April 1, 1987: Pirates trade all-star catcher Tony Pena to the Cardinals

Heading into the 1987 season, Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog felt that his club needed a top-flight catcher to make a push for the National League pennant. On April 1, he got the backstop he coveted, trading right fielder and corner infielder Andy Van Slyke, catcher Mike LaValliere, and minor-league pitcher Mike Dunne to the Pirates for four-time all-star Tony Peña.

Peña, a 29-year-old catcher from the Dominican Republic, had established himself as one of the league’s best since taking over the Pirates’ starting catcher in 1982. That season, he hit .296 with 11 homers and 63 RBIs, earning the first all-star appearance of his career.

In the years since, Peña had appeared in three more all-star games and won three Gold Glove awards.

“With all the speed we have, he’s probably one of the only catchers who can stop us and now he’s on our side,” Cardinals first baseman Jack Clark said. “At the same time, he’s going to throw guys out and pick guys off. He’s one of the best throwing catchers in the game. He’s just a good guy. He plays hard, and he’s going to hit, and he’s got some speed. Hopefully, between him and me, we won’t be clogging the bases up too much.”[1]

Clogging the bases was actually one of the issues Herzog sought to address with the trade. Both LaValliere and Steve Lake were flow-footed, light-hitting catchers. Herzog was concerned that he not only would have to pinch-hit for them often, but if they reached base he would need to use a pinch-runner in late-game situations. [2]

“It’s awfully tough with a 24-man roster when you make so many switches with your catchers,” Herzog said. “Tony’s an everyday player and I don’t have to run for him.”[3]

The Cardinals’ search for a catcher began during the winter meetings, and Peña, who was entering the final year of his contract with the Pirates, was an obvious target.

“They asked what it would take to get Peña,” Pirates general manager Syd Thrift said. “I told them Van Slyke, LaValliere, and a third player. They wouldn’t give me Van Slyke. That ended the conversation. Then they came back and said they’d give me Van Slyke and LaValliere, but they wouldn’t agree to the third. I told them if we didn’t get the third player, there wouldn’t be a deal, that’s all. Finally, I had a long conversation with Whitey on the field the other day about the third player.”[4]

Thrift and Herzog settled on Dunne, although Thrift wanted to see the 6-foot-4 pitcher in action before finalizing the deal.[5]

“The Cardinals were the only source where I could get what Tony Peña is worth,” Thrift said. “It was Peña’s last year and we felt we could have signed him, but you’ve got to get players you think can help you.”[6]

In both St. Louis and Pittsburgh, opinions regarding the deal were split.

“Andy’s my best friend, and in that regard, I don’t like it,” Cardinals second baseman Tom Herr said. “In my mind, he was just on the verge of becoming the great player that everyone thought he was going to be. It doesn’t make any sense. I realize to get a player like Tony Peña, you’ve got to give something up, but I’m amazed that we have to give up regular players to get players, when other teams trade prospects. There’s no telling what Tony can do for our ballclub. We’ve got a chance to win, and he might turn it up a little higher, but my first feeling is we gave up too much to get him.”[7]

Shortstop Ozzie Smith admitted that it was difficult to give up Van Slyke in the trade, but was excited about the potential to add a catcher with an elite defensive reputation. In addition to his three Gold Gloves, Peña had thrown out 58 of 165 (35.2%) would-be base stealers the previous season.

“Not that Mike and Steve Lake weren’t doing the job, but to get a catcher the caliber of Tony, with his defensive skills, can really help this club,” Smith said. “We know what he can do. If he comes over here and does what he has done, we’ll be OK. … You hate to see a talent like (Van Slyke) go, but if we get a talent like Peña, I guess you’ve got to give somebody up.”[8]

Starting pitcher John Tudor, who played alongside Peña with the Pirates in 1984, said, “With Tony, we’re adding a little bit of extra punch and probably some extra run production, and it shows in what we had to give up to get him,” Tudor said. “Van Slyke is arguably the best right fielder in the game defensively, but Tony may get 80 RBIs here because he’s probably going to have more opportunities to drive in runs than he did in Pittsburgh.”[9]

St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports editor Kevin Horrigan wrote that it was “at least a good trade, maybe a great trade. A gutsy trade in a way, because one of these days Van Slyke might put it all together and because scouts who saw Mike Dunne this spring liked him almost as much as Joe Magrane.”[10]

Meanwhile, Bruce Keidan of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was firmly opposed to the deal.

