Carlos Peña's Funhouse

May 09, 2010

The late-blooming, always sunny Rays first baseman has lit up Tropicana Field—and turned Tampa Bay into an AL East beast

The Rays never saw the death of their 2009 season coming in Yankee Stadium last Sept. 7, and by the time television play-by-play man Dewayne Staats bellowed, "Look out!" it was already upon them. When CC Sabathia released a 93-mph fastball in the top of the first, the Rays were still alive in the playoff race, with the Red Sox just seven games ahead of them in the wild-card standings with 26 to play. Sabathia's fastball came in high and tight, and Carlos Pe√±a, the heart of Tampa Bay's lineup and clubhouse, didn't think better of swinging at it until it connected with his left hand, breaking his middle and index fingers and ending his season. The Rays lost that game 4--1, and without Pe√±a could muster no more than two runs in any of their next six, losing all of them too. By Sept. 14, Tampa Bay trailed Boston by 12½ games with 19 to play. "It was very big for us to lose him at that particular point, especially because he was so toasty," says manager Joe Maddon of his primary run producer, who had hit 13 homers and driven in 33 runs over the previous five weeks, and whose 39 home runs still ended up tying for the American League lead even though he missed the season's final month. "It was awful. Absolutely awful."

Now Pe√±a, 31, is back, the only sign of his unfortunate encounter with Sabathia's fastball the faint scars on his knuckles where the surgeon inserted pins. The Rays ended April with a 17--6 record—the best first month since the 2003 Yankees went 21--6—due in no small part to Pe√±a's five homers and team-leading 22 RBIs. The Rays' ascendance as an AL East power is the result of many things: a scouting department that rarely misses on draft picks; a savvy front office that rarely misses on its trades; a manager who knows how to coax the best from his players. But it's also the result of plain good fortune: Pe√±a, a former baseball vagabond who was let go by three teams in 2006 and cut by the Rays on the second-to-last day of spring training in '07 only to be called back the next day when journeyman Greg Norton injured his knee, has hit more home runs (121) since the start of the 2007 season than everyone except Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols and Adam Dunn. He also has a major-league-best homer rate of one every 12.7 at bats in that span. "Any time you sign a guy to a minor league contract and he hits 46 home runs"—as Pe√±a did in '07—"there's a large element of luck," says Rays VP of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. Adds Friedman, "I think his career renaissance perfectly shadows this organization's."

Peña's mien also dovetails nicely with that of a Maddon team, on which optimism and personal responsibility are not encouraged but a way of life. "I've never seen him mad," says third baseman Evan Longoria of his gregarious and positive-thinking teammate, who has by his own estimation visited Disney World a hundred times. (To be fair, he has both a home in Orlando and a young daughter.) "In the wintertime he probably works at one of the rides," jokes Maddon.

Peña's teammates suggest he ought to pursue a second career as the host of a children's television show or as a mayor. "At the beginning, I was a little bit skeptical of whether he was genuine," says Friedman, a former Bear Stearns banker who knows of others' artificial bonhomie. "He was one of those people that's so nice that he makes you feel like a bad person in conversation with him. But it's absolutely real. He's a genuinely good person who cares deeply for his teammates and this organization and his community."

Pe√±a spent time with the Rangers' Triple A affiliate in 2001 and the A's Triple A team in '02; in both places his road roommate was righthander Justin Duchscherer, now in Oakland. In conversations with his roomie, Pe√±a would constantly repeat the phrase El mejor del mundo, a mantra in his house when he was growing up. Pe√±a's parents, Felipe and Juana, sacrificed much so he and his three younger siblings might succeed. In 1992, when Carlos was 14, they moved the family from the Dominican Republic to Haverhill, Mass., even though it meant that Felipe, an engineer, had to work as a custodian, and Juana, formerly a teacher and an accountant, as a housekeeper. To repay them, Carlos and his siblings strove to become el mejor del mundo—the best in the world. Carlos and his brothers, Omar and Pedro, would rise at 4 a.m. to hit baseballs and lift weights at the Haverhill YMCA before school. ("We used to say, Let's make sure there's no high school player in the world working harder than us," Carlos says.) They and their sister, Femaris, insisted on taking Advanced Placement classes at Haverhill High, even as they struggled to master English as a second language.

