Friday, March 23, 2007


Well, not exactly, but close. Shortstop Tony Pena Jr., son of the man who managed the Royals to an 83-79 record in 2003 for their only winning season since 1992, has been acquired from the Braves for currently injured RHP Erik Cordier.

Megan Stock over at the Royals' official blog (she does a good job with this) reports that in 81 games last year at AAA Richmond, Pena batted a respectable .282 with 17 extra-base hits and 23 RBI, showing a little speed, too, with 12 steals in 15 attempts.

Cordier, a 2004 second round pick, put up some good numbers in limited time last year, but his injury history -- knee surgery in '05 followed by Tommy John surgery a year later -- made him expendable. Dayton Moore striking deals with former mentor John Schuerholz is a bit unnerving, but one would think Moore's knowledge of the Braves organization serves him well. On Pena, Moore's had an insider's look. From a 2004 article:

Known more for his solid glove, the younger Pena has been displaying a hot bat in the Arizona Fall League. Through Wednesday, the 23-year-old middle infielder was hitting .344 (21-for-61) with three doubles and a triple.

"[Tony] has a lot of natural ability," Braves director of player personnel Dayton Moore said. "He's represented our organization very well, just like all the guys we have out there [in Arizona]."

Pena's also been having an excellent spring, batting .342/.342/.500 (13 for 38 with a home run and 6 RBI).

But let's put all this aside for just a moment. On this, the occasion of Pena's return to Kansas City, I can't help but recall a summer not too distant though, somehow, not so recent, either. 2003: warm, invigorating, evocative. Magical all over, almost mystical now that I think about it, come out of nowhere and gone too soon. To this day we Royals fans carry those memories to sustain the faith, because to have that back ... now that would be good.

There was plenty to treasure that season, from Carlos Beltran, in his final full season in Kansas City, almost gallivanting as if possessed by a higher baseball spirit or in search of it; to Joe Randa, seemingly grinning every second like a kid perplexed by joie de vivre; to Mike Sweeney, who we knew, with every win, moved that much closer towards a longterm contract, for he agreed to it if the Royals could just cobble together one .500 season.... But the guy who best epitomized that remarkable summer was the manager, a spunky, zestful man who'd come from nothing to find himself entrusted with the keys to an empire. The Show, just imagine. He embraced a team of young nobodies and guided them to first place, to the lead of Baseball Tonight and doorstep of baseball heaven. He kept them on that summit for 93 days by some combination of charm and stupidity. He called straight steals of third in the bottom of the ninth of tied games hoping for a wild pitch... which he got much too often. He loved hit-and-runs like his children, loved bunts, loved the spotlight, the game, the life. Loved to sign autographs and scream Nosotros creemos! Loved to say "I told you so." And for that, we loved him back.

It was, of course, over too fast. It's almost cruel that, in the annals, 2003 sticks out like an elephant in tights: that 83-79 an obvious aberration, surrounded by 65-97, 62-100... 58-104, 56-106, 62-100. But Pena's work was done. He left indelible impressions.

For me, the summer of 2003 will always be remembered for this: the most perfect baseball game I've ever attended.

Courtney, Paul, Aaron and Majid, with me behind the camera
Monday, August 11, 2003. Warm night at the K, light breeze, floppy hat night, Yankees in town for the first of three. The occasion heightened by our anticipation and apprehension: the Royals are 62-54 and coming off a two-game winning streak, but just the week before they'd lost four straight, and the Twins are coming on fast and people have augured a collapse for months now, and these are after all the dog days and these are the Yankees and this -- this first place thing -- isn't supposed to happen, not in real life. Too often the miraculous had graced this team: late-inning comebacks, nerve-frying saves, walk-off hits, unsung heroes. And something all 40,406 of us squeezed into the K this night knew was that these phantasmagorias stitched together form a dream, sure, but not a season, and that it was a dream to be treaded on, not savored. But something strange happens as the seats fill and the sun drops: we look at our programs and around at each other and this scene -- Kauffman swelling in the faint shadows of twilight like it did in the days of Brett and Wilson and Saberhagen and Q and Jackson -- and suddenly we believe. There's no good reason why, but the buzz becomes a palpable roar and all of a sudden it's true, always has been and can be forever -- we are a first-place team all over again, playing our rivals, bitter once more, competing for a championship...

I remember only bits and pieces of the game itself: that the two teams set a record for most doubles; that everything proceeded at a brisk pace despite the poor pitching; that Paul Abbott fell behind early, but the Royals, down 5-1 and without Beltran in the lineup, rallied for four runs in the bottom of the third to chase David Wells; that there was a thunderous "We want donuts" chant in the bottom of the eighth, with the Royals up 8 (or 9) to 7, for 12 hits meant a dozen free Krispy Kreme donuts for everyone in attendance.... But the details don't matter. It was the thrill of a meaningful game in August, the feeling of tension tightening -- not relaxing -- over the course of an exhausting season, the thought that autumn and the shortening of days and the eventual winter may yet be delayed by a heated pennant race. In short, baseball at its best.

The "We want donuts" chant, in full throat
Eric Neel filed an excellent, almost sublime report of that night for ESPN's Page 2 -- this during the height of his writing prowess, and when Page 2 was still black-on-yellow, gritty, unabashed and legitimately different from the conventional. His report began: "Like beauty pageant contestants and kindergarten kids, I wish first and foremost for world peace, of course. But my second most fervent wish for the world is that every kid from one to 92 at least once gets the chance to experience the kind of ballgame I experienced Monday night at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City."

When people ask why I root for the Royals, I tell them about the virtues of patience and the heralds of glory and I quote Roger Angell, who in The Summer Game wrote about the 1962 Mets, "This was a new recognition that perfection is admirable but a trifle inhuman, and that a stumbling kind of semi-success can be much more warming.... These exultant yells for the Mets were also yells for ourselves." But really, I could just tell them about that game on August 11.

But back to the present. The arrival of Pena all but ends the week-long speculation about the future of Angel Berroa. A Royals spokesperson just told a colleague of mine, "As of right now, it's still Berroa (as the starter). It's still his job. That might change in a week." Nothing is official yet, of course, so I'll keep the "Best of Angel Berroa" farewell list of highlights on ice. But something tells me we won't have to wait a week.

Berroa, of course, was AL Rookie of the Year in 2003. Somehow that makes his impending release that much sadder.

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