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It was a deep free-agent market for first basemen this past winter. So, with most general managers dreaming about landing the likes of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, reliable veterans like Carlos Pena didn’t attract much attention. But that doesn’t matter now. The Dominican-born southpaw slugger is at peace, back with the Tampa Bay Rays. It’s a love affair with a team that never wavered, even though things took a brief detour last season with the Chicago Cubs.
“It seems like I’ve only played for the Rays my entire career,” admits Pena. “This club is just special to me.”
Tampa Bay chief executive Andrew Friedman thinks the feeling is mutual.
“We wanted Carlos back because he’s a leader and a fan favorite,” says Friedman. “Of course, what mattered most was his production on the field.”
Felipe and Juana Pena moved from Santo Domingo to Haverhill, Massachusetts in search of better opportunities for their children when Carlos was 12 years old. Like his siblings, Carlos embraced college and was an honor student at Northeastern University when he was selected by the Texas Rangers in the first round of the 1998 draft. When he was promoted to the varsity club in 2001, Pena was groomed for a while by countryman Alex Rodriguez, often staying at A-Rod’s mansion in Dallas. But Carlos was soon traded to the Oakland Athletics, and later on to the Detroit Tigers, where he enjoyed modest success.
Pena’s fortunes kicked in when he signed a minor league contract with the Rays in 2007, gaining respect as an elite, big league player. He won a Gold Glove in ’08 and led the Rays to their first World Series berth. In ’09, Carlos led the American League in home runs and was selected to play in the All-Star game. All totaled in is initial Tampa Bay stint, Pena launched 144 bombs, drove in 417 runs, and made only 26 errors at first base in 4,590 fielding attempts. He also made $24 million in that four year span, including $10 in the final year of his deal. Understandably, the thrifty Rays got cold feet that winter and decided to say so long to one of their best players.
Last season, the wealthier Cubs signed Pena to a one-year pact for the same money, and he didn’t disappoint. Carlos hit 28 jacks, matching the previous year’s total, had an on base percentage of .353 and played in a career-high 153 games. But with Chicago in a rebuilding mode, Pena didn’t fit the puzzle, paving the way for his return to the Rays.
Carlos had to accept a pay cut, settling for a one-year, $7.25 million agreement. He might not be as rich as Albert and Prince, but Pena is where he wants to be, and that’s what is most important. Carlos and his wife, Pamela, are active in the Tampa Bay community, working with the local Big Brothers Big Sisters program and the high school-oriented Tampa Action Team. Pena is also aware of his roots, organizing projects and donating time and money to needy kids in the Dominican Republic.
In his homecoming first at-bat against the New York Yankees, Pena celebrated by hitting a first inning, grand slam shot against CC Sabathia, marking a milestone, 1,000 career hits. The fans at “The Trop” went nuts. Those damn cow bells, which are more annoying than vuvuzelas, were loudly clanking. Then for an encore, Carlos hit the game-winning knock off New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. The twin feats were ironic, based on his remarks to the media when he resigned with the Rays.
“I have so many memories here in Tampa Bay,” noted Pena. “I’m just looking forward to making better ones.”
Perhaps the next one will be a championship ring.