Peña 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. Peña 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.) Peña 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 Peña, 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 Peña—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.