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ALEJANDRO'S PAIN IS REAL : Comeback Season Doesn't Look Easy for Dodger Pitcher

March 05, 1986|GORDON EDES | Times Staff Writer

VERO BEACH, Fla. — Tellie Pena wishes now that her husband had, just once, dropped the impenetrable facade.

"If he had told me how bad it was, I would have made a fuss," she said. "But he's such an introvert.

"At a certain point, I felt guilty, like I should have known. I live with him, but I didn't."

No one knew, and Pena either did not, or could not, make anyone understand. So he kept pitching, kept hurling a baseball at a speed that was ripping apart the inside of his shoulder. And if the pain screamed, he did not.

"When I pitch, I don't feel pressure at all," Pena said. "But I think I worry too much. I keep everything inside of me. You have to say something, but I keep it all inside. I can't say nothing."

Words failed him, and so, finally, did his arm. Now, 18 months after throwing a fastball to Atlanta's Dale Murphy and feeling "something popping," Pena is trying to resume a career as tenuous as the eroded cartilage that is holding his shoulder together.

"We've done a lot of praying," Tellie Pena said, keeping an eye on 20-month-old Alejandro Jr. while watching her husband throwing batting practice.

"We've said, 'God, you've done enough testing, now take it away from us. We've taken enough pain, now it's your turn to take the pain away.' And he is."

It's called carbon, a type of charcoal that is found in abundance in the rural villages of the Dominican Republic, where other forms of fuel are in short supply. It will burn for as long as 36 hours in a dirt packed oven, the kind built by Alejandro Pena and his namesake in the village of Cambioso.

Six days a week, father and son worked together. On Sundays, the younger Pena played baseball. When he was 15, he says, he played in his first organized game. When he was 19, he was signed to his first professional contract by the Dodgers.

When Dodger scout Ralph Avila first saw him, Pena was a skinny third baseman.

"But he showed real good arm strength," Avila said. "He told me he was very interested in playing professional baseball. I told him his only chance, in my opinion, to sign a contract was to become a pitcher."

Five months later, Avila got a call from Antonio Taveras, the father of big leaguer Alex Taveras and Avila's "bird dog" in the area, urging Avila to see Pena pitch against a semipro team.

"The next night the son of a gun struck out 15 batters, strictly with fastballs," Avila said. "I knew if I didn't sign him, somebody else would do it."

For $500 a month and a $4,000 signing bonus, Avila had himself a pitcher, and a growing boy. During the first four months of his first season, 1980, at Class A Vero Beach, Avila said, Pena gained almost 40 pounds, filling out from 160 pounds to 200. And as he added pounds to his 6-foot frame, he added speed to his fastball, accelerating from the 85-m.p.h. range to the 90-m.p.h. level.

That fastball took him to the big leagues a year later, got him a dozen wins in '83, and a league earned-run title in 1984. It also has brought him to where he is now, a pitcher with a blown-out shoulder trying to come back from surgery that wiped out a year of his career and makes the future uncertain.

"I think it happened because I threw too many fastballs," Pena said. "I only threw fastballs, and 90 miles an hour every time."

Pena had stoically endured other pain in the past, the bleeding ulcer that kept him out of the '81 playoffs and World Series, migraine headaches that hospitalized him for a few days in 1983. But this was the first time he had ever had to face the prospect that baseball could be taken away from him forever.

"That was destroying him inside," Tellie Pena said. "It's all he has, his career. Baseball is the only thing he has to do. Of course, he was scared."

Tellie Ceballos was a telephone operator in Los Angeles when she first met her husband. It was after the final game of the World Series.

"My girlfriend and I picked him up for dinner at the hotel," she said. "It almost started as a game. She said she'd bet me $10 that he wouldn't go out with me again. I bet her $20 that he would."

The Pena she met, she said, bore no resemblance to the Pena the public knew.

"People think he's a (bleep), but he's not," she said. "He's the sweetest person you'd ever want to be around.

"I always tell him, 'I can touch you like this, like a piece of cake, and you'll crumble into a thousand pieces.' "

In the Dodger clubhouse, no one could get close enough to Pena to touch him. He seemed withdrawn, frequently sullen, a man who walked by people as if he didn't see them.

The problem, he says now, was one he shares with many Latin players. "It's kind of hard when you don't speak the language," he said. "I was afraid to talk to people."

And whereas such Dominican teammates as Mariano Duncan and Pedro Guerrero are from a fair-sized town, San Pedro de Macoris, Pena arrived totally unsophisticated, with very little formal education, from a peasant village.

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