Tony Pena quite a catch for Cardinals; Indians should be better, within reason

Countless National League base stealers have been PENAlized in the past six years by the outstanding throwing arm of four-time all-star catcher Tony Pena. No argument there. Throwing is a talent that should never be taken lightly. Yet knowing how to set up hitters while being able to handle the fragile egos of your own team's pitchers is still the catching skill prized most by major league managers.

The latter explains why St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog wanted Tony badly enough to give Pittsburgh a young hitter with the qualities of Andy Van Slyke, plus a reserve catcher and a minor league pitcher in exchange.

The acquisition of Pena just before the start of the season turned what was already a fine Cardinal team into an even better one - good enough, in fact, that the New York Mets are not going to win the 1987 NL East in a walk, the way they did a year ago.

And this applies even if ace Met right-hander Dwight Gooden makes a complete comeback after the drug rehabilitation he is undergoing.

The 29-year-old Pena isn't just another body wearing the so-called tools of ignorance. He's a throwback to the days of Mickey Cochrane and Bill Dickey, when the same man caught both ends of doubleheaders, injuries were ignored, and catchers were also expected to hit.

There seem to be two types of backstops that managers covet - the ones with the tanklike physical qualities of Johnny Bench, and those with Pena's type of wiry build that allows them to spring back after a collision at home plate. From the time Tony became Pittsburgh's regular catcher in 1982, he never worked fewer than 138 games a season, with a high of 151 in 1983.

``I can still remember Pena's rookie year with the Pirates,'' said Chuck Tanner, former Pittsburgh and current Atlanta Braves manager. ``Tony could get dirty during infield practice. By the time the second inning was over, his uniform always looked as though he had been through a war.

``One day I happened to walk by his locker and he's writing in his little black book,'' Tanner continued. ``So I sneak a glance and discover that he's making notes on the strengths and weaknesses of every National League hitter, and he's still a kid. I had to play him every day or he'd come around and ask me if I was mad at him.''

No one player makes a pennant winner, of course. Other Cardinal regulars like Jack Clark, Tommy Herr, Ozzie Smith, and Willie McGee have to remain in the lineup. They must also duplicate the kind of year they had in 1985, when St. Louis won the pennant and took Kansas City to seven games in the World Series.

But in Pena, Herzog not only got himself a first-rate catcher, but also a leader and one of the best line-drive hitters (lifetime .286 average) in baseball. Give the Indians time

Those experts who have woven the 1987 Cleveland Indians so tightly into the upper fabric of the American League East may have acted too soon, and should probably take a rain check on their conclusions. This isn't to say that the Indians aren't on their way up in what may be baseball's toughest division, where Boston, New York, Detroit, and Toronto join them, but the team still has a lot of problems that need to be eliminated.

For example, Cleveland committed a league-leading 157 errors last season, when its record against division rivals remained a disappointing 32-46 and included a horrible 6-20 mark versus the Red Sox and Blue Jays.

Where the Tribe fattened up was against the AL West. In playing outside its division, Cleveland went 52-32, with pitcher Ken Schrom, who was 14-7 overall, posting an amazing 10-0 record against West clubs.

Cleveland clearly has flaws as a contender, but it also has enough pluses to make fans genuinely excited about the team's chances. The club's 1986 batting average of .286 was the fifth highest in the major leagues since World War II. In fact, Cleveland led the league in just about every important offensive category, including runs scored, hits, stolen bases, total bases, triples, and fewest times shut out. Six players slugged 17 or more homers, five drove in 70 or more runs, and five regulars hit over .300.

Manager Pat Corrales, who became the answer to a trivia question when fired as skipper of the first-place Philadelphia Phillies in July 1983, likes free swingers. But his Indians obviously aren't going to stay with teams like New York and Detroit unless they get better defense and pitching from a staff that ranked 12th in the American League in '86. Even so, the days are gone when Cleveland was a team that set remarkably low standards for itself and then failed to live up to them! Elsewhere in the majors

Don Mattingly, who had a record 238 hits for the New York Yankees last season, actually caused few problems for the Milwaukee Brewers, whose staff limited him to a .264 average by pitching him outside and daring him to walk. Not one of Mattingly's 31 home runs was hit against the Brewers, and only four of his 113 RBIs came at Milwaukee's expense.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, who are more interested in Cleveland Indians center fielder Brett Butler than they care to admit, reportedly are prepared to make it a four-for-one deal if they aren't asked to pay part of pitcher Jerry Reuss's huge salary.

Yankee pitcher Rod Scurry, whose spring training weight of 187 pounds was 22 below last year's: ``That's what happens when your contract isn't guaranteed.''

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