A Love for Baseball and Big Dreams
Carlos Peña’s baseball story began with a father and son gathered around a television in the Dominican Republic watching a hometown legend.
“I was watching the Cubs play because WGN was the network that we had,” Peña recalled. “At that time, there was a big star from the Dominican Republic named George Bell […] I must have been seven years old, and I looked at that and thought, man I want to play there one day. That was my first recollection of wanting to play in the Major Leagues, just watching George Bell.”
Bell planted the baseball seed that began to sprout throughout Peña’s childhood. Streetball with his friends, weekend practices with his father and organized Little League kept Peña infatuated with the game from the start.
But any normalcy in the D.R. was soon uprooted and transplanted to a hilly suburb in Massachusetts. In 1992, 14-year old Peña and his family moved from San Francisco de Macoris to Haverhill, Massachusetts. In his possession: a love for baseball and big dreams.
“I always stress the fact that my parents had a huge decision to make,” Peña said. “They decided to move the entire family over to the US and leave their own lives behind – their own social lives, their own professional careers – which for me is almost impossible to imagine. But that’s how much they wanted us to have broader horizons.”
“In essence, they sacrificed themselves for us.”
The 14-year old Peña started at Haverhill High School as a sophomore in the ESL program, but the native Spanish speaker thrust himself into all-English classes as soon as possible, eager to cut out any ability to rely on his native language
Education was a priority in the Peña household; it was a chance for young Carlos to seize the opportunities of a new country.
“I knew that the better I did in school, the better my opportunities would be,” Peña said. “I always had that in mind. In a sense, I understood because my parents explained that I would reap whatever I would sow. If I wanted to accomplish my dreams, I would have to work at it.”
Good grades were coming in as Peña enrolled himself in advanced placement classes. Just a couple years into American life in 1995, he had his eye on higher education. A first-generation college applicant in a world without commercialized internet, Peña and his parents painstakingly hand-wrote 100 letters to colleges around the country.
“Going to college was an odyssey in and of itself […] We made it a point, my mom and dad, to go to the library and get a list of names of colleges,” Peña explained. “We made a goal to send 100 packets out to colleges. Out of that 100, Wright State [University] was one of the ones that was interested in me.”
The Ohio school seemingly checked all the boxes for Peña: “Good engineering, good education and they had a pretty good Division I program as well.”
But there was one factor that slipped through the cracks. Throughout his life, from the Dominican Republic to the United States, only two things remained constant for Peña: family and baseball.
“I felt like I was on another planet.”
“I think the cultural shock got even more intense after I left my family,” Peña remembered. “At least I had a pretty good Latin community in Haverhill and my family was with me. But all of a sudden I find myself in Wright State, with a very small if any Latin community there. Even the food was different, everything shocked me. And I thought, I’ve been [in America] for three years already, why is this a shock to me? But it was.”
Wright State would physically distance him from family and, in effect, mentally distance him from the game he loves.
“I wasn’t playing on the team. I think that more than anything made me feel homesick. If I’m swinging the bat and hitting well, then maybe I could’ve been okay.”
Peña’s tenure with the Raiders lasted just one year, and following the conclusion of the season, he returned home to Haverhill. He was working at a warehouse in the back of a bank, picking up packages and mail and putting them onto a truck.
He tried to keep in baseball shape over the summer, participating in a local league and practicing with his father. It was almost like his childhood all over again, and the overwhelming feeling of falling behind on his baseball path crept into his psyche. When September rolled around, almost all future professional baseball players his age were heading back to their respective schools while Peña had nowhere to go. He was home, but he didn’t truly have one.
“At this moment I’m as far from my dreams as I could possibly be,” he said. “At least a year before I was in college, but now I start doubting myself.”
That was when friends of the family spread the word of a private school close to home, one that would satisfy his engineering preferences: Northeastern University. However, there was no guarantee of a spot on the baseball team, so before he applied, Peña and his family made the short 38-mile drive to Huntington Avenue.
“We walked into the coach’s office – Coach Neil McPhee,” Peña recalled. “There wasn’t much that I could sell of myself. I said basically look, I love playing, my grades are good, but I didn’t play much at Wright State. There wasn’t anything impressive about me, but Coach McPhee told me to apply and see if you could walk on. And I felt very encouraged, like hey, he’s willing to take a look at me.”
So he applied, got in and began his Husky career in January 1997 as a walk-on first baseman.
“I made some friends; I found a team, I found a home,” Peña said. “It was just crazy, unbelievable fun.”
He played, and thus, he hit – to the tune of a .309/.398/.600 slash line with 11 home runs and 41 RBIs. He anchored the middle of a Huskies lineup that took down the University of Maine, University of Vermont and University of Delaware to win the America East Tournament.
“There were moments where he showed true brilliance,” McPhee told The Eagle-Tribune, Peña’s hometown newspaper, in 2007. “There’s nobody on the planet that doesn’t like Carlos. We all know a few people like that.”
One game in particular shaped the rest of Peña’s baseball career, when Northeastern took on Bethune-Cookman in a best-of-three, play-in series for the NCAA tournament.
“I hit this long home run over everything. According to my father it went about 600 feet – you know every year it increases, the legend grows and grows,” Peña recalled with a laugh.
Peña’s father wasn’t the only one impressed by the moonshot. The general manager of the Wareham Gatemen, a team in the prestigious Cape Cod League, was in the stands scouting for a new first baseman, since their first choice had been deemed academically ineligible.
“The GM saw me hit this home run and said to me, ‘What are you doing this summer? Our first baseman is ineligible and we want you to play for us.’ And I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Of course.’”
The Materialization of Everything
He was on a car the very next day riding over to Cape Cod.
Now Peña was playing with the best that collegiate baseball had to offer. The Cape Cod League is known for putting players on the fast track to the professional ranks, and thus, the stands were packed with MLB scouts. League MVP, league-leader in home runs and RBIs, third in batting average. That surely grabbed the attention of all in attendance.
“That was when I blossomed,” Peña said. “Now that puts me on the map for scouts of pro teams. Now I’m a prospect. All of a sudden everyone’s going, ‘In the 1998 Draft, Carlos Peña is going to go…’ and I’m just happy to be here. It’s miraculous that I was even there.”
He helped his draft stock by mashing 13 more home runs in the 1998 season at Northeastern, posting an OPS of 1.184. He got on base more often than he didn’t.
“Honestly I didn’t care where I got drafted, I just wanted the chance to play,” Peña said. “But as the process went on, I started to understand what it entails and what it means [to be drafted high], and it’s an honor. Teams are looking at kids all around the country, and they [would pick] me first. That’s an honor.”
That June, the Texas Rangers made a phone call to their first-round selection, 10th overall. The highest MLB draft pick in Northeastern history.
“As soon as that happened, all I could think was, thank you God, thank you, thank you,” Peña remembered. “It was one of those epic moments for our family, especially because of how difficult it was to get to that point.”
He hit the ground running in the minor leagues, quickly moving up the ranks and landing in Double-A by his second full professional season in 2000. He was the number one prospect in the organization with a clear path to the majors, but Peña’s drive never wavered.
“I was on a mission to be the best player I could be. I think that mentality helped me,” Peña said. “I never sat back and thought, I got it made, I’ll be fine. No, it was the contrary; it was a hustle every day. I had this hunger in me, and I think the older me appreciates the younger me a little bit more.”
In September 2001, Peña received another phone call from the Rangers. His season with the Triple-A Oklahoma Redhawks concluded and the MLB roster expanded to include 39 players – and Peña.
On September 5, the Rangers hosted the Minnesota Twins. On one end, a 25-year old David Ortiz swung for the fences in his preamble to baseball immortality. On the other, Alex Rodriguez was capping off a 52-home run campaign. A couple of the greatest athletes to come out of the Dominican Republic introduced Carlos Peña to the big leagues.
“I remember standing in the on-deck circle in Texas for my first at-bat,” Peña remembered. “There was that sense of gratitude that really overwhelms you. It’s like, this is nuts; how is this happening? I’ve always had this mindset of work hard and accomplish, but when it actually happens, it’s like… woah.”
“This is the materialization of everything I’ve been working for, praying for, struggling for.”
Two weeks later, he took an outside fastball to the opposite field and treated both Ranger and broader baseball fans alike to the sight of a Carlos Peña home run. There would be 285 more of those.
No Job is Truly Safe
The lefty slugger ended his introductory 2001 campaign with eight extra-base hits in 22 games, feeling good about his long-term prospects in Arlington. But somewhere in Oakland, famed baseball executive Billy Beane was toying around with the idea of trading for a young first baseman – someone who could get on base and hit for power. Beane was seldom a man to waste time on pulling the trigger on a move. Carlos Peña was an Oakland Athletic.
He didn’t finish the 2002 season in the green and gold, but was nonetheless part of one of the most historic teams in MLB history. The A’s, with their patented low payroll, won 103 games en route to a division title, employing the strategy known as “Moneyball”. High on-base percentage, high slugging percentage, low-cost players.
“We were just going about our business. We found out that that stuff was going on after the fact,” Peña said. “Now I look back and think, oh that’s why they made decisions like that. They were playing the sabermetric game. Billy Beane himself would tell you that I turned out to be exactly the player they wanted.”
The lefty slugger hit seven homers in 40 games with Oakland, sporting an on-base percentage nearly 100 points higher than his batting averaging. It wasn’t enough to calm Beane’s quick trigger, but it was enough to pique the interest of the Detroit Tigers. Peña was on the move once again.
His turbulent professional career finally settled during the four-season stretch in the Motor City, racking up 75 home runs in 427 games and posting an OPS 12 percent above league average. But on May 31, 2005, Peña and his .181 season batting average learned the hard way that no job is truly safe in the MLB. He was optioned to Triple-A Toledo.
“I thought that I had earned the right to have a slump in the bigs and work my way out of it,” Peña said.
Upon his September recall to the bigs, Peña tried his best to cement a role, crushing 15 homers and driving in 30 runs in the team’s final 38 games. But a slow start to spring training found him on the outside of the 25-man roster looking in. Uneasy about his future with the Tigers with a few weeks before the start of the 2006 season, Peña walked into manager Jim Leyland’s office.
“I told him, ‘As we speak, you’re not on my 25,'” Leyland told ESPN. “I wasn’t going to give him a run-around.”
A couple days later, Peña was outright released.
“Like, are you serious?” he recalled reacting to the news. “With all that I’ve accomplished in the big leagues I thought that someone would want me, but no one did.”
It was like leaving Wright State all over again, except at least then he left on his own terms. The 2006 season was underway, and Peña was watching it unfold on his television.
That’s when the New York Yankees called…with a minor league offer.
Better than nothing, Peña figured. At least it would get him back in the swing of things. If he hit, he could force the Yankees’ hand and earn a promotion. 105 games later, Peña was hitting to the tune of a .824 OPS, but he looked up and didn’t find himself under the bright lights of the Big Apple. His agent, Scott Boras, negotiated his release and Peña was back on the market in the heat of the summer.
Fenway Park loomed as a constant backdrop throughout the slugger’s stateside upbringing. Beating up on the competition in Haverhill and on Huntington, the historic stadium sat waiting to be conquered. On August 16, Peña was given the opportunity to play for his hometown team. He just had to earn his way there first.
“My agent, Scott Boras, told me if you play well, they’ll call you up,” Peña said. “They’re not like the Yankees; they’ll honor your performance if you do well. That’s all I wanted to hear.”
Peña hit .459 with four home runs in 11 games for Triple-A Pawtucket. 11 games was enough. He was playing at Fenway Park.
The day before the five-year anniversary of his Major League debut, Peña stepped into the batter’s box in the bottom of the 10th inning, representing the team he envisioned himself playing for long ago. Leading off the inning, the Red Sox just wanted a baserunner on, but Peña had other plans. He gave the ball a one-way ticket from the bat to the right field bleachers.
“It was a walkoff home run for my hometown team – just insane.”
Like any thrilling roller coaster, an ascent usually marks the imminence of a drop. After the season, Peña was non-tendered by Boston and hit the open market once again. This time, a different AL East ballclub extended interest – the worst team in the league, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. They invited the first baseman to Spring Training.
And subsequently cut him.
He couldn’t even make the roster of the worst team in the league. While his old teammates were out on the town, celebrating their job security, Peña was making the journey home on a Friday night.
On Saturday morning, the phone rang – first baseman Greg Norton was hurt, the Devil Rays needed a first baseman again. On Sunday, Peña was back on a plane to Tampa. On Monday afternoon, he was suited up in the dugout on Opening Day.
“I remember riding the bus past Central Park on the way to Yankee Stadium just thinking, thank you, thank you, thank you,” Peña said. “I couldn’t believe I was on that bus. I didn’t even play that series, but I didn’t even care.”
Something weird happened in that 2007 season. Peña started crushing…and he didn’t stop. 46 homers, 121 RBIs, 1.037 OPS. Ninth in AL MVP voting, AL Silver Slugger award.
“There was something that I was not able to replicate for the rest of my career, and I don’t think you could replicate it at all unless you’re in a situation that brings that out of you. And that was the state of mind that I was in. My focus was ridiculous, because it was a very relaxed focus yet very sharp. There was no anxiety involved, because the attitude was, I’m not even supposed to be here.”
“It’s unbelievable that I’m even standing here, so let’s go hit. That mentality cannot be faked. And I exploded. My talent expressed itself to the fullest and more. Nothing was there to hold it back. I’m going to earn this opportunity by playing my heart out, and enjoying it, and being grateful. No fear of failure, whatsoever. None. Every atom and molecule through my veins throughout my whole body — fearlessness.”
For the first time in the majors, Peña wasn’t a replaceable first baseman. He was a centerpiece, a middle-of-the-order force that caused opposing pitchers to second-guess every decision. His goals shifted – now it was time to win.
The Devil Rays finished worst in the major leagues again in 2007 and underwent major rebranding in the offseason, going as far as shortening their name to the Rays. There was a newfound energy within the organization, reverberating all the way down to the clubhouse.
“I remember going in to talk to [manager] Joe Maddon and [general manager] Andrew Friedman,” Peña recalled. “I just said to them, ‘Number one, thank you for this opportunity. But let me tell you something about this team. Don’t be discouraged, because there’s something special happening here.’ They nodded, they kind of agreed, so I think they saw the same thing.”
But even Peña couldn’t have predicted what happened next.
It started in spring training, when the Rays took on the big bad Yankees. It was an exhibition game, but it didn’t stop the fiery Tampa team from getting into a dugout-clearing brawl on the field.
“It made us feel that we’re not the pushovers; we stood up for ourselves,” Peña said. “We realized: we’re a team here, we’re solid.”
Then on June 5, 2008, the Rays strode into Fenway Park one and a half games behind the first-place Red Sox. After a dirty slide into second base by Boston outfielder Coco Crisp the game before, Rays hurler James Shields intentionally plunked him on the hip. Another all-out fight broke out; punches were thrown, players were tackled. Three players were ejected immediately and five suspended. The two titans of the AL East, and the Rays wouldn’t back down. They went on to win the division crown.
“It was the most fun I’ve ever had playing, that 2008 season,” Peña said. “I felt like a kid who just loved to play baseball, and all of his dreams were coming true.”
Years and years of torment languishing as the worst team in baseball had come to an end in just one season.
“Carlos played such a key role during the transformation of our franchise to the Rays,” said Rays president of baseball operations Matt Silverman during a press conference. “His contributions both as a player and a person can still be felt today. The respect he has for our organization and the connection he feels to Tampa Bay and our fans is heartwarming.”
It was everything Peña fantasized about back in the Dominican Republic, watching George Bell play on TV. A chance to play in the Major Leagues, and better yet, the World Series. The Tampa Bay Rays were going to the 2008 Fall Classic.
“The environment was unreal, just totally different. At that point, nothing matters except for the present moment,” Peña said of playing in the World Series. “I remember walking up to the box, and before I did anything else I took a deep breath. I just thought, This pitch, this pitch, this pitch.”
“Those two words carry so much power: this pitch. That’s what we have to win, this pitch happening right now.”
His whole career, his whole life, Peña was playing pitch by pitch. As a teenager in a new country with a new language, whose parents sacrificed everything for a better life: this pitch. As a young adult wishing for a higher education and a shot to continue playing the game he loves, sending out 100 letters to colleges: this pitch. As a Northeastern Husky, clawing his way onto the radar of professional scouts: this pitch. As a Major League baseball player, hanging onto a roster spot by a thread, bouncing around from organization to organization: this pitch. And finally as a star, on baseball’s biggest stage: this pitch.
The pitch comes in, and Peña hammers it out to deep right field. The ball sails out of Tampa, making stops in Chicago, Houston, Kansas City