Pena lauded by Yanks' catchers
Former big-league manager enjoying time as Bombers coach
TAMPA, Fla. -- Tony Pena was huddled in the clubhouse one recent morning at Legends Field, locked in direct stares with four of his catchers as he laid out the day's workout plans.
In a flash, Pena's serious side evaporated, his lips erupting into a huge grin. Pena briefly embraced Wil Nieves in a bear hug, lifting the backup catcher off his feet and unleashing a loud laugh before trotting outside.
So began a typical day for the Yankees under the watchful eyes of Pena, who is entering his second season as New York's catching and first-base coach. A former big-league player and manager, Pena said he is enjoying his current assignment as much as any.
"You have to want to help them out," Pena said. "Through my career, I learned so many things and enabled myself to help out as a catcher. I have so much love for this game that no matter what I'm doing, managing or coaching, I still go out and have fun."
To a man, the Yankees' catchers rave about Pena's communication skills, enthusiasm and influence, but perhaps none more than Jorge Posada.
Posada's throwing improved markedly in Pena's first year with the club. The 35-year-old threw out 38 of 102 potential basestealers in 2006, a 37 percent mark, further cementing the trust of New York hurlers.
Among other lessons, Posada said Pena taught him to be more "explosive" when attacking balls in the dirt, raising his crouch to improve his side-to-side mobility.
Those instructions, given Pena's background as a four-time Gold Glove Award winner over an 18-year Major League career, demanded Posada's attention from the first day.
"He was a great defensive catcher. He's seen a lot of things happen," Posada said. "I think the biggest thing with him has been my throwing. There's so much he's seen and [so many] little things he's helped with.
"By the next day [after a game], he's already talking about things that happened and thinking about how to correct them. He doesn't let me wait. He tells me and makes sure I do it quickly."
Pena grins proudly when Posada's statistics are recited, but he offers all the credit back to his star pupil. Without Posada's long hours, dating back to sun-soaked days behind Legends Field in February 2006, such improvement could never have taken place.
"[There were] so many little things he was doing wrong," Pena said of Posada. "As soon as you create those bad habits, you're going to have a hard time, unless you commit yourself. Jorge deserves all the credit. He trusted me to work hard and help him become the type of player he was."
Like Posada, Todd Pratt has been around the league more than a few times. Now 40 and hoping to hang on for one more season as a Major League reserve, Pratt revealed Pena already picked up and excised at least one flaw from his game.
Pratt declined to describe the change, saying only that it has been already fixed so it no longer matters, but remains thankful to Pena for finding such an easily correctable point after 21 professional seasons.
"He's the best catching instructor I've ever had," Pratt said. "He's very special at what he does."
One of Pena's strongest traits may be his ability to adapt to different coaching styles. The distinctive catching form that sent Pena to five All-Star Games is not likely to be duplicated by professional players, so he does not aim to create clones of himself.
Instead, Pena's mission is something like an auto mechanic: he takes what he is shown, finds what isn't performing correctly, and ponders how to best optimize it.
"I cannot teach anybody the way I catch, because I catch in a unique way," Pena said. "I just try to find out what will work for them. It's very important to me.
"Everyone can sit behind the plate in a different way, but first of all, you have to feel comfortable. We have to work together to teach them the best way that is possible."
For example, Pena said that the 5-foot-11 Nieves receives different instruction than the 6-foot-4 Davis, simply because what works for one cannot physically transfer to the other.
Pena claims he can pick out a flaw in a catcher's game from the dugout or on television almost instantly, and his players back up the boast.
"He has an eye for seeing what you're doing wrong," Nieves said. "He perfects your mechanics. He's a great teacher. He's always on top of you."
The individualized attention is appreciated by the Yankees' backstops. Nieves recalled working with former big-league backstop Joe Girardi, and, though he was appreciative of the opportunity, he said that Girardi's style just didn't work on his frame.
"He was teaching me other stuff that didn't work with my mechanics," Nieves said. "I was forcing my arm a little bit. Then Tony came here and he started teaching me the way he used to do it. We're kind of the same way. That's why I love working with him."
This spring, Nieves, who is battling Pratt to serve as Posada's backup, has already amended his style slightly, though it might not be seen by the untrained eye. With runners on base, Nieves now draws pitches up into his chest, cutting down valuable fractions of a second in the event a player attempts to steal.
"I had never heard that before," Nieves said. "Tony Pena knows too much. You're always going to have something to learn from him."
Already this Spring Training, Pena has shown off a few interesting drills to catchers and early-arriving fans at Legends Field. In one memorable exercise, multiple catchers roamed behind home plate in pursuit of three separate pop-ups.
Though more than a few balls plopped to the grass and players experienced close calls on collisions -- creating a few comical scenes that prompted manager Joe Torre to joke the team should use the drill to whittle down the roster at the end of camp -- a lesson on communication was delivered.
Indeed, during the regular season, when Alex Rodriguez or Doug Mientkiewicz approach a Yankees catcher on a foul popup, Pena's efforts will not be forgotten.
Able to deliver his messages in both English and Spanish, Pena acknowledges a good deal of his interpersonal style was gleaned from his Major League managerial career, piloting the Kansas City Royals from 2002-05.
Before that, Pena said he learned to communicate while making mound visits with his six big-league teams.
Whether it's a frazzled pitcher struggling in the sixth inning or a rookie catcher experiencing the jitters of his first Major League camp, Pena said that delivering instructions and support in a clear, concise manner -- and making sure they are absorbed -- is the most important goal.
"Catchers always have good communication," Pena said. "Every single day, I use all those little ways to pass my message."
The delivery comes in varying tempos. That, too, remains appreciated in an age where some coaches prefer to play the role of military drill instructors.
Ben Davis, who has seen time with three big-league clubs, recalls having a few so-called "tough guys" who would scream in his face about the catcher needing to be the leader on the field.
"You don't want a guy barking down your throat all day," Davis said. "You want to be able to converse with him. You don't want someone berating you, telling you to do this or do that."
Then again, Pena hasn't had many reasons to get upset this spring. It seems that nearly all of the lessons he imparted to Posada were retained over the winter months. That alone has made it an easy camp for Pena, not having to travel the same highways of instruction he did in 2006.
"He kept everything," Pena said, beaming once more. "I expect he will have a great year. He kept all of his good habits, and that's going to make it easy. Jorge, right now, is solid. It makes me feel good."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.