a 39 minute rain delay before the game, the 44,218 people that came to cheer on the Tribe at Jacobs Field finally got to see playoff baseball in Cleveland.  The weather was miserable, but through two innings, Martinez and Clemens were locked in a scoreless game.  The only blip on the score sheet was a Mike Greenwell single off of Martinez in the top of the second.  Clemens had set the Indians down in order for two straight frames.

The Red Sox drew first blood in the top of the third inning.  Martinez allowed second baseman Luis Alicea to hit a one out single through the hole between shortstop and third.  Right fielder Dwayne Hosey grounded into a fielder’s choice, forcing Alicea out at second.  That brought up the Red Sox shortstop and Indian killer John Valentin and he crushed Martinez’s 1-0 pitch into the right field seats for a 2-0 Boston lead.

The score remained the same until the bottom of the sixth inning.  Clemens was cruising through the mighty Indians lineup, allowing only two singles in the fourth inning.  This inning started out well again for “The Rocket” as he retired Alomar and Kenny Lofton to give the Sox two quick outs.  Then the wheels fell off for Clemens.  He walked Omar Vizquel on five pitches then gave up a single to Baerga moving Vizquel to third.  Belle followed by igniting the Jacobs Field crowd with a shot into the left-centerfield gap.  Vizquel scored easily and Baerga was waved around third as the relay man was receiving the ball.  The throw to the plate was dropped by catcher Mike Macfarlane and Baerga was safe, tying the score at 2-2.  On the catcher’s error, Belle was able to advance to third base.  The next pitch that Clemens threw gave the Indians the lead, as Eddie Murray laced a first pitch single through the right side, scoring Belle.  The Indians had their first lead and were ready to turn the game over to their awesome bullpen.

Julian Tavarez, the Indians Rookie of the Year candidate, replaced Martinez in the top of the seventh, retiring the Sox in order.  After Clemens did the same to the Tribe in the bottom half, Tavarez’s luck ran out in the top of the eighth.  Alicea led off the inning for Boston and worked the count full on Tavarez.  Not wanting to walk the leadoff batter and put the tying run on base, Tavarez grooved a pitch to the light hitting shortstop.  Alicea turned on the pitch and planted it into the right field stands, tying the game at 3-3.  As if on cue, the rain picked up and started getting heavy again.

Tavarez got the next batter, Hosey to pop out to Vizquel, but allowed Valentin to line a single into left.  Manager Mike Hargrove had seen enough of Tavarez for the night and gave the ball to his reliable left hander Paul Assenmacher to face the Red Sox best hitter, Mo Vaughn.  Assenmacher was up to the challenge, as he struck Vaughn out on four pitches.  With the right hander Canseco coming up to the plate, Hargrove turned back to his bullpen and a right hander of his own; Eric Plunk.  The showdown would have to wait, however.

The rain had become so heavy that the tarp was pulled out for the second time that night, and a 23 minute rain delay followed.  Once the downpour had ceased, the night turned bizarre.  With two outs and Plunk warmed up, Valentin tried to steal second base.  The only problem was that Plunk threw over to first baseman Paul Sorrento instead of delivering the ball to the plate.  Sorrento promptly threw the ball into centerfield for an error, allowing Valentin to be safe at second.  “Bad” then turned to “worse” for the Indians, as Lofton misplayed the misplay and allowed the ball to scoot past him.  Valentin then went to third base on Lofton’s error.  Two errors on a pickoff play is normally a recipe for disaster, but the Indians were able to dodge the bullet when Plunk got Canseco to fly out to right field and end the half inning.

In the bottom of the eighth, Boston reliever and future Indian farmhand Rheal Cormier worked through his wildness as he walked Vizquel and hit Baerga with a pitch, but held the Tribe scoreless.  In the top of the ninth, Plunk also danced into and out of danger, allowing a single, sacrifice bunt and an intentional walk before he retired the last two Red Sox hitters to escape the danger.  Another Boston reliever, Mike Stanton, shut down the Indians in the bottom of the ninth and sent the game into extra innings.

In the top of the tenth, Jose Mesa replaced Plunk on the hill for the Indians.  He started out wild, walking the first two batters of the inning to bring up Boston’s 1-2 punch, Vaughn and Canseco.  Mesa worked out of the jam by getting Vaughn to line out to Lofton, and got Canseco to bounce into an inning ending double play.  Once again, the Tribe bullpen averted disaster.

Stanton also got himself into trouble in the bottom half of the inning.  The leadoff batter, Alomar, caught everybody in the ballpark by surprise by dropping down a bunt on a 1-1 pitch and beat it out for a single.  Smelling victory, Hargrove put in the speedy Wayne Kirby to run for Alomar.  The effort, however, was spoiled as Lofton followed with a strikeout, Vizquel bounced into a fielder’s choice forcing Kirby at second, and Baerga struck out to end the inning.

Hargrove turned to reliever Jim Poole to pitch the eleventh, and Poole did not fare well.  After Greenwell lined out to center to start the inning, third baseman Tim Naehring blasted an 0-2 pitch onto the homerun porch, giving Boston a 4-3 lead.  Poole retired the next two batters, but the damage was already done.  The Indians needed to answer back or they were going down 0-1 in the series.

Fortunately for Cleveland, the best answer that anyone could ask for was leading off the inning for the Tribe.  Belle was the first batter to face Boston closer Rick Aguilera, and Belle punished his 2-2 pitch and sent Jacobs Field into a frenzy as the ball sailed into the bleachers to tie the game at four.  As Belle circled the bases, the game turned even more bizarre.

