Saturday, March 5, 2011
By Patrick Mooney
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.
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.
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.