Commentary

Pena excelling … and doing it his way

Originally Published: October 25, 2008
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- Respect is a big word to Carlos Pena, the alternately serious and frothy Tampa Bay first baseman. He uses the word constantly, whether he is talking about a formidable opponent ("We have a lot of respect for the Red Sox"), the numerous mentors he recalls through the years when his can't-miss status stood severely in doubt ("I love Ron Washington. He showed me respect") or when he considers the global difficulties of his occupation ("One of the first things I learned is how much respect you have to have for this game. It's not easy").

During this month of discovery, both for the Rays on center stage and a baseball universe accustomed to having them virtually eliminated before Labor Day, Pena has captured the postseason with his erudition, social viewpoints and ebullience. The day before the Phillies beat the Rays 3-2 in Game 1 of the World Series, a few of his teammates were looking for Pena. "He's not here," deadpanned reserve Eric Hinske. "He's probably out saving the whales."

Streaking toward the playoffs, the team (including manager Joe Maddon) agreed to wear Mohawks, but third baseman Evan Longoria thought at least one player needed to represent the respectable side of the franchise. The player Longoria chose was Pena.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Pena
Kyodo/AP ImagesCarlos Pena led the Rays with 31 home runs and 102 RBIs during the regular season.
"You see," a smiling Pena says as he dresses before the Rays' Friday workout, "I have to be the clean-cut one."

Outfielder Rocco Baldelli's face lights up when thinking about Pena. "He's the kind of person you want as a brother, a best friend," Baldelli said. "I honestly believe that he's the greatest human being I've ever met in major league baseball."

And yet, the most telling way to understand Pena may not be through the lens of what challenging book he is currently reading, his social positions or the gushing respect his teammates have for him, but through the most basic lens: how he fought to win the battle between pitcher and hitter, spent nearly the first decade of his career in a tug-of-war with his employers over how to hit a baseball, and still found a way to emerge as a star in Tampa Bay.

The fight

Pena walks a personality tightrope almost unheard of in baseball: the highly touted young player who resisted changes to his hitting even as he struggled, yet remained enormously well-respected by management of the nearly half-dozen clubs that let him go before his breakout first season in Tampa Bay, when he hit 46 home runs and drove in 121 runs in 2007.

He was selected by Texas with the 10th pick of the first round in 1998, but played just 22 games with the big club. He was traded twice in seven months in 2002, from the Rangers to Oakland in January and then in a three-team deal from Oakland to Detroit.

PENA'S PATH
DATE TRANSACTION
6/2/1998 Drafted by Texas in the first round (No. 10 overall pick)
1/14/2002 Traded by Texas with Mike Venafro to Oakland for Jason Hart, Gerald Laird, Ryan Ludwick and Mario Ramos
7/5/2002 Traded by Oakland with Jeremy Bonderman and Franklyn German to Detroit as part of a three-way deal with the NY Yankees
3/26/2006 Released by Detroit
4/15/2006 Signed as a free agent with the NY Yankees
8/16/2006 Released by the NY Yankees
8/17/2006 Signed as a free agent with Boston
10/13/2006 Granted free agency
2/1/2007 Signed as a free agent with Tampa Bay
After two stops, the word around the batting cage was that Pena would not waver from the lessons his dad, Felipe, taught him about hitting, that Felipe's teaching carried more value than the words of hitting coaches who had spent their entire lives in the game. He clashed with Thad Bosley, then the stern Oakland hitting coach, who bristled when Pena refused to alter his mechanics. Words like "uncoachable" and "difficult" are not simply labels that stick; in baseball, they become a second skin, impossible from which to molt, baseball poison fatal to a career.

"I would say he was strong-willed. That's the right word for it," recalled Ken Macha, who was the bench coach for Art Howe when Pena was in Oakland. "He had his way of doing things and it didn't always go that well. I always liked him. He worked his tail off. Carlos was a very hard worker, and sometimes I guess you have to go through those kinds of struggles before it all comes together. But in the end, he made it."

In Oakland, Pena hit .218 with seven home runs in 40 games in 2002. Washington, his infield coach, watched Pena, and the two grew close. Washington was Pena's manager in winter ball, with Licey in the Dominican Republic.

