The tale of Carlos Pena’s rise from obscurity to All-star and his return to the Tampa Bay Rays
Carlos Pena exits the clubhouse at the Charlotte County Sports Complex dressed down in designer jeans and a navy blue T-shirt. He looks sluggish and a little sun burnt after a long workout at the Port Charlotte stadium where the Tampa Bay Rays play their home spring training games.
Pena might be tired from the long day, but the leftie first baseman, who turns 34 in May, is revitalized and excited about his second stint with the team that gave him a chance four years ago.
Less than two months ago, Pena was back in Tropicana Field sitting at a podium with team president Matt Silverman and, once again, sliding on his white and blue No. 23 jersey. Just one year removed from the Rays ball club, Pena is back after signing a one-year $7.25 million deal to reclaim his position in St. Petersburg. And it’s like he never left.
“At the beginning I didn’t know if it was going to be a possibility,” Pena says about his return to Tampa Bay over a burger at River City Grill in Punta Gorda. “I didn’t know if I would be one of the options. And then when it came about, it just felt right. Things fell in place and so here I am. Now it seems like it was just meant to happen.”
Sitting there with Silverman at that press conference, it looked like Pena felt back at home, even though it was about the seventh time he’d switched uniforms. He has only been gone for a year—Pena signed a one-year, $10 million with the Chicago Cubs in 2011—but when you consider how Silverman and the Rays ownership rolled the dice with him in 2007, and the incredible seasons he had during his stint, it’s obvious that Pena appreciates the chance to prove himself once again.
“I always felt there’s still one more chapter that needs to be written to this story,” Peña said on Jan. 24, the day he re-signed with the Rays. “And here I have an opportunity—we have an opportunity—to give it a nice ending. We understand it started at, ‘Once upon a time there was a ball club called the Rays …’ We haven’t gotten to that last page.”
Small market teams like the Rays love guys like Carlos Pena. Five years ago he was the type of player who cost little but had a ton of upside. Pena knew that when he signed on with the then Devil Rays in the spring of 2007. The Dominican-born first basemen was already on his sixth team when he came to spring training that March.
But he wasn’t always considered a scrappy player destined for the trading block. Drafted as the tenth overall pick by the Texas Rangers in 1998, Pena was a star at Northeastern University, where he led the Huskies to the NCAA tournament. The problem for Pena was he couldn’t stick around a ball club long enough to prove himself, being a pawn for trades with teams including the Athletics (for which he was portrayed in the film Moneyball), Tigers, Yankees, Red Sox and Rays. That was until he met Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman.
New ownership meant new branding and new faces at Tropicana Field in 2007. To signal the change, the marketing department emblazoned “Under Construction” under the Devil Rays logo and ran television spots claiming a new day in Tampa Bay.
The way Pena describes it over a cheeseburger with sweet potato fries, his invitation to spring training that March was “nothing short of miraculous.”
“I was in the minor leagues and had gotten released by the Tigers,” he recalls while smearing what he calls “Dominican salsa” (a ketchup and mayo mixture) across his burger. “The beginning of 2006 was a difficult situation. I had gone through the Yankees minor league system, went to the Boston Red Sox and then I was a free agent and the Rays offered me an invitation to spring training.”
Pena had a great spring but didn’t make the 25-man roster and was told by Maddon that he would be sent to the minors. Upon hearing the bad news, Pena said he looked at Joe and told him “I don’t believe you. I will be in New York” (for opening day). Undoubtedly caught off guard, Pena said Joe chuckled at the response and they shook hands and parted ways.
“I remember just sealing in that moment and calling my wife and telling her that I had been cut and she obviously was very sad and I was like, don’t be sad; I’m going to New York,” he said.
Pena got that call just before opening day. Greg Norton was hurt and they needed Pena to come to the Big Apple and play first base. The preceding months proved to be spectacular for Pena, who set club records with 46 homeruns and 121 RBI, and hit for a .282 average. He finished ninth in the AL MVP voting, won the AL Comeback Player of the Year award and cemented his place in the Rays infield.
“I’m in what seems to be like a perfect environment and next thing I know, I’m playing at a level that I had always dreamt of playing,” he says about his first year with Tampa Bay. “So you can understand how special that feeling is. And the next thing I know, we’re in 2007 and we’re losing and I feel there’s something happening. I remember going to Joe (Maddon) and Andrew (Friedman) and saying don’t lose faith. I don’t know how you’ve done it but the group of people we have here are special. The coaching staff is special, the environment here is special; don’t be fooled by what the record says today because we’re going in the right direction.”
Pena wasn’t done yet. In 2008, he was a clubhouse leader on the team that shocked the nation with impeccable defense (Pena won a Gold Glove that year) and unbelievable comebacks. That was also the year the Rays made it all the way to the World Series. The Rays, he says, were for real. And they were going to make sure everyone in the world knew it.
“Could I have predicted that?” he asks. “No. But I had sensed that we were going in the right direction. And I felt like I was part of the change and the movement and it’s so special to me. It’s in my blood; it’s part of my story. That’s why it means so much to me to be back and wearing this uniform.”
The Ray Way
If you ask Pena how he feels being back, his signature ear-to-ear grin beams across his face. His year with the Chicago Cubs was great and something he says he needed—“that’s what the journey is all about,” he says—but rejoining his friends in the clubhouse has him excited for the 2012 season. Which makes one wonder: how does a guy who has played in some of the biggest markets in baseball get excited to come back to a city where attendance and stadium debacles are constantly swirling in the air?
For Pena, it’s about the people who truly care about the players and the team; it’s about the environment of playing in a coastal city with world-class beaches; and most of all, it’s about playing for a coach and an ownership that he says have trusted and embraced him since that first day in the spring of 2007.
“I’m serious when I say this and I usually say this with a smile so people take me seriously, but I just think this is one of the best kept secrets in baseball,” Pena admits. “It’s intangible; you can’t put a finger on it. But there’s something in air here in Tampa Bay that you can’t find anywhere else. It’s unique.”
From the clubhouse to the fans, he says the mindset of coming into every game as an underdog or Cinderella has made it one of the best teams to play for. It’s an attitude that he has preached about for years. And it’s part of the reason why he’s back playing for the Rays.
“[People] want to read that story about the small market team that wins it all. It’s a story we all want to hear,” he says. “We’re the small guys and we don’t mind that at all. But that story needs a writer and there’s one more chapter left to be written. And I’m a part of that again and we all want to write that last chapter. It’s the Ray Way and it’s a culture that adapts to you.”
This spring, Pena said he has spent most of his mornings waking up and swimming in the Gulf, taking a run along the beach and then heading over to the park for the game (“Where else in the major leagues could I do that and then go play baseball!” he asks). For now, he’s taking in his surroundings and preparing for what should be another exciting year for the Tampa Bay Rays.
The question is can the team finally go the distance. Regardless of how game No. 162 ends—or if they’re playing in October—Pena says the fans can expect another thrilling season from the Rays.
“I feel like we have what it takes,” he says. “We believe it; I think everything single one of us believes it.”