Carlos Pena feels right at home with Cubs

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Carlos Pena feels right at home with Cubs

Saturday, March 5, 2011
2:39 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

MESA, Ariz. Carlos Pena grabs the iPod dock from a clubhouse attendant and puts on some dance music. Hes surrounded by teammates on a practice field as he explains who should get priority during a pop-up drill. He helps organize a players-only meeting to address the tension simmering from a dugout fight.

It didnt take long for the new Cubs first baseman to become a visible leader. It also wasnt that long ago where he was an island unto himself.

So much was expected of Pena, the 10th overall pick in the 1998 draft. But by 2005 he had already been traded twice, and marginalized on a Tigers team that had lost 119 games only two years earlier.

A Detroit source remembers one Pena quote in particular from that season. It came around the time of his 27th birthday. It sums up a cerebral player struggling to handle failure.

Where the dry desert ends, Pena said, green grass grows.

Pena would be shipped back to Triple-A Toledo, where manager Larry Parrish and hitting coach Leon Bull Durham tried to shut down his overactive mind. Pena was promoted in mid-August and went on a tear, hitting .286 with 15 homers and 30 RBI in 38 games through the end of the season.

Even when things were going good again, Pena refused to speak to the media during that hot streak. Yet he is now so approachable and comfortable with those responsibilities as a team spokesman.

They said it was so important for me to have tunnel focus, not to allow myself to (believe all the hype), Pena recalled. I took it to heart. You go in there and get everything done and make it as raw as you possibly can. Meaning go play baseball and go home. Nothing (else) exists.

Good chemistry

Pena is smart enough to know that there is a world beyond baseball, and doesnt pretend to have everything figured out. After all, he was released by the Tigers and Yankees before bouncing to the Red Sox in 2006.

Carlos is an amazing ballplayer and hes an amazing person, said Cubs pitcher Matt Garza, a teammate for three years in Tampa Bay. He thrives in any situation. He was almost out of baseball (and) out of nowhere (was the American Leagues Comeback Player of the Year in 2007).

Everything clicked that season. Pena generated 46 homers and 121 RBI, finally establishing himself after spending parts of five of the previous six years on the Triple-A level.

So Pena is used to introducing himself and making new friends. He is on his seventh professional team. He started at Wright State University before transferring to Northeastern University, where he studied engineering.

But nothing will compare to the shock of his family moving from the Dominican Republic to Haverhill, Mass., when he was 12 years old. He hopes that growing up near Boston and playing at Fenway Park has prepared him for Wrigley Fields fishbowl existence.

After Carlos Silva and Aramis Ramirez had to be separated in the dugout, Pena did not think: What did I get myself into?
I like the chemistry that we have here, even after (what) happened a couple days ago, Pena said. You look around, nothing has happened.

Its like Ok, cool, lets go play Nintendo now. Like when we were kids. You get into a fight and an hour later youre playing freaking Super Mario Brothers together. I like that we can have a disagreement and 15 minutes later go back to being friends. This is awesome. Thats chemistry.
Pillow contract

Cubs infielder Jeff Baker, another Scott Boras client, sort of smiled and shook his head at the mention of a pillow contract. Thats what baseballs most powerful agent called the one-year, 10 million deal he negotiated for Pena at the winter meetings.

Still, Pena does not come across as the ultimate mercenary.

'Los gets the respect of every one of his teammates, Baker said. Hes played in the World Series with Tampa. Hes also been through a lot of trials and tribulations in his career. Theres not too much he hasnt seen.

Everyone respects what hes done and the way he carries himself. When he speaks up and has something to say, guys are going to listen.

As a Gold Glove first baseman, Pena recently went to manager Mike Quade and asked if he could make a few suggestions to Tyler Colvin, a second-year player working out at a new position.

Look pal, you know way more about this position than I do, Quade responded. Im asking you: Please. And youve got a kid here whos a sponge and will listen and learn from you.