The Red Sox and their manager Kevin Kennedy were screaming at the umpires that Belle was using an illegal bat and that the homerun shouldn’t count.  Belle had been caught in a 1994 game in Chicago versus the White Sox for using a corked bat, and Kennedy smelled more foul play coming from the Tribe cleanup batter.  When the umpires confiscated the bat, the game was delayed again (turning a long game into an even longer one).  It was during this time that Belle famously stared onto the pitcher’s mound, flexed his right bicep, pointed to it and yelled to Aguilera and Kennedy that all the cork he needed was in his muscles.  The umpires examined the bat and found nothing but wood.

With the score tied at four in the top of the twelfth, Poole worked himself into more trouble by allowing a leadoff double to Alicea, who was quickly becoming a thorn in the Indians side.  Hosey followed by striking out and Poole intentionally walked Valentin, bringing up Vaughn.  In one of the biggest moments of the game, Vaughn struck out on three pitches ending the day for Poole.  Hargrove called on one of his starting pitchers, Ken Hill to get Canseco out and end the threat.  Hill promptly struck Canseco out, sending the game to the bottom of the inning.

The Red Sox called on reliever Mike Maddux for the bottom half of the inning and Maddux struggled mightily.  Maddux hit leadoff batter Kenny Lofton and Vizquel followed by reaching on an error, putting runners at the corners with nobody out.  Maddux made the pitch of his life when he got Baerga to pop out to short and Kennedy decided to intentionally walk the red-hot Belle to load the bases and set up a force out at the plate.  Kennedy’s gamble paid off brilliantly as new reliever Zane Smith got Murray to bounce out to third, forcing Lofton at the plate.  Smith then retired Jim Thome on a groundout and ended yet another Indian rally that did not score any runs.

In the top of the thirteenth, Hill started the inning by allowing another base runner; this time a leadoff single to Greenwell.  Hill knew that this game was his to win or lose, as is the case for starting pitchers who get put in the game in extra innings.  Knowing that the ballgame was his, Hill buckled down and retired the next three batters, including a strikeout of the night’s earlier hero, Naehring.

Manny Ramirez started the bottom half of the thirteenth by grounding out to short.  Hargrove then turned to his bench and right hander Herbert Perry to try to get something started against the southpaw Smith.  Perry flirted with the Tribe fans in the ballpark when he drove the ball deep to right field, but came up short when the ball landed in Hosey’s glove on the warning track.  With two outs, the most unlikely hero strode to the plate.

With the 13 innings, the two rain delays, all the pitching changes and the long television breaks during the playoffs, it was 2:00 AM by the time Tony Pena dug in the batter’s box for the second time that night.  Pena had grounded out with two outs and the winning run in scoring position back in the eleventh inning, so he was looking for another chance.  The entire country was sleeping, outside of Cleveland, and Pena had only one thing on his mind…ending the game.

Zane Smith rocked and fired a first pitch ball to Pena.  The second pitch was out of the zone also.  The third one was too.  Legend has it that Hargrove gave Pena the take sign, ordering the catcher not to swing at the next pitch.  In true legendary fashion, Pena ignored his boss and, at 2:08 AM, took a mighty swing at the 3-0 pitch.

Pena blasted the ball toward the 19-foot wall in left center field.  As the ball traveled in the air, NBC announcer Bob Costas cried out on national television, “OH MAN, OH MAN, Tony Pena…ON 3-0…,” the ball clanked into the left field bleachers, “SENDS EVERYBODY HOME!”  The fans who remained at Jacobs Field exploded in jubilation as Pena circled the bases with his arms stretched out over his head and his clenched fists pumping through the air.  When Pena reached the plate, his teammates mobbed him and beat him on top of the helmet.  The Jacobs Field magic had taken over; this time during the playoffs.

The playoff-inexperienced Indians had their first playoff win under their belt.  It was a long night, as the game lasted over five hours and had two rain delays, but the Indians were undefeated in the post season.  The Indians victory was a crushing blow to the Red Sox and their long-suffering fans.  Pena’s extra inning blast propelled the Indians through the first round of the playoffs as they swept Boston in three games.

Pena’s walk-off bomb was more than just any other walk-off.  In 2004, the homerun was named the top moment in Jacobs Field history by The Plain Dealer.  It was the biggest moment in the biggest year in franchise history, and it is played on just about any Indian highlight film that can be found.  Tony Pena’s smiling face can be seen on posters and billboards around Progressive Field, and all the emotions of that late night still get stirred up when people look at it.

After 1995, Tony Pena caught one more season for the Tribe but batted only .195 with one homerun.  He signed with the Chicago White Sox as a free agent before the 1997 season and was traded to the Houston Astros that August.  Pena’s playing days were over after the ’97 season.

Pena was far from being done with the game of baseball, however.  In 1999, Pena became the manager for the New Orleans Zephyrs, the Astros AAA affiliate.  In 2002, Pena got his first Major League managing job when the Kansas City Royals hired him.  He led the 2003 Royals to a very surprising season when they had a seven game lead at the All-Star break and finished 83-79.  Pena was named the American League’s Manager of the Year for his efforts.  After two disappointing seasons in ’04 and ’05, Pena was fired from his job as manager of the Royals.  That November, Pena was hired as first base coach for the New York Yankees and has since been promoted to be the bench coach for manager Joe Girardi.

Tomorrow:  Eric Plunk

Previous Entries:
#26 Dave Winfield
#25 Mark Clark
#24 Wayne Kirby
#23 Alan Embree
#22 Alvaro Espinoza
#21 Herbert Perry
#20 Ken Hill
#19 Jim Poole
#18 Chad Ogea
#17 Sandy Alomar

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