Last week, I-70 Baseball’s Justin Hulsey wrote that it’s time for the Tony Larussa Era to end in St. Louis.
I don’t disagree with that; in fact, I’ve never been a fan of Tony La Russa, even back to his days managing the Athletics.
Hulsey and others have mentioned a handful of names as a possible replacement for La Russa, including Cardinals AAA manager Pop Warner, former big-league managers Bob Brenly and Bobby Valentine, and others. But one name that has only recently received any consideration is Tony Pena.
Royals fans are screaming at the top of their lungs right now. As a group, we Royals fans have a pretty poor opinion of Pena. He had one successful season before everything fell out from under him.
But I’m not so sure the criticism of Pena is completely fair.
And I think the Cardinals could do a whole lot worse than Tony Pena as their next manager.
Pena, of course, is the former catcher who played for, among other teams, the St. Louis Cardinals during an 18-year big-league career. Midway through 2002, he was named manager of the Kansas City Royals, replacing the extremely unpopular Tony Muser.
In 2003, the Royals put together a winning season for the first time since the 1994 strike. As a Royals fan, I was thrilled; I happened to have a partial season ticket package that year, and in July or August I received a letter from the team announcing that as a season ticket holder I could reserve a couple of playoff tickets. I sent in my deposit, and shortly after the Royals took a tailspin, settling into third place to finish the season. I was disappointed, but that September I got married, and I didn’t care so much about the playoffs after that.
For his efforts, Tony Pena won the AL Manager of the Year Award in 2003, and it was well-deserved.
The next year, however, the Royals were back to normal, and the team, which included many of the same players from the year before, lost 104 games, their worst-ever record to that point. Early into the 2005 season, Pena resigned, and many speculated he would have been fired if he hadn’t.
That 2004 season was what sealed Pena’s fate. But that season was not at all his fault. The Royals front office signed a handful of big-name free agents that season, and every one of them fizzled, most notoriously former MVP Juan Gonzalez and catcher Benito Santiago. Pena is not to blame for that.
Kansas City tried out a youth movement the next year, slashing their payroll to the second-lowest in baseball, and the team started out with an 8-25 record, prompting Pena’s resignation. It also paved the way for Buddy Bell to become the skipper. Bell, in my opinion, has to be one of the worst managers of all time, for the Royals or otherwise.
But for one brief shining season, Tony Pena and the Royals were near the top of the baseball world.
After he left Kansas City, he signed on as a coach with the New York Yankees, where he essentially tutored under Joe Torre and now Joe Girardi, both of whom wear World Series rings. He also interviewed for the Yankees’ top job when Torre left.
I think it’s about time for Pena to return to the helm.
And the Cardinals seem to make sense. As a former player, he’s already familiar with the organization and the city, and the fans overall seem to like him. He has managerial experience and he’s proven to be a winner as a player as well as with Kansas City and New York as a manager and coach.
In Kansas City, Tony Pena turned lemons into lemonade.
Perhaps in St. Louis, he can turn grapes into fine wine.
Matt Kelsey is a Royals writer for I-70 Baseball. He can be reached at email@example.com.