Pena mentioned a few details, explaining when you can cheat and gain a couple steps charging on a bunt. The hope is the Colvin becomes more fluid there, in case Pena gets injured and because the Cubs dont have an obvious first baseman of the future waiting in their minor-league system.

Pena will turn 33 in May and wants to use this as a platform toward a multi-year contract. And if he puts together a good season (and raises his .196 average from 2010), the Cubs figure to be very interested, even with Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder ready to potentially hit the market.

Pena is a good citizen, the image the Cubs would like to project. Hes left-handed, bilingual and confident that he can conquer a big market. For now, he just hopes his team plays together, free and easy, exactly what he had trouble being years ago.

I want us to be loose. I want us to enjoy ourselves, Pena said. That way our talent really expresses itself.

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Jon Lester explains absence from Cubs' White House trip: 'Absolutely nothing political'

Jon Lester explains absence from Cubs' White House trip: 'Absolutely nothing political'

Jon Lester didn't make any sort of statement by missing Monday's White House trip with his Cubs teammates. But at a polarizing moment in a divided country, a high-profile player on a World Series team felt the need to respond on social media and explain his absence from the championship ceremony. 

President Barack Obama name-checked Lester during his East Room speech – both for his spectacular pitching performance and beat-cancer charitable initiatives – as the Cubs continued their victory tour off the franchise's first World Series title since Theodore Roosevelt lived in the White House.

Lester stood behind Obama when the 2013 Boston Red Sox were honored on the South Lawn. During that 2014 ceremony, Lester stood next to John Lackey, another Cub who missed this Washington trip. Lester also toured George W. Bush's White House with Boston's 2007 championship team.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day – and with the specter of Donald Trump's inauguration looming – Obama used his administration's final official White House event to draw a direct line between him and Jackie Robinson and highlight the connective power of sports.

"The best part was the president talking about how sports brings people together," All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo said, "how no matter what's going on in this country and the world, three or four hours of any one particular game can just rally so many people together." 

This team couldn't have created so much joy for generations of fans without Lester, who signed a $155 million contract with the last-place Cubs after the 2014 season, a transformational moment during the long rebuild that led to the White House trip that Obama never thought would happen.

"It was a thrill and an honor for all of us," team president Theo Epstein said. "It means so much more with his roots in Chicago and his final days in office. It couldn't have worked out any better. It's something we'll all remember for our whole lives."

The time Addison Russell froze up after getting a text from Eddie George

The time Addison Russell froze up after getting a text from Eddie George

Plenty of Cubs fans surely were star-struck to meet Addison Russell at Cubs Convention last weekend. But the 22-year-old All-Star shortstop has a shortlist of people he would be amazed to meet, too. 

Russell reveres President Barack Obama, on Friday the outgoing Commander-in-Chief's work in the community when talking about getting to visit the White House. So on Monday, Russell got to check off meeting one of the people on his list. "There's probably about three people that I would be star-struck by, and (Obama's) one of them," Russell said. 

One of those three spots is "open," Russell said. The other member of that list is former Ohio State and Tennessee Titans running back Eddie George. 

Russell wears his No. 27 because of George, who wore that number during his career in which he made four Pro Bowls and rushed for over 10,000 yards and 78 touchdowns. Prior to the 2016 season, George sent Russell and autographed Titans helmet inscribed with good luck message.

After the season, Russell said George texted him seeing if the newly-crowned champion had time to chill. Few things rattled Russell last year — he became the youngest player to hit a grand slam in the World Series when he blasted one in Game 6 against the Cleveland Indians last November — but getting a text from George did. "I couldn't text back," Russell said. "It was nuts. I waited four days because I was thinking of what back to say."

Even the most famous athletes still get star-struck. Russell's been lucky enough in the last few months to meet and hear from two of the people who bring out that sense of awe in him. "Just to come in contact with people like that, it just makes me smile," Russell said. "It definitely gets me in the mood of getting better, and that's the goal this year, is getting better."