06/24/2002 12:39 pm ET
An important first for Dominicans
Pena, Pujols face each other for first time
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It takes a lot to impress Felipe Alou these days after more than four decades in baseball. But Tuesday will be one impressive day.
Tony Pena and Luis Pujols manage the fourth- and fifth-place teams in the AL Central standings in the Royals and Tigers, respectively. But the fact that they're managing in the Major Leagues comprises two victories for the Dominican Republic, which, for all its contributions to baseball, provided only one full-time member of the managerial ranks prior to this year.
When they exchange lineup cards Tuesday night at Kauffman Stadium, it will be the first time two Dominican managers have faced each other in a Major League game -- a national event in a country where baseball is an obsession.
"Dominicans in particular have had a lot of great events recently," said Alou, the Tigers' bench coach and former Expos manager. "You had Sammy [Sosa] hitting 60 home runs, Pedro Martinez winning 20 games. Now look at Luis Castillo. And now we have two managers in the big leagues. In baseball, what these guys are doing is big."
The reaction to an otherwise ordinary divisional series will be massive. Commissioner Bud Selig and Dominican president Hipolito Mejia are scheduled to attend. The Royals will play the Dominican national anthem before the game, which could be another first before a Major League regular-season game.
"I just feel happy that I'm one of the two [managers]," said Pena, whose son T.J. earned a day off from the Class A Macon Braves to attend. "It's a special day not only for us, but also for the Dominican Republic. A lot of people from the Dominican are making an effort to come to Kansas City for that one game."
Said Tigers reliever Jose Paniagua, one of eight Dominicans on the teams' rosters: "It's going to be a special night for me. I'm so excited. I can't wait to see that."
Between 20 and 40 media requests have come to the Royals from news outlets in the Dominican Republic as well as American-based Latin media, meaning the managers will hold a press conference in Spanish first for a change. MLB International will televise the game, but several Dominican stations are sending broadcast crews.
Pujols has seen the day coming; he reads Dominican papers on the Internet and noticed the headline as soon as Pena was hired. Pujols also has media connections -- his niece works for Major League Baseball's new Spanish-language show, "Sabor a Biisbol."
"To be honest, Tony and I will get most of the publicity," said Pujols, "but Felipe deserves as much as us because he opened the door for us."
Alou will gladly let his successors take the attention. He comprised half of the first-ever meeting between two Latin-born Major League managers nearly a decade ago, when his Expos met the Cincinnati Reds and then-skipper Tony Perez in 1993.
Alou, who paid his dues for years in the minors, was the only Dominican to manage full-time in the majors until Pujols, his longtime bench coach in Montreal, took over the Tigers a week into this season. He spent eight years assisting Alou before leading the Tigers' Double-A affiliate in Erie, Pa., to an Eastern League title last season.
Pena was mentioned for several openings during his three-year tenure with the Astros' Triple-A team in New Orleans. Like Pujols, he has a championship to his credit, winning a Pacific Coast League title. He also has had the benefit of Alou's advice.
"He and I have talked a lot," said Alou, himself an oft-mentioned candidate for another managerial chance. "We've talked about some of the interviews he's had."
Though Pena and Pujols haven't spoken since taking their respective jobs, they've couldn't help but follow each other's careers. They competed as National League catchers in the 1980s and as managers in the Dominican Winter League for the past several years. They both took part in last summer's All-Star Futures Game in Seattle.
Alou hasn't been the only one tracking their paths.
"It's huge," said Tigers third-base coach Juan Samuel, a fellow Dominican on Pujols' staff along with first-base coach Rafael Landestoy. "I think it's opening the door for not only Dominican but all Latin players as managers. It's good we're starting to see all the hard work people have put in before us paying off."
In many eyes, managing is the next step for a nation that contributed more players to Opening Day rosters this year than any country other than the U.S. Pujols and Pena can attest that the Winter Leagues develop managers as well as players. They can also confirm that breaking into the Majors is a long process.
"It's a natural progression," said Luis Silverio, the Royals' coordinator of Dominican operations. "People start realizing we are capable of doing things other than on the field. People from the Dominican Republic can be coaches, managers. We even have a general manager in Omar Minaya in Montreal.
"I think baseball is realizing we not only know how to play the game, we also have the ability to do different things within the game. It's major for all the people in Latin America who have the ability and are qualified to become managers."
When the ceremonies end, Pujols and Pena will battle to avoid being last-place managers. With nine losses in their past 10 games, Pena's Royals are just a half-game ahead of the Tigers.
Pride aside, Pujols said, "I still want to beat him."
Jason Beck covers the Tigers for MLB.com and can be reached at email@example.com. Robert Falkoff, who covers the Royals for MLB.com, contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.