Carlos Peña is a Gold Glove first baseman with the ability to hit 30-plus homers.
Those attributes are self-evident, but it’s what the average person doesn’t see that makes him a valuable commodity.
It’s why Tampa Rays manager Joe Maddon couldn’t wait to greet him personally when he learned Peña was coming back to the club.
Standing in an airport in Rome, Italy, the first thing the Rays manager did was call Peña, who was in the United States.
“I didn’t expect him to call. He was about to board an airplane, but he made sure he did at his first opportunity; that meant a lot to me,” Peña said. “He called me a colleague in Spanish and said he was glad to have me back. Joe gets it. He is a unique manager and a very special person. He is a Renaissance man.”
Maddon has similar praise for the first baseman, who spent four seasons with Rays before his departure last season when the Rays went through a budget slashing. It’s a mutual admiration society between two guys who know something good when they see it.
Peña never wanted to leave, and Maddon didn’t want him to go. But last year, the Rays had to purge personnel to keep the franchise from going into the red, and there was no way Peña could stay.
He signed a one-year deal for $7.25 million after earning $10 million with the Cubs last year and reportedly turned down an $8 million offer from Cleveland.
“If I had my way I would’ve stayed here the whole time, but because of the dynamics of the organization they have to be very creative with their payroll,” Peña said. “Now I am back where I am supposed to be. This is the place where I grew as a professional. I feel like I am part of the history here.”
Maddon and Andrew Friedman, the Rays’ executive vice president of baseball operations, see more than just a player in Peña.
Maddon noticed a difference in attitude among players and fans in Peña’s first day back and how his presence energized the fan base.
“Carlos has that effervescent personality that rubs off on everyone. I felt it when I walked into the clubhouse and saw him on his first day here,” Maddon said. “You look beyond his hitting and defense and see all that he brings. He is going to do a lot of good on the field, but he does a lot of great stuff off the field, whether it’s in the clubhouse or the community.”
Peña has shared a lot of good and bad with the Rays and played an instrumental role in the team’s march to the World Series in 2008. He says there is an excitement around the organization that is more electric than even that Cinderella season.
“We have a core group of guys that were with me in 2007 when we still wore the white-and-green uniforms,” Peña said. “The fan base has definitely grown. There is a lot more buzz and a lot more fans coming around. People talk about how the fan bases in New York and Boston and Chicago are worldwide. I like our fan base.
“Ours might be small compared to them, but it is so loyal and passionate. I like the quality of our fans. We know it is growing little by little, and we intend to make it grow even more.”
Peña said he will always cherish his year in Chicago, but couldn’t wait to come back. He kept his residence in Orlando and looks forward to taking his daughter to school some days.
Peña hit 225 last year with 28 homers, the same number he hit in 2010 with the Rays. He doesn’t make any predictions, except that he and his teammates will give everything they have.
“We are the Rays and we are going to go out there, try to play the game as hard as we can and try to score more runs than the other team and do that as many times as we can in a 162-game season,” Peña said. “Our own expectations will always be higher than the people on the outside; that’s why it doesn’t matter what is going on around us. It matters what is going on within us.”
Maddon cannot hide his excitement about the lineup possibilities Peña and others give him on what is one of the most talented Rays team he has managed.
“I am looking at the batting order, and we are going to sit down as a staff because it’s funky how it sits with lefties and righties and who belongs where,” Maddon said. “But Carlos will be our everyday first baseman, and we want to put him in a prominent spot in the order. You see how happy he is to be here, and we are very happy to add him to an already great clubhouse that makes it even better.”