Los Angeles — It's still 45 minutes before game time for the Pittsburgh Pirates when catcher Tony Pena comes bounding out of the dugout, his uniform looking as though he had just crawled through a coal bin.
That same night Pena would get the game-winning hit as Pittsburgh defeated Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium. Twice, during the next week, Tony would repeat his performance, only against different teams.
''Pena always looks as though he just came from a war,'' said Pirate Manager Chuck Tanner, who was standing nearby. ''I don't know how he does it, but he can get dirty during infield practice. Great kid. If I don't play him in every game, he thinks I'm mad at him.
''I can't remember whether it was 1978 or 1979, but I'd gone to scout some kid prospects in the Florida Instruc-tional League when Tony came up to me and said: 'Someday I play for you in Pittsburgh,' '' Tanner continued.
''He wasn't bragging. He just wanted to make sure I didn't forget him. How could I? The way he hustles he makes everybody else look like he's standing still.''
There seem to be two types of big league catchers - the ones with the tank-like physical qualities of Johnny Bench and those with Pena's wiry build that allows them to spring back unhurt after a collision at home plate.
Even though Tony is listed in the Pirates' Media Guide at six feet, he looks considerably smaller. But he's got the three things a catcher needs most - quickness, a rifle for an arm, and the ability to handle pitchers.
''When we first promoted Pena out of our farm system, we platooned him with Steve Nicosia, partly because of his lack of experience and partly because we didn't want to put a lot of pressure on him,'' Tanner said. ''I also tried to give him a break by hitting him low in the batting order.
''The first thing I know the kid is putting together a little black book on the strength and weakness of every National League hitter,'' Chuck continued. ''I mean Pena has done more to help himself in a little over a year than most players do in two or three seasons. We knew he was a leader when he began yelling at our infielders in difficult situations to make sure they threw to the right base.''
Pena is the type of hitter who can wear a pitcher out with singles and doubles. If this kid played anywhere except catcher, Tanner would probably have him leading off. Last year as a rookie he hit .300. But the key was how many times he came through with men on base.
''Once I learned to lay off bad pitches, hitting all instinct with me,'' explained Pena, who was born in the Dominican Republic. ''Mostly I just try to make contact and hit the ball hard. I figure my job is to keep rallies going by moving the runner along any way I can, not try to hit the ball out of the park. Anyway, we got other players for that who are bigger and stronger than I am.''
Defensively, Tony has few rivals. If he can't get his glove on a pitch in the dirt, he'll keep the ball in front of him by blocking it with his body. And his throws to second are usually frozen ropes only a foot or two above the bag.
''When I first try catching (he also played third base in the minors), I not always know what to do,'' Pena said. ''I no help the pitchers too much at first because every hitter look the same. I also have a lot of passed balls because I don't know how to protect my position. Sometimes in minors, I think maybe I'm not going to make it. Only then I ask questions and try harder.''
To Pittsburgh fans who go back to the 1930s and '40s, Pena reminds them most of the Waner Brothers, Paul and Lloyd, who used their bats not so much as weapons as hitting instruments.
While the comparison isn't completely valid, since both Waners hit left and Tony hits right, all three had or have what the trade calls seeing-eye bats. That is, balls they hit on the ground always seem to find a hole that allows them to skip safely through to the outfield.
The only thing inconsistent about Pena so far is the 34 home runs he hit with Buffalo in 1979. It was simply a case of a good young hitter taking advantage of a very short right field fence by going the opposite way.
Fortunately it never caused Tony to go power crazy and foul up the rhythm of what is today one of the finest line-drive swings in the National League.