“Mr. Peña cried when he was informed of the transaction, and so should we,” he wrote. “Because this is a trade that strips the Pirates of any vestige of competitive credibility. Sorely in need of starting pitching, a first-rate shortstop, and a right-handed power hitter, the Pirates conspired to give away an all-star catcher without obtaining any of the three.”[11]

As Keidan noted, it was an emotional good-bye for Peña, who was widely considered the Pirates’ most popular player. At the press conference announcing the trade, manager Jim Leyland, who had managed Peña for just one season was fighting back tears before he hugged Peña goodbye.[12]

“How do I explain to my 82-year-old mother why the people are booing me opening day?” Thrift asked. “This is the city’s most popular player and my own most popular player. That’s why I didn’t sleep much last night.”[13]

Two years earlier, Peña requested a trade after the Pirates fired manager Chuck Tanner, but he had bonded with Leyland in 1986 and indicated that he wanted to remain in Pittsburgh.[14] Peña was slated to make an estimated $1.1 million on the final year of his contract, with clauses that could pay him more than $1.3 million.[15]

“I’m shocked,” Peña said. “I’m shocked. My heart is breaking.”[16]

Peña was coming off a .288 season in which a new stance paid big dividends, resulting in a league-leading .348 average after the all-star break. Thrift and Dominican scout Pablo Cruz worked with Peña to shorten his swing and begin his batting stance with the bat at a 45-degree angle rather than straight up and down. With a focus on hitting the ball to right field, Peña became an effective batter in the second spot in the Pirates’ order.

“We feel Peña is a much better hitter when he uses both sides of the field and when you hit him second. In a situation with a man on base, he’s a much better hitter,” Leyland said three weeks before the trade. “You put him down in the order where he’s swinging hell bent for election, he gets in trouble. That’s what happened to him in the first half last year. The second half of the season, he started using both sides of the field.”[17]

“Managing against him, I hated to see him coming up in the clutch,” Herzog said. “He always got his rips and he always hit the ball hard.”[18]

Just as Peña was sad to leave behind close friends in Pittsburgh, Van Slyke was shaken by the trade as well and addressed the media with tears in his eyes.

“I don’t know how I’m going to feel about playing in Pittsburgh, but I know I’m going to miss St. Louis more than I can express in words,” Van Slyke said. “I only wish that I could have played longer and played better for the fans who expected so much of me. If I played for all 26 teams, I still think St. Louis would have the best fans. No argument.”[19]

Since the trade was finalized on April 1, he not only had to convince himself that it wasn’t an April Fool’s joke, but he then spent about 10 minutes convincing his wife Lauri that it wasn’t a prank.[20]

“Initially, it was surprising to me,” Van Slyke said. “If there was any point in my career where I was feeling secure in my job, it was this spring.”[21]

Van Slyke hit a career-high .270 in 1986, including .304 in the second half. His 13 home runs led the team and his 61 RBIs tied him with Herr for the team lead. In four seasons in St. Louis, the former first-round pick hit .259 with 41 homers and 204 RBIs.

“Van Slyke will hit with more power in Pittsburgh,” Thrift said. “He’ll get more homers and doubles and less triples than he had in St. Louis. He can hit upwards of 20 home runs playing half his games in Three Rivers Stadium.”[22]

“I’m going to try to be more productive in Pittsburgh than I was in St. Louis,” Van Slyke said. “I’m going to try to be a complete player and put the numbers on the board that I should.”[23]

LaValliere was an unlikely major leaguer. Undrafted coming out of Lowell (Mass.) College, where he played baseball and hockey, LaValliere was signed by the Phillies as a third baseman but quickly converted to catcher. He made his major-league debut with the Phillies in 1984 before he was dealt to the Cardinals in a conditional deal that was voided by the league a few days later. Undeterred, the Cardinals signed him as a free agent.

In two seasons in St. Louis, LaValliere hit .226 with three homers and 36 RBIs in 122 games.

“I’m not professing to be as good as Tony,” LaValliere said. “I don’t think I can make anyone forget Peña. I’m not going to fill his shoes, just use a different pair.”[24]

Dunne had been the Cardinals top draft pick in 1984 after pitching three seasons at Bradley University, then playing for the U.S. Olympic team. His first season in the minors was derailed by a rib injury when he was hit by a line drive. In 1986, he jumped to Triple-A Louisville and went 9-12 with a 4.56 ERA.

Together, Van Slyke, LaValliere, and Dunne – along with 24-year-old Bobby Bonilla and 22-year-old Barry Bonds – helped the Pirates win 80 games and return to respectability in 1987.

Van Slyke hit a career-high .293, ranking second on the team with 21 homers and leading the Pirates with 82 RBIs. The following year, he totaled 25 homers, 100 RBIs, and a league-leading 15 triples as he was elected to the all-star game for the first time in his career. At season’s end, he won the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards and finished fourth in the National League MVP voting.

