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Carlos Peña's Funhouse
May 10, 2010
The late-blooming, always sunny Rays first baseman has lit up Tropicana Field—and turned Tampa Bay into an AL East beast
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May 10, 2010

Carlos Peña's Funhouse

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

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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 Peña, 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 Peña 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 Peña, 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 Peña'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: Peña, 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 Peña 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."

Peña 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, Peña would constantly repeat the phrase El mejor del mundo, a mantra in his house when he was growing up. Peña'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."

Peña 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 Peña, 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.

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