Thursday October 23rd, 2008

A few minutes of chatting with 30-year-old Rays first baseman Carlos Peña would be enough to make even the least cynical person wonder: is this guy for real? Can anyone -- especially a multi-millionaire professional baseball player -- truly be this open, this upbeat, this nice? There must be another side to this man, moments when the darkness creeps in -- mustn't there?

There is not, and there are not, insist those who know him best. Peña's ceaseless optimism, they say, is not just some superficial strategy that he picked up from one of the self-help books that he devours, or from one of those posters that you can buy from SkyMall that depicts, say, a wave crashing on a boulder above a word like PERSEVERANCE. It's simply how he is. "He doesn't just talk about it. He lives it 24 hours a day," says teammate Rocco Baldelli. "That's how he always is. You're never going to find him being down. You don't even see him in just an OK mood. He's always above that. It's infectious."

"He's a pretty magic dude. Seriously," says rookie center fielder Fernando Perez. "We always joke that he would be our pick to host, like, a kid's show on Nickelodeon. He's so nice it catches you off-guard sometimes."

"Carlos doesn't know what the word 'negative' means," says Dave Kazanjian, 47, who first met Peña 14 years ago when Peña and his teammates came into Kazanjian's sporting goods store -- Whirlaway Sports Center, in Methuen, Mass. -- to be outfitted for spikes. "It doesn't exist in his world."

That outlook can be traced partly to nature, and partly to the example set for him by his parents, Felipe and Mery, who emigrated with their family to the United States from the Dominican Republic in the summer of 1992, when Carlos, the oldest of four siblings, was 14. The Peñas' search for a better life led them to settle in Haverhill, Mass. Even as Felipe and Mery, who had worked in their native country as a mechanical engineer and a teacher, respectively,were forced to take jobs upon arriving in the U.S. at a waste treatment center and a nursing home in order to make ends meet, they refused to allow themselves or their children to focus on anything but life's gifts.

That focus was reinforced for Carlos through regular hours-long discussions he had in his late teens with Kazanjian at his store. Kazanjian would sit on the counter, and Peña would stand, and the two would talk about how Peña could best handle the pressures he would face as a rising baseball star. "He'd ask me questions about stuff, about life," Kazanjian recalls. "In the early years, I did a lot of the teaching, but in the latter years I've learned a lot from him, too."

Peña came to view Kazanjian as something of a big brother, and when he hit his first professional home run, the ball went to his father, but the bat went to Kazanjian.

Baldelli, 27, says that Peña's personality has had a big impact on the Rays' stunning ascension to the World Series, and on Baldelli's personal effort to manage his mitochondrial disease, a disorder that causes him to experience muscular fatigue so debilitating that he at one point contemplated retirement. (Baldelli didn't play this season until August 10, but has contributed one home run and five RBIs in 14 at-bats so far in these playoffs). "I had some days when I was pretty depressed, and things weren't really looking up for me," Baldelli says. "When I was down, he'd always include me and make me feel like I was involved somehow, even though I wasn't doing much -- just sitting on the bench. In the absence of negativity, a lot of good things happen. You don't want to be negative when you're even around the guy. He kind of eliminates that altogether. He almost has an aura about him."

Peña's aura wouldn't be anywhere near the Rays' clubhouse, however, if he lacked a bat that has recently proven to be as Hobbesian (in a Roy sense) as his worldview is not (in a Thomas sense). The Texas Rangers made him the tenth overall pick out of Northeastern University in the 1998 draft, but he was a quantifiable bust for the first nine years of his professional career, a rollercoaster that was marked by such unpredictable highs (27 home runs with the Tigers in 2004) and lows (just 33 at bats with the Red Sox in '06) that a man of lesser character would have been tempted to quit.

In fact, Peña says that he could have stomached it had his career ended after that abortive stint in Boston, which is just thirty miles south of Haverhill. "When I got to this country, I remember playing in my backyard and hitting balls off the houses in the neighborhood," he says. "I'm thinking, Wow, there goes a ball over the Green Monster, there's one the other way.... Then, when I had the great fortune of playing with the Red Sox in '06, for a little bit, I even hit a walkoff home run" -- his only homer of the season, a game-winner at Fenway Park against the White Sox. "I kept saying, this is a dream that's come true for me, because it was."

The next spring, Peña was the final player to be cut from Tampa Bay's roster in spring training. He was then 28, long past the age at which the vast majority of players can realistically expect to find a first steady big league job, and he couldn't even make it as a reserve on what was then baseball's worst team. Instead of allowing self-doubt to consume him, though, Peña confidently walked into manager Joe Maddon's office. "Thank you very much for the opportunity," Peña told Maddon. "I will be back."

He was back by Opening Day, after utilityman Greg Norton suffered a knee injury, and this time he stuck. Despite playing sporadically for the season's first month, Peña finished the year with 46 home runs, trailing only AL MVP Alex Rodriguez on the American League leaderboard -- and his home run rate of one per 10.65 at-bats even slightly exceeded A-Rod's one per 10.80. He was also one of the first to truly believe that the Rays could quickly become far more than the laughingstock they had been for their first decade of existence. "I knew even last year, when we had a tough year [the Rays went 66-96], that this clubhouse was different," he says. "I'd tell Joe, there's something good coming. We're extremely talented, and this is the best clubhouse I've ever been around... I was like, this is the best place in the world to play baseball."

The Rays signed him to a three-year contract worth more than $24 million last January (he made $1.2 million in `07), and after a slow start he rewarded them with another stellar season: 31 home runs, 102 RBIs. Against the Red Sox in the ALCS, he homered in all three games at Fenway, helping the Rays to their first pennant. One expects that in his mind's eye he was envisioning the roofs of the houses of Haverhill.


Each morning after Dave Kazanjian unlocks the doors of his sporting goods store, he sees a sign that he has tacked to the wall of his office. "I WILL PERSIST UNTIL I SUCCEED -- CARLOS PEÑA," it reads. A throwaway platitude coming from someone else -- just another tagline on a SkyMall poster -- but for Peña it's a statement of fact, and one that he has spread to every corner of the Tampa Bay clubhouse. "I think that everything we do, in a way, comes from him," says Baldelli, an intellectual and self-aware ballplayer whose reluctance to make that sort of statement is overwhelmed by how fervently he clearly believes it. "On this team he means everything to us."

The Rays might not be playing in their first World Series this week if not for the front office savvy of owner Stuart Sternberg, team president Matt Silverman and general manager Andrew Friedman. They might not have made it if not for Maddon's steady influence, if not for the precocious emergence of young offensive stars like Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton, if not for the clutch pitching of Scott Kazmir, James Shields, and Matt Garza.

But if the Rays are to win what would have to be considered Major League Baseball's most unlikely World Series title, it will be, perhaps more than anything else, the persistence and the success, and the infectious joy and optimism, of Carlos Peña that will have gotten them there.

An hour after the Rays lost Game 1, a reporter asked a smiling Peña what he would tell his younger teammates who might have become discouraged. Peña reacted as if that possibility hadn't crossed his mind. "That doesn't happen here," he said. "To be honest with you, it's not even necessary to say anything. We know how to take a loss, we know how to take a punch. Tomorrow we're going to come back like nothing even happened."

That optimism, which spreads from Peña locker like a benevolent virus, is a central reason why the Rays managed to win Game 7 of the ALCS even after their stunning losses to the Red Sox in Games 5 and 6. And that optimism is a central reason why even though the Rays are down in their inaugural World Series appearance, they're far from out.

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