In 1992, he again ranked fourth in the MVP vote, batting .324 with 14 homers and 89 RBIs. His 199 hits and 45 doubles each led the league.

In eight seasons in Pittsburgh, Van Slyke won three National League East Division championships from 1991 through 1993. He was a three-time all-star, winning five Gold Gloves and two Silver Sluggers. After playing for the Orioles and Phillies in 1995, he retired with a .274 batting average, 164 homers, and 792 RBIs across a 13-season major-league career.

LaValliere hit .300 with one homer and 36 RBIs and won the Gold Glove in 1987. He never hit more than three homers or drove in more than 47 runs in a season, but he remained a fixture for the Pirates from 1987 through 1992, batting .278 with 13 home runs and 207 RBIs over that span. After appearing in one game for Pittsburgh in 1993, he was released and signed by the White Sox, where he spent the final three years of his career.

LaValliere retired following the 1995 season with a career .268 batting average, 18 homers, and 294 RBIs over 12 major-league seasons.

Dunne enjoyed the best season of his career in 1987, placing second to Benito Santiago in the National League Rookie of the Year voting after he went 13-6 with a 3.03 ERA in 163 1/3 innings. Dunne was never able to replicate that success, however, as he won just 12 games over the remainder of his career, which included stops with the Mariners, Padres, and White Sox. He retired with a 25-30 career record and 4.08 ERA over five major-league seasons.

Peña was the starting catcher for a Cardinals club that won the National League pennant in 1987, though he hit just .214 with five homers and 44 RBIs during the regular season. Peña saved his best offensive performance for the postseason, where he hit .381 in the NLCS against the Giants and .409 with four RBIs in the World Series against the Twins.

In 1988, Peña hit .263 with 10 homers and 51 RBIs. He appeared in the 1989 all-star game in his final season with the Cardinals.

In three seasons in St. Louis, Peña hit .248 with 19 homers and 132 RBIs.


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[1] Tom Wheatley and Rick Hummel, “Cards Feel Sweet Sorrow,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 2, 1987.

[2] Rick Hummel, “Cards Swap 3 For Pirates’ Pena,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 2, 1987.

[3] Rick Hummel, “Cards Swap 3 For Pirates’ Pena,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 2, 1987.

[4] Bob Hertzel, “Van Slyke steps into tough spot,” Pittsburgh Press, April 2, 1987.

[5] Bob Hertzel, “Van Slyke steps into tough spot,” Pittsburgh Press, April 2, 1987.

[6] Rick Hummel, “Cards Swap 3 For Pirates’ Pena,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 2, 1987.

[7] Tom Wheatley and Rick Hummel, “Cards Feel Sweet Sorrow,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 2, 1987.

[8] Tom Wheatley and Rick Hummel, “Cards Feel Sweet Sorrow,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 2, 1987.

[9] Tom Wheatley, “Tudor Likes Pena’s Bat,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 3, 1987.

[10] Kevin Horrigan, “Pena Worth $1.3 Million? Bucs’ Skipper Says Yes,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 2, 1987.

[11] Bruce Keidan, “A wonderful deal … for Cards’ fans,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 2, 1987.

[12] Bob Hertzel, “Goodbyes emotional for Pena,” Pittsburgh Press, April 2, 1987.

[13] Bob Hertzel, “Goodbyes emotional for Pena,” Pittsburgh Press, April 2, 1987.

[14] Tom Wheatley, “Pena: ‘It’s Going To Be Fun,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 2, 1987.

[15] Rick Hummel, “Cards Swap 3 For Pirates’ Pena,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 2, 1987.

[16] Rick Hummel, “Cards Swap 3 For Pirates’ Pena,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 2, 1987.

[17] Kevin Horrigan, “Pena Worth $1.3 Million? Bucs’ Skipper Says Yes,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 2, 1987.

[18] Rick Hummel, “Cards Swap 3 For Pirates’ Pena,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 2, 1987.

[19] Rick Hummel, “Cards Swap 3 For Pirates’ Pena,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 2, 1987.

[20] Rick Hummel, “Cards Swap 3 For Pirates’ Pena,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 2, 1987.

[21] Bob Hertzel, “Van Slyke steps into tough spot,” Pittsburgh Press, April 2, 1987.

[22] Bob Smizik, “Thrift is courageous, but are his trades wise?” Pittsburgh Press, April 2, 1987.

[23] Rick Hummel, “Cards Swap 3 For Pirates’ Pena,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 2, 1987.

[24] Bob Hertzel, “Van Slyke steps into tough spot,” Pittsburgh Press, April 2, 1987.