One of baseball’s most famous cliches is “Nice guys finish last.”
That was uttered by Leo Durocher, a guy who was anything but a nice guy during his many decades in the game. But, to perpetuate another cliche of sorts: Durocher never met Carlos Pena.
Pena might be the nicest guy in the game of baseball, yet providence seems to be smiling on him year after year. Unfortunately for Tigers fans his good fortune has occurred since his exit from Detroit, but he’s such a nice guy that it’s easy to feel good for him even though he’s finding fame, success, and fortune in other uniforms.
Last month, Pena signed a free agent contract with the Tampa Bay Rays, returning to the team where he rose like a Phoenix from the ashes back in 2007. This after he belted 28 homers for the Chicago Cubs in 2011, continuing to build his resume as one of baseball’s best home run hitters and run producers.
There was a time when Pena was not an underdog. As the 10th selection in the 1998 draft, taken by the Texas Rangers, Pena was tagged with the “can’t miss” tag. With a beautiful left-handed stroke, Pena seemed a lock to for superstardom. Coming out of Northeastern University, an institution known more for its’ eggheads than ballplayers, Pena also had what is called “baseball IQ”. If that weren’t enough, at first base he was compared to glove master Keith Hernandez. His hands not only guided a sweet batting swing, they also gingerly fielded groundballs with efficiency.
He moved rapidly through the Ranger organization, finally reaching the big leagues in 2001. But he was sought-after and Oakland GM Billy Beane coveted Pena. He got his man in a multi-player trade prior to the 2002 season, when Beane surrendered four players, including two blue chip prospects, for Pena. But even as much as Beane liked Pena, he still saw the player as he saw all players – as a commodity to be used to improve his team. Just three months into the 2002 season, Pena was part of the huge three-team trade between Oakland, Detroit, and the New York Yankees. Pena went to Detroit, effectively in exchange for Ted Lilly and cash. while Tiger fans were distracted by their anger over losing Jeff weaver to the Yankees in the trade, Pena quietly fit in with his new team.
Pena hit 12 homers in half a season for the Tigers in 2002, hit 18 the following season, and 27 more in 2004. That season he tied a Tiger record with six hits in a nine-inning game against the Royals. In 2005 he hit the longest home run in Comerica Park history, launching a ball to right-center that bounced on the walkway and left the stadium. Just 26 years old, Pena was still learning to be a big league hitter, but Tiger brass was impatient with Pena’s frequent strikeouts. He fanned 146 times in 2004 when he clubbed those 27 homers, and his batting average was lagging in the .230-250 range rather than the .280-300 range the Tigers hoped for.
As a Tiger, Pena was a fan favorite, especially among female fans who were attracted to his bright smile and dark good looks. He took an active role in the city, creating a foundation that raised money for disadvantaged children. He was an articulate representative of the team and the city.
“[Carlos] is one of the smartest and most interesting guys I’ve been around,” teammate Rondell White said in 2004.
After he started the 2005 season dismally, batting just .181 with 14 RBI in 40 games, Pena was demoted to Toledo. He was recalled to Detroit in August after driving in 71 runs in 71 games for the Mud Hens. He still managed 18 homers for the Tigers in 79 games, but he had lost his first base job to Chris Shelton, the red-headed folk hero who hit like Babe Ruth for about a month that season.
In spring training the following year, under the watchful eye of new manager Jim Leyland, Pena struggled. He hit .160 with just one homer and four RBI in 17 games in Florida. On March 26 he was released, ending his Tiger career. He signed a minor league contract with the Yankees, playing for their top farm team until August when he exercised an option and declared himself a free agent. He had slugged 19 homers for the Columbus Clippers, drawing notice from big league teams in need of a left-handed bat. The Boston Red Sox signed him to a deal and Pena completed the first step of his comeback when he hit a walk-off homer against the Chicago White Sox in September.
In the 2006-2007 off-season, Pena became a free agent. Most big league clubs were hesitant to take on a guy who had been released in spring training, and Pena seemed fortunate to receive a minor league deal from Tampa Bay, with an invitation to spring training with the major league club. Pena made the most of his opportunity, earning a spot on the Devil Rays’ 25-man roster for opening day. Initially a backup player, Pena started out slowly in 2007, but in May he was given a chance as Tampa’s everyday first baseman. He slugged six homers that month and only got hotter from there. In late August and September, he had four multi-homer games, eventually hitting a staggering 46 home runs with 121 RBI in 148 games. He hit .282 with 103 walks, a .411 OBP and .627 SLG. Pena earned a Silver Slugger Award and finished ninth in American League Most Valuable Player voting.
“I’m just thankful to be able to play this game for a living, to have my dreams come true,” Pena admitted.
The next year, Pena continued his improbable resurgence, winning a Gold Glove and hitting 31 homers with 102 RBI as the Rays shocked baseball by winning the pennant. The Rays restructered his deal, making Pena a millionaire. He hit 39 homers in 2009 and made the All-Star team. He broke two fingers on his hand that year but still finished tied for the AL lead in home runs.
Less than four years after being released by the Tigers, Carlos Pena was a home run champion. After playing out his contract with the Rays in 2010, Pena signed a one-year deal with the Cubs. Taking his left-handed stroke to Wrigley Field, Pena hit 28 home runs and drove in 80 runs, giving him five straight seasons with at least those figures in those categories. Last month he signed a deal to return to Tampa Bay, to the scene of his revitalization.
Every step of the way, Pena has been a great teammate, a solid citizen, a joy to watch, a good interview. He’s a good guy who continues to be rewarded by the game of baseball. It may contradict what Durocher said, but it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.