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Pena switches hands to follow dad's example

Catcher does everything with left hand -- except throw a baseball
MLB.com @JoeTrezz

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- People like Francisco Pena, some might say, were born to catch. Penas become ballplayers like Bushes become political candidates, like Mannings become Pro Bowlers. They pass spikes, gloves, masks and bats around their family tree and down through the generations.

Of course, those prone to this type of hyperbole are often wrong. Pena, who has been lacing up in Cardinals camp this spring as a non-roster invitee, wasn't born to be a catcher. He's following in the facemask of his father, Tony, who caught 18 seasons in the big leagues (and managed or coached 15 more), but genetics aren't why.

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- People like Francisco Pena, some might say, were born to catch. Penas become ballplayers like Bushes become political candidates, like Mannings become Pro Bowlers. They pass spikes, gloves, masks and bats around their family tree and down through the generations.

Of course, those prone to this type of hyperbole are often wrong. Pena, who has been lacing up in Cardinals camp this spring as a non-roster invitee, wasn't born to be a catcher. He's following in the facemask of his father, Tony, who caught 18 seasons in the big leagues (and managed or coached 15 more), but genetics aren't why.

Just watch him write a check. Or use a fork. Or play ping-pong. It's all left-handed.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

"That's how I do everything else," Pena says, snapping off his shin guards. "Except throw a baseball."

No left-handed player has caught in the Major Leagues, even semi-regularly, since Fred Tenney in 1902. A southpaw named Jiggs Donahue logged a few innings behind the dish in 1896. Since then, they've been universally cold-shouldered, converted or not considered at all, across virtually every level of the sport. Only four lefties in the last 116 years have even made emergency cameos behind the dish, the last being Benny Distefano in 1989.

That was also the year Francisco was born, a few days after Tony's last of three seasons in St. Louis. At some point over one of the winters to come, Tony realized he had a problem.

"Lefties can only pitch and play outfield," Tony Pena said. "As a father, I was hoping he'd follow in my footsteps."

So behind their family home in the Dominican Republic, Tony piled up rocks at his young son's feet -- and began placing them in his right hand.

"Rock after rock," he says now. "Rock after rock."

"He had this plan," Francisco says now. "And it worked out."

Both of Tony's boys became Major Leaguers, just like him and his brother, Ramon. His oldest, Tony, Jr., just finished his playing career and is slated to coach in the Royals system this season. Francisco, 28, earned short call-ups in each of the past four seasons, with the Royals and Orioles. Signed for depth by St. Louis this winter, Pena could end up catching most days for Triple-A Memphis, especially if the club doesn't assign No. 9 prospect Andrew Knizner there.

The Cardinals are the youngest Pena's fourth organization, the latest stop in a baseball life that began as a boy. His best childhood memories come from the clubhouse in Cleveland, where he'd visit his dad's juggernaut Indians teams during the mid-nineties.

The ballpark became his backyard. The sport the fabric of their family.

"Tony Jr. and Francisco grew up around baseball," Tony said. "Baseball. Baseball. Baseball. They grew up watching me. I'd go home. Baseball. I'd leave. Baseball. You have to get up with baseball, you have to eat baseball, you have to go to sleep with baseball.

"When I cross those two lines, I put it in my mind I'll do my job and always have fun," Francisco said. "Whatever happens, I want to feel in my heart I did my 100 percent."

Asked who taught him to approach the game that way, Francisco said: "My dad."

Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz.

St. Louis Cardinals, Francisco Pena