The Peñas would find success in their new country. The baseball dreams of Pedro, who is three years older/younger than Carlos, ended in 2001 when he suffered a broken hand in the Cape Cod League, but he now holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry. Juana became a teacher once more; Felipe earned a master's in business management. In 1998 Carlos, who went from Haverhill High to college at Northeastern, seemed headed for greatness as well. The Rangers made him the 10th overall pick in that year's draft; he had wowed pro scouts with what Northeastern coach Neil McPhee calls "Tony Gwynn--like batting practices" and his prodigious power. Once, McPhee says, Peña hit a ball over the football field adjacent to Northeastern's diamond, over the stands and onto the second-story porch of a house across the street. "Every year, it gets more embellished," Peña says. "Probably, by now, it was into the next area code."

Pe√±a has always liked to swing hard and hit the ball high and far—a habit he says he developed during his teenage years, when he and his brothers took cuts in their backyard and aimed for a tall neighboring house that represented Fenway Park's Green Monster. For years, however, the habit kept him from finding a comfortable big league home. Despite his impressive power (his career slugging percentage in the minors was .509, and in 2002, his first full season in the big leagues, he hit 19 home runs for the A's and the Tigers), teams viewed him as a high-strikeout, two-outcome hitter. In January 2002 Texas traded him to Oakland, which flipped him to Detroit six months later. The Tigers released him during spring training in 2006, and by the end of that season Pe√±a, by then 28, had been picked up and jettisoned by the Yankees and the Red Sox as well.

In January 2007 Peña took a step closer to obscurity by signing a minor league deal with Tampa Bay, at the time baseball's worst franchise. The Rays had never finished better than 21 games below .500 to that point and would go on to lose 96 games that year. But two days before the team flew to New York for the season opener, Peña was told he wasn't good enough even for Tampa Bay: Maddon informed him that he wouldn't make the big league roster. "A lot of people would get down and probably never play again," says Duchscherer. "Not Carlos."

"I told Joe, I hear what you're saying, but I don't believe it," remembers Peña, who devours inspirational texts like Og Mandino's The Greatest Salesman in the World. "I believe I'm on the team. I'm flying to New York on Sunday. I'll see you on the plane."

"The way he said it, I had to believe it somehow," says Maddon. The next day, Norton started to limp. "He was on that plane," says Maddon.

Pe√±a believes the opportunity afforded him by Norton's injury was "a little bit of divinity." (Norton spent 2007 as a Rays backup before leaving as a free agent.) What happened in the years to follow was, for the Rays, divine. Pe√±a still hits the ball with plenty of lift—at 54.1%, his fly ball rate was the league's highest last year. But he now turns many of those fly balls into home runs, and he has developed a keen eye to offset the low batting averages—he was hitting .224—at week's end. (That average is lowered by his prodigious strikout rate too; he has averaged 157 whiffs per season with the Rays.) Pe√±a has ranked in the AL's top eight in walks each of the past three years and through Sunday was tied for seventh with 17 this season. "You can only hope he hits it higher than he does farther," says A's starter Dallas Braden. "He's that integral part to their offense. He would be their unsung hero."

"Because of everything we went through, we became way stronger," says Carlos's brother Omar, 28, who is currently an infielder for the Worcester Tornadoes of the independent CanAm League and is taking online courses to complete his bachelor's degree. "Coming over here not knowing English, seeing what our parents sacrificed for us. Carlos probably wouldn't be where he is if he didn't go through that."

Late one afternoon last week, Peña sat on the terrace outside the sixth-floor condo in Madeira Beach, Fla., that he shares with his wife, Pamela, and four-year-old daughter, Isabella. He gazed out at the gray-blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico, in which he swims laps between buoys each morning, and over which the night before a nearly full moon had glowed so luminously that Peña felt compelled to capture it with his Blackberry camera. "I'm sitting here thinking, Man, this place is something else," he said. "It's the best place to play baseball in the world."

