A four-time Gold Glover behind the plate known for his unique low, one-leg-out crouch, the Dominican Pena was a clubhouse leader and true baseball gamer for a decade and a half, falling to the disabled list just once in his tenure with six teams. Admired in the league for his love of the game, the adept catcher began his career with one of the strongest arms in the game, and later became a master at calling a game.
Along with his brother Ramon, who became a pitcher and outfielder in the Pirates and Tigers organizations, Pena was taught baseball by their mother, an outstanding softball player. Along with his trademark squat behind the plate, Pena had his share of other habits. His method for breaking in a new glove involved taking a bat and pounding the new mitt against the ground for half an hour. For healing sore arms, the backstop would make a mixture of lamb grease and oil and apply it to the limb. “They can throw whatever they want out there,” Pena declared about his pitchers. “It’s when they’re having trouble, then it’s up to me to know how to help them.”
After four and a half years in the minors, Pena got his promotion to the bigs with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1980. He became a fan favorite at Three Rivers Stadium for his aggressive baserunning and avant-garde one-leg crouch. While his strong arm and quick hands earned him three consecutive Gold Gloves from 1983-’85, he showed a bit of power at the plate as well, occasionally swinging hard enough to push himself out of the batter’s box. But though he hit 15 homers in ’83 and ’84, his production soon tailed off. After hitting just .249 in 1985, he saw his average rise in ’86 but his power numbers did not, and he hit ten homers and 52 RBIs.
In a surprise trade in April 1987, the Bucs shipped the popular Pena to the St. Louis Cardinals in April 1987 for Andy Van Slyke, Mike LaValliere, and Mike Dunne. While Pena shook off an early-season thumb injury to help the Redbirds into the World Series against the Minnesota Twins, Van Slyke and LaValliere would help fuel the Bucs’ resurgence the following decade, as Pittsburgh threepeated as NL East champs from 1990 through 1992.
While Pena batted only .214 with five homers that year and played a few games at first and in the outfield (ironically, LaValliere won the Gold Glove that year behind the plate), he decided to try out glasses at the end of the year. With his vision rectified, Pena led Cardinal regulars with a .381 average in the League Championship Series and a .409 mark in the losing World Series effort.
Though Pena pushed his regular-season average and homers back up in 1988, the best of his offensive years were over. With a young Todd Zeile ready to assume catching duties for the Cards, Pena signed with the Boston Red Sox in November 1989. He helped the Red Sox to the AL East title in his first year in Beantown, but over the next three years, Pena gradually saw his playing time diminish. His lack of power (just one home run in 410 at-bats in 1992) made him less desirable as a full-time backstop, and the BoSox began looking for a catcher with more punch.
Pena signed with the Cleveland Indians in February 1994 to share time with Sandy Alomar Jr., and fell to his fewest games played by far, though he did show better offensive percentages. While he enjoyed a brief power resurgence when Alomar hit the disabled list with a knee injury in 1995, Pena was mostly a part-time catcher and defensive replacement. But his enthusiasm for the game and intensity with pitchers had not waned since his rookie year: Once in ’95 when the Tribe’s closer, Jose Mesa was struggling in a game against the Yankees, the squat Pena approached the mound and slapped the hulking reliever in the face with his glove, telling him to pay attention.
After signing with the Chicago White Sox in January 1997, Pena was traded for a minor league pitcher to the Houston Astros in August as Houston geared up for a postseason run. That winter Pena got a job as a manager with Cibao in the Dominican League; though he got a bases-loaded hit off Jose Mesa for the penultimate win in the Dominican title, he took himself off the roster following the game, making his retirement as a player from baseball official.