Pena split his first season,1976, between the “A” level Western Carolinas League with the Charleston Patriots (14 games, .224) and the “Rookie” level Gulf Coast League, between the Braves and the Pirates (33 games, .209). In all, a forgettable campaign for the still raw catcher.
1977 would see Pena appear with two separate “A” level teams in the Pirates organization. The Salem Pirates in the Carolina League (84 games, .276, 46 RBI) and the Charleston Patriots (29 games, .238). He spent the entire 1978 campaign with the “AA” level Texas League Shreveport Captains, hitting .230 over 104 games.
1979 would see Pena play for the “AA” level Eastern League Buffalo Bisons, hitting .313 over 134 games with 34 home runs and 97 RBI. He earned a promotion to the “AAA” level Portland Beavers in the Pacific Coast League in 1980, hitting .327 with 77 RBI in 124 games. His improved hitting warranted a look at the major league level, which the Pirates gave him at the beginning of September. In a short eight game tryout, Pena hit .429 by going 9-for-21, including three consecutive multi-hit games. Pittsburgh did not seem to benefit from his appearance in the lineup, going 2-6. They went 83-79 overall, finishing third in the NL East, eight games behind the Philadelphia Phillies.
1981 would open with Pena in Pittsburgh. Batting sixth through eighth in the lineup as the nominally number one catcher (with 66 games played to Steve Nicosia’s 54), he hit .300 and finished sixth in the NL Rookie of the Year vote. He also caught 43 percent of would be basestealers, ranking him third in the NL. On May 3rd, he got on base for each of his four plate appearances, collecting two walks with a single, a triple, and a run scored in a 3-1 setback at the hands of the Houston Astros. Three weeks later, he went 2-for-4 with two RBI (including the game winner) in a 3-2 victory over the Chicago Cubs. The Pirates finished the strike-shortened split season in fourth place with a 46-56 record.
In 1982, Pena put it all together, earning his first all-star selection and hitting an NL 10th best .296 in 138 games. He hit 11 home runs with 63 RBI while catching an NL second best 42 percent of base-stealing attempts. He batted from the bottom half of the lineup, mostly from the seventh position. On April 27th, Pena hit his first career grand slam in a 10-4 win over the Atlanta Braves. In game one of a doubleheader on June 25th, he hit two solo homers as the Bucs set down the Montreal Expos, 4-3. Pittsburgh posted an 84-78 record on the season, finishing eight games behind the NL East Champion St. Louis Cardinals.
1983 would see Pena earn his first Gold Glove at the catcher position, also finishing 12th in the NL MVP vote. He hit a career high and NL eighth best .301 with 15 home runs and 70 RBI. He threw out 36 percent of basestealers, leading the league with 976 putouts. His .992 fielding percentage placed him second in the league. As in the last season, he batted fifth through eighth, mostly in seventh. On June 23rd, he went 4-for-4 with a double, a runs scored, and an RBI in a 5-2 victory over the Cubs. Pittsburgh finished in second in the division, six games behind the Phillies at 84-78.
In 1984, Pena earned a Gold Glove and an all-star appearance for the first time in the same season. He hit .286 with 15 home runs and a career high 78 RBI. He led the NL with 895 putouts, 95 assists, 15 double plays turned, and 63 base stealers caught, ranking him second with a 40% kill rate. He was moved up in the order, appearing mostly in the five slot. On May 13th, he collected three hits, including a two-run round tripper in a 9-8, 10-inning loss to the Braves. On August 31st, he hit a pair of three run homers off of Cincinnati Reds starter Joe Price, accounting for all the Bucs offense in a 6-2 win. Pittsburgh finished last in the NL East, finishing 21.5 games behind the Chicago Cubs with a 75-87 record.
For the second straight year in 1985, Pena earned a Gold Glove and an all-star selection. Although his average dipped to .249 with 10 home runs and 59 RBI, he still could stop a basestealer nearly half the time, with an NL fourth best 42% caught stealing rate. He again ranked amongst the league leaders in other defensive stats, including 146 games played (NL 1st), 922 putouts (NL 2nd), and 100 assists (NL 1st). He regularly batted fifth and sixth in the order. On June 29th, he went 3-for-6 with a walk, a sacrifice hit, and four runs scored, including the game winning solo home run leading off the bottom of the 15th inning of a 6-5 Pirates win over the Cubs. The Pirates finished 43.5 games out of first, with a 57-104 record.
1986 would be Pena’s last season in Steel City, hitting .288 with 10 home runs and 53 RBI batting sixth in the order most of the season. He earned his third consecutive all-star selection (and fourth overall). He ranked second in the NL with 139 games played, third with 810 putouts, second with 99 assists, second with 13 double plays turned, and second with 70 runners caught stealing. On September 20th, in the first game of a doubleheader, he went 4-for-4 with a stolen base as the Pirates lost a hard luck game to the Cubs, 1-0. Marginally better than the year prior, the Bucs still placed last in the division, missing the playoffs by 44 games with a 64-98 record.
Just prior to the 1987 season, the Pirates traded Pena to the Cardinals for pitcher Mike Dunne (21-18, 3.65 with the Pirates), catcher Mike LaValliere (hit .278 over seven seasons as Pittsburgh’s starting catcher), and centerfielder Andy Van Slyke (eight seasons, .283, 117 home runs, 564 RBI). I’d say we won this trade.
Pena wasn’t nearly done, playing three seasons in St. Louis (406 games, .248, 19 home runs, 132 RBI, one all-star appearance). He later played four years with the Boston Red Sox (543 games, .234, 17 home runs, 161 RBI, one Gold Glove), three seasons with the Cleveland Indians (198 games, .248, eight home runs, 65 RBI), and half a season each with the Chicago White Sox (31 games, .164) and the Astros (nine games, .211).
All-Time Statline: Seven seasons, 801 games, .286/.327/.411, 821-for-2872, 307 runs, 140 doubles, 15 triples, 63 home runs, 340 RBI, 42 stolen bases, 174 walks, 372 strikeouts, 20.9 wins above replacement.
Next up: a guy they called "Boots."