That evening, after he had made the 25-minute drive to Tropicana Field, Peña did what Peña does. He grinned broadly while filming a promotional spot for Carlos Peña Toothbrush Holder Night ("Brush your teeth and get a smile like me!"). He had a "textbook" batting practice session, in the words of hitting coach Derek Shelton. He hugged a security guard stationed near the Rays' dugout. ("Where you been, man?" he said.) And he lashed a fifth-inning RBI single and a 426-foot sixth-inning homer, helping the Rays beat the visiting A's 10--3.

Alas, there were few people there to see it. The Trop was, for the second consecutive night, less than 30% full, the great swaths of empty blue seats suggesting that the attendance was far lower than the announced 10,691, the ringing of the fans' cowbells sounding more plaintive than inspiring. Owner Stuart Sternberg, whose franchise is baseball's third-least valuable (it's worth $316 million, less than one fifth of the value of the AL East--rival Yankees) according to Forbes, upped his payroll to $71.9 million this season, ranking it 19th in the majors. But all those empty seats mean that it is unlikely that Sternberg will be able to match that figure next year, making it unlikelier still that the club will be able to compete for its own free-agent stars once they hit the open market.

For years it has been widely assumed that 2010 will be the ninth and final season in Tampa Bay for leftfielder Carl Crawford, the speedy three-time All-Star who will be a free agent after the season. Less discussed is that Pe√±a, who will make $10.125 million in the final season of a three-year deal, will also be a free agent. Compounding matters is that Pe√±a—in something of a disconnect from his smiley personality—is represented by Scott Boras, an agent who cares little about good times and gray-blue waters and yellow full moons and a lot about green cash.

The Rays have a fecund farm system and several top players under control for several more years (Longoria, for example, is under contract through 2016), so they could remain competitive without Crawford and Peña. Still, their potential departures have created a sense of urgency in the Rays' clubhouse. "This core group is going to still be together, me and Carlos are the only two guys that are going to be leaving," notes Crawford, perhaps giving away more than he should. "We definitely feel like this is a special year for us, and we would like to do something good."

"We're going to let the season play out so as not to let it become a distraction," says Friedman. "Everyone is focused on the 2010 season, hopefully accomplishing special things. In an ideal world, we'd play the last game in late October, and then sit down and try to address [the Crawford and Peña situations]."

As he sat out on his terrace, a cooling Gulf breeze washing over him, Peña also insisted that his thoughts aren't on his future, even though he may have to decide whether the promise of several extra million dollars is worth leaving a franchise and community he loves. He prefers to keep his focus on the present. "My thoughts of the future are very scarce," he said, his smile never breaking. "All that comes to my mind is, I'm a Ray, and I'm going to go as hard as I can for them. The future is nonexistent. The now is always happening. Who cares about September? Who cares about next year? We've got a ball game tonight. We're going to win this ball game tonight. That's all that matters. There's no time like the present."

The Rays got a chilling glimpse of a Peña-less future last September. For the franchise as well as Peña, there might never again be a time like the present.

Now on SI.com

Tom Verducci analyzes the rise of walks and K's in the modern game at SI.com/baseball

"You hope Peña hits it higher than he does farther," says a rival pitcher. "He's their unsung hero."

PHOTOPhotograph by AL TIELEMANSWHAT A BASH After kicking around with five franchises, Peña landed in Tampa Bay, where life has been one giant, career-altering ball. PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERPOWER MOVE Peña was nearly cut by the Rays, too, in 2007; he stuck and has since homered every 12.7 ABs, the top rate in baseball. PHOTOSKIP MILOS/TAMPA BAY RAYSGRADE A TALENT He didn't learn English until he was a teen, but Peña was a star first baseman and studied engineering at Northeastern.
PHOTOJOHN TODD/AP[See caption above] PHOTOPhotograph by SKIP MILOS/TAMPA BAY RAYSFIELD MARSHAL The fun-loving Peña sets the tone for the Rays in the clubhouse and at first base, where he was a Gold Glove winner in 2008. PHOTOPhotograph by AL TIELEMANSWALL BUSTER Peña honed his uppercut stroke in the backyard of his family's suburban Boston apartment, where he and his brothers aimed at an imaginary Green Monster.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)