For Francisco Peña, his road to the big leagues was paved in childhood.
The son of five-time All-Star Tony Peña, he had a love of baseball engraved in him as a boy while following his dad around various Major League clubhouses. Tony, whose illistrious big league career spanned nearly two decades, often brought Francisco and his older brother, Tony Jr., with him to the yard. For Francisco, those moments laid a foundation for a lifelong passion.
"Being in the clubhouse with my dad and brother, that was just the special moment for every kid who would love to be in the clubhouse and meet their idols in baseball," Francisco said. "Being able to do that with my dad, and with my dad being my idol at the same time, made it easier for me to love this game."
The Peña family lineage in baseball is strong. Tony's brother, Ramon Peña, pitched in the Detroit Tigers organization and made his Major League debut in 1989. Tony Peña Jr. debuted with the Braves in 2006 before spending three seasons with Kansas City. And of course there's Tony Sr., who was part of six different organizations across 17 seasons in the Majors. A four-time Gold Glove-winning catcher, Tony Sr. earned three with the Pirates to accompany four All-Star selections from 1982 through 1986. He tacked on his final All-Star berth with the Cardinals in 1989 and was awarded his fourth Gold Glove with Boston in 1991.
Of course, the accolades didn't stop for Tony Sr. after his retirement in 1997. He took over as the manager for the Royals in 2002 and was named American League Manager of the Year the following season, then joined the Yankees coaching staff and earned a World Series ring in 2009.
Tony Peña Sr. spent 12 seasons as a Yankees coach. (Danny Wild/MiLB.com)
But what isn't evident among the awards is how he continued to guide his sons through their own journey of professional baseball every step of the way.
"One hundred percent, my dad has been there for me every day," said Francisco, a catcher with Triple-A Sacramento. "I talk to him every day. I rely on him. When I have a problem, my dad knows me as best as anyone. Everything I know, I know because of him."
From Francisco's perspective, following in his dad's footsteps -- all the way down to the same position -- was a no-brainer.
"It was easy to decide to be a baseball player," he said. "The tough part was getting the opportunity."
2019 MiLB include
Originally signed by the Mets as a non-drafted free agent in 2006, Francisco has played for five different organizations over a 13-year career spent predominately in the Minors. After electing free agency in 2013, he signed with the Royals and made his Major League debut the following year. He was traded to Baltimore at the end of the 2015 season and elected free agency once more in 2017. The Cardinals picked him up in 2018 and he hit two homers while putting up a .203/.239/.271 line in 58 games with the big league club, filling in while Yadier Molina and Carson Kelly were both recovering from injuries.
Pena's route as a baseball journeyman is decidedly different than that of his father's, but what matters most to the younger Peña is having someone who can understand him better than any coach or teammate ever will. That's no dig on any of the team personnel Francisco has come across in his career, of course. It's just the highest praise the 29-year-old can give to his 62-year-old dad.
"When I'm going through a slump or if I'm doing something wrong catching behind the plate, the phone is always there," he added. "I'm always calling."
Francisco relies on Tony Sr.'s advice not only for fixes on the field, but for help behind the scenes on dealing with the ups and downs of a life in baseball, especially one that's spanned so many locations.
Video: Norfolk's Pena puts Tides on the board
"I have to stay thankful because I have the opportunity," he noted. "I have the opportunity to have my dad there, I have the opportunity to play catch with my dad, the opportunity of learning from him. It's a very special thing to have in life.
"It's a blessing, especially having the communication we have. Not everyone has good communication with their parents."
In May, the Cardinals traded Peña to the Giants for cash considerations. Since then, he's been on a tear in the Pacific Coast League, his first time playing in the league since 2014. He's hitting .312 with an .862 OPS with four homers in 20 games and could get playing time in San Francisco, perhaps when rosters expand in September. Like his father, however, he's prized not for what he can do at the plate, but what he can do behind it. The process is far from easy, but it's easier with the guidance of his father.
"The one thing that I learned the most from my dad was to always have a smile on my face no matter what," Francisco said. "He tells me to be humble. This game will humble you very quickly. You have to have a certain personality."
So that's what Francisco does. After all, following his dad is all he's known.