"I liked him a lot," Washington said. "When he was a kid I managed him in the Dominican Republican, and I played him and worked with him hard. He was a late bloomer but he bloomed nicely. Sometimes it takes awhile to find a home.

"The thing about Carlos is he has a personality and a character. He would do some things and you would say, 'If only he could be consistent.' But you knew he could play. And more importantly, he knew he could play. People said he wasn't coachable, that he felt he knew. But in that situation, a coach has to try a different approach."

Pena showed he could hit for power -- he hit 27 home runs in cavernous Comerica Park for the Tigers in 2004 -- but struggled to keep his average in the .250 range and posted staggering strikeout totals (including 146 in '04). Then came the nadir: In 2005 and 2006, he played more games in the minor leagues than the majors. With a week to go in spring training in 2006, the Tigers released him. He was looking for a job, and during the summer of 2006 was unable to stick with the game's two marquee franchises, the Red Sox and Yankees, the two clubs that preached the exact virtues Pena possessed: power and patience at the plate. Even when he wasn't hitting, Pena's on-base percentage still hovered roughly 100 points higher than his batting average.

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman considered Pena a "high-character guy." The Yanks signed Pena three weeks after he was released by Detroit, but Pena spent 105 games at Triple-A Columbus, never getting the call to the majors.

"He wasn't here long, and he didn't get up here to the big club. He had an out in his contract that allowed him to become a free agent if he wasn't with the big club by a certain date," Cashman said before Game 1 of the World Series. "He wasn't the player then that he is now. Otherwise, he would have been here."

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Still, Washington had heard the whispers, but in Pena, he did not see a player who simply could not be taught. He had been around those kinds of players and decided Pena was not one of them. He pointed to the work they had done in Oakland, concentrating on Pena's fielding technique. A kid who was "uncoachable" would not have put the time into his defensive game to improve the way Pena did. Washington had reached a critical conclusion: Few coaches seemed to know how to reach Pena -- they were interested more in forcing him to learn their philosophies. Instead of being stubborn, Washington saw Pena as emblematic of a generational clash between the old guard and new.

"He was part of that generation of players that had an opinion," said Washington, now the manager of the Texas Rangers. "When I played, if a coach told you to run through that wall, you did it, and you trusted the coach that he wasn't putting you in a bad way. With Carlos, when you told him something, he wanted to know why. And he wasn't going to change if your reasoning didn't make sense to him."

Tampa Bay took a low-risk, high-potential flyer, signing Pena to a non-roster deal in 2007, and Pena went to the Rays carrying in his dossier dueling strains: the silent reputation among scouts that he would rather fail his way than listen to coaches, but an almost universal regard on the part of the baseball people he'd encountered. If respect was an important word to Pena, it carried with it a certain degree of hard-won reciprocity. People liked him immensely. Maddon did not believe that Pena was a victim of a reputation following him, but more of circumstances.

"Boston had a bunch of first basemen. New York had a bunch of first basemen. They had less time to be tolerant or patient with him because they already had that position filled," Maddon said. "Oakland, you could make the argument that he was really young. We had a need. We had a specific need. We had a much larger time frame to give him an opportunity than some other teams."

Cliff Floyd had been there. The difference between him and Pena was that when Floyd was a young player, he enjoyed immediate success on the field, which discouraged coaches from trying to alter his style.

"It happens to a lot of us," Floyd said. "It goes unnoticed because most guys end up being OK. But sometimes you get involved in doing what coaches want you to do to stay in the league. He had to figure out on his own that it was going to take him to do this and not everyone telling him what to do.

"I love Felipe Alou to death. He was my manager, and I love him like a second dad, but he told me I couldn't hit in the big leagues a certain way. I don't know how you tell a 19-year-old that. I had hit 30 home runs in Double-A, so somehow, I got it done. He wanted me to adapt myself to his plan, and I wasn't ready for it."

Home

If Longoria is the heart and the hope of the Rays, Pena represents the team's soul and conscience. He provides a player version of his manager, Maddon, in viewing baseball through the larger world, which in the myopic, self-absorbed baseball universe is more remarkable than it may first appear. Pena is also emblematic of another Rays/Maddon characteristic: being unafraid to think differently, of approaching the game with a different orthodoxy. The result is that St. Petersburg, of all places, has become a place of redemption.

"I liked the idea of seeing pitches and drawing walks," Maddon said before the Rays evened the World Series with a 4-2 win in Game 2. "I also encouraged him to use the whole field and not pull everything, really avoid the 4-3 and 3-unassisted, and if he went through a bad streak, don't be changing your mechanics, man. Change what you're thinking about. Your thinking is probably out of control and you're starting to chase.

"Sometimes, what a good coach does is misconstrued. The easiest thing to do as a coach, baseball specifically, is to attempt to change someone's physical mechanics. That is easy. The more difficult thing to do is change their mental mechanics."

When Pena arrived in St. Petersburg, he was encouraged by two liberating moments. The first was that neither Maddon nor hitting coach Steve Henderson would attempt to remake him as a hitter. Neither man wanted to tinker with his swing.

"As a former hitting coach, I was always concerned with trying to influence anyone's career too much. I always thought a hitting coach should make suggestions, instead of telling someone to do something," Maddon said. "For example, Stan Musial: Fortunately, there were no really intelligent hitting coaches around at that time because they would have told him, 'Stan, you cannot stand that way. That peek-a-boo stance is just not going to work, and you need to change when you're 17.' If someone had done that, you would have never heard of Stan Musial. Joe DiMaggio, extreme, spread-out stance. Paul Molitor, no movement before the pitch. All those things ran counter. So you have to let guys go, make your suggestions and let guys find their way through it."

He was part of that generation of players that had an opinion. … With Carlos, when you told him something, he wanted to know why. And he wasn't going to change if your reasoning didn't make sense to
him.

-- Ron Washington, Texas Rangers manager

Like Washington, Henderson was convinced that too many hitting coaches believed they only earned their money by detecting mechanical flaws instead of sharpening a hitter's mental approach to the plate. A sinister reasoning, Henderson believed, was job insecurity: Changing a hitter's stance or approach was tangible to the eye, and a coach could take credit for adding another hitter to his stable, thus ensuring future employment.

"It's very difficult when you're going through different teams and you get together with different coaches. I was happy to get to Tampa because [Maddon] basically just let us go out there and be free," Pena said. "He keeps things simple. After every at-bat, the first question is, 'Did you see the ball?' and not, 'You swung this way or swung that way.' And that's something I really needed. I needed someone like that, and I'm blessed to have him on this ballclub. It's helped me develop into the hitter I had always envisioned being.

"Going through New York, also in Triple-A with the Yankees, having Kevin Long as the hitting coach was totally beneficial to me. Maybe it was one step I had to go through to get to the point I'm at now. I'm still learning so much, but most of it is just emptying my mind and just going out there and keeping things simple. That's where I'm trying to get to, just to the mastery of just being free and stop thinking, just see the ball and hit it."

Henderson, a burly veteran of 12 big league seasons, walks with a noticeable limp and carries a fatherly enthusiasm for his hitters.

"I'm trying to get rid of the word 'thinking.' Seeing the ball to me is the most important thing. Just let the natural ability come out," Henderson said. "When you have guys telling you look out for the top half of the ball and all that, it's just more confusion. Too many guys talking. Too many things to think about. Just take a good pass at the ball."

Pena was also given a chance to play.

"He had a manager who said, 'You're our first basemen. You're going to play every day, and I'm not going to mess with you,'" said Hinske, a 2002 Rookie of the Year with Toronto who struggled in his second season and has yet to regain an everyday job since leaving the Blue Jays in 2006. "When you have that kind of security, you can do 2-for-30 and they're not going to take you out of the lineup. That's huge."

Pena revealed a glimpse into the business of baseball beyond the end result: the interpersonal relationships that often decide careers. In Tampa Bay, Pena found himself as a baseball player, and approached team general manager Andrew Friedman and told him playing for the Rays -- a team from which most players had been expected to flee -- was the first time he felt at home in a baseball uniform. According to Friedman, Pena told him this just in case Friedman considered trading him.

"I think stubborn is good," Rays reserve outfielder Jonny Gomes said. "He knew something, and I guess, thank God, he didn't give in. And maybe, if he'd have given in, he wouldn't be the big power guy he is. Maybe he'd be the slap, go the other way guy they wanted him to be, and he wouldn't be as good. His stubbornness got us to the World Series."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He is the author of "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.