Allard Baird, the Kansas City Royals’ general manager, hired Tony Peña six weeks into the 2002 season as the guy to lead the team out of the Tony Loser era and back to respectability. Much was said six months ago about how Peña and the Royals planned to accomplish this task. Many of those words now sound as hollow as Albert Belle’s bat.
The most frequently repeated quote from Peña’s first press conference was the new manager’s response when asked what message he wanted to send his players. “I am the new DJ. I play the music. You are to dance,” Peña said. “If you don’t know how to dance, get off of the dance floor.” The assembled media erupted in genuine laughter, and the clip was replayed on almost every television and radio report.
Peña made himself sound like a tough disciplinarian who might be able to mold this underachieving bunch into a competitive team. “I believe in rules,” he proclaimed at his debut. “We need to follow the rules, and I need to enforce those rules.”
Late in the season, light-hitting shortstop Neifi Perez put Peña’s assertion to the test. The manager wanted to get a look at Angel Berroa, a rookie shortstop with potential but little experience, and in several games he benched Perez and started Berroa. In a meaningless contest against the White Sox, the third game of the four Berroa started over Perez, Peña pulled the rookie for a pinch hitter in the eighth inning, then told Perez to replace him in the field for the ninth. Perez loudly refused to enter the game.
At that moment, Peña faced the kind of decision that can define a manager’s career. This was the self-proclaimed DJ’s opportunity to show his leadership qualities and remove an underachieving malcontent from his team. He couldn’t do it.
Afterward, Perez dismissed the incident as a joke, and Peña failed to acknowledge the gravity of the offense. “I don’t have any problems with my ball club,” the manager said. “I believe every single player has a lot of respect for themselves, and they have a lot of respect for me.”
Peña benched Perez for a few games, then reinserted him into the lineup. And when Perez strode to the plate a week later, it signaled to Royals fans that Peña’s “new DJ” claim had been the real joke.
Paul Splittorff, the Royals’ television broadcaster and former pitcher, was aghast. “I don’t believe what I am seeing,” a disgusted Splittorff told his television audience as Perez stood in the batter’s box. The announcer was right: Perez’s actions disgraced himself, his team and players like Splittorff who came before him. It sickened me to see Perez remain in a uniform with the words Kansas City across his chest.
A few weeks back, Allard Baird quietly placed Perez on waivers, and he was picked up by the Giants. But the damage to Peña’s reputation had already been done.
Respect is one of the few things Tony Peña can control as the manager of the hapless Royals. Fans understand that the economics of baseball make it virtually impossible for their once-proud franchise to compete for a World Series crown on a shoestring. What they will not accept is being lied to.
Peña strikes me as a proud man who is slow to admit his mistakes. Overlooking Perez’s mutinous act was a rookie managerial error. Peña needs to learn from it and understand that some players, at least, are not worth sacrificing your reputation for. “I believe if you have great communication, everything will go well,” Peña preached when he first took over.
Everything has not gone well for Peña’s Royals. A franchise record 100-loss season is not what owner David Glass expected when he spent a team-high $47 million on payroll in 2002. Glass has announced that he will slash the Royals’ 2003 payroll. The team has also committed to a youth movement that may retard immediate success even further. “Typically it takes four or five years,” Baird says. “But I think we can shorten that.”
All this makes Peña’s job almost as difficult as that of those who are burdened with the task of selling Royals season tickets. Peña needs to realize that merely saying the words he believes fans want to hear may have worked to get him hired, but it’s not going to do a damn thing for him when it comes to keeping his job.
This will be Peña’s first spring training with the team, and it is an excellent opportunity for him to set a tone of honesty that resonates throughout the organization. Words mean a lot here in the heartland.