RIP to Adalberto “Bert” Pena, an infielder who spent parts of six seasons with the Astros in the 1980s. It was reported that he died of esophageal cancer on January 19 in Caguas, Puerto Rico. Peña was 63 years old. He played from the Houston Astros in 1981 and from 1983-87.
Adalberto Peña was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, on July 11, 1959. However, a survey that Peña completed for Howe Sportsdata International in 2000 indicates a birth year of 1957 and a birthplace of San Juan. According to the website Noticel, His family moved to Caguas when he was young, and he lived there the rest of his life. Peña played amateur ball in his youth and after graduating from Superior Manuela Toro Morice school in 1977, he signed with the Houston Astros. Again, using the questionnaire, scout William Melendez signed him to a contract on May 12, 1977.
Peña’s first few seasons in the Astros organization were a struggle. He batted .228 in 1977 for the Cocoa Astros of the Florida State League, with 32 walks for a .309 on-base percentage. He also had a .938 fielding percentage at shortstop. He failed to hit over .200 in his next two seasons, and his fielding didn’t improve. Peña started to adjust to professional ball in 1980, when he was 20 years old (or more likely 22) and playing at Double-A Columbus in the Southern League. His fielding at shortstop improved noticeably, and he started to hit the ball with regularity. Peña batted .251, he cut back on the strikeout totals that were starting to be a concern, and he hit 9 home runs — he’d only homered 4 times in his first three seasons with the organization. When Peña first came to the country to play ball, he didn’t speak much English. Over the next few years, he was mentored by a Columbus player-coach named Fernando Tatis (not the one who once his two grand slams in the same inning) and acclimated to his new home. He also played winter ball in Puerto Rico to hone his skills even further. The Astros were impress enough that the team purchased his contract at the end of the season, adding him to the 40-man roster.
Peña moved up to the Triple-A Tucson Toros in 1981 and kept showing his improved offensive capabilities. He hit .261 with 7 home runs, and he also stole 25 bases. He set a Pacific Coast League record with 13 assists in a game on April 18. He also started a wild brawl between Tucson and Salt Lake when he supposedly broke one of baseball’s unwritten rules. The Toros were unloading on the Gulls 7-0 early in the game, when Peña singled and stole second. Gulls pitcher Chris Knapp promptly knocked down the batter, Simon Rosario — a good friend of Peña’s. When Peña came to bat a couple of innings later, Knapp buzzed four of the five pitches underneath the shortstop’s chin. The two ballplayers were jawing at each other in between pitches, and after being knocked down for the fourth time in the at-bat, Peña charged the mound, bat in hand. He took a swing at Knapp with the bat and grazed his hip before they both were buried under a mob of ballplayers. Knapp and Peña were ejected, and Peña was later suspended for 5 games.
“This is the first time in my life I am suspended, and I play a lot of games in Puerto Rico,” Peña said in the midst of his suspension. His argument was that he didn’t break any unwritten rules about stealing with a large lead. “In this league, seven runs are nothing,” he said of the Pacific Coast League. He pointed out that Tucson won by a score of 12-7, so the game was far from over when he stole the base. Peña and Toros manager Jimmy Johnson discussed the fight later. “Jimmy says the next time I fight, drop the bat.”
Peña played well enough after his return to join six of his teammates in a September promotion to Houston. His major-league debut came with a uneventful inning at shortstop on September 14 against Cincinnati. He was given a chance to pinch-hit on September 17 in San Diego and singled off Padres pitcher John Urrea. He appeared in 4 games for the Astros and had the 1 hit in 2 at-bats, along with a sacrifice bunt. He played 4-2/3 innings at shortstop and turned a double play. Peña returned to Tucson in 1982 and struggled to hit during an injury-plagued season. He hurt his ankle in a July 12 game against Spokane and needed offseason surgery to remove bone chips from his left knee.
After recovering from surgery, Peña had a productive season with Tucson in 1983. He batted .246 with 21 doubles, 5 home runs and 63 RBIs. He also led all PCL shortstops with a .960 fielding percentage. Again, he was given a September promotion and made it into 4 games with the Astros. Peña had a single and 2 walks in 10 plate appearances. He didn’t get an extended look in the major leagues until 1984, when Houston promoted him and sent Jim Pankovits to Triple-A. In one of his first starts on July 24, he was 2-for-5 with 2 RBIs in a 10-3 win over St. Louis. Peña his his only major-league home run against the Cardinals’ Ricky Horton on September 2. It was the only run the Astros could manage against Horton that day, as they lost 4-1. In 24 games, Peña slashed .205/.262/.308 with 4 RBIs and 3 runs scored.
Usually, Peña did not start a season with the Astros, but he was among the first to be recalled from Triple-A if needed. For instance, Peña was recalled to Houston in 1985 when shortstop Dickie Thon, still recovering from a 1984 beaning, had to go onto the disabled list. Peña spent time on the DL himself, but he hit well when healthy and hit .276 in 20 games. Thon’s continued problems with blurred vision gave Peña another opportunity in 1986, and he hit .207 in 15 games over a couple of stints in the majors in June and September. A larger concern was the fact that he committed 4 errors in 10 games at shortstop.
The Astros started 1987 with Peña on the Opening Day roster for the first time in his career. Thon’s injuries meant that Astros manager Hal Lanier considered a platoon of Peña and Craig Reynolds at shortstop. Reynolds outhit Peña and ended up with the majority of the starts at shortstop. Peña failed to hit in a couple of stays on the Astros roster, with a .152 batting average in 21 games. After he was sent back to Tucson in July, he got into disagreements with Toros manager Bob Didier. Peña claimed that Houston promised him a starting role at third base when he was sent back to the minors, and he questioned the manager’s lineup when that promise didn’t happen. Dider suspended Peña for the rest of the season in late August.
“I’ve been here too many years to get treated like that,” Peña said. “I’m not a part-time player and never have been. I’ve never been benched… I asked for my release, but they’re scared to give it to me because I’ll make it somewhere else.”
Peña was let go by Houston at the end of the season, and he spent 1988 in the minor leagues of the New York Yankees. He hit a combined .218 with the Yankees’ Double-A and Triple-A teams while battling the effects of a thumb injury. It was his final season of professional ball. In spite of an ugly departure from the Astros’ organization, Peña kept many fond memories from his time in Tucson and was considered one of the Toros’ all-time favorites. He jokingly called himself the mayor of Tucson. “Tell the people of Tucson that I love them. I’ll never forget them,” he told the Arizona Daily Star in July of 1988. “I had a good time there. The people cared about me, and I appreciate that.” He later said that one of his greatest memories was watching J.R. Richard pitch for the Toros in 1982 as he tried to come back from a career-ending stroke.
In 6 seasons in the majors, Peña appeared in a total of 88 games. He had 31 hits, including 4 doubles and 1 home run, for a .203/.268/.248 slash line. He walked 13 times, scored 18 runs and drove in 10. Peña had a .953 fielding percentage at shortstop, and he also had a perfect fielding record in 42-1/3 innings at third base and 4-1/3 innings at second base. Peña also batted .231 in 12 seasons in the minor leagues.
Following the end of his playing career, Peña stayed in volved in baseball as a manager and a coach, both in the United States and in Puerto Rico. From 2002-2004, he was manager of the Pennsylvania Road Warriors, a traveling ballclub in the Atlantic League. As might be expected, a team that spent the entire season on the road wasn’t too successful, with winning percentages under .300 each year. Peña was an active coach as recently as last season, for the Bravos de Cidra, a Puerto Rico Double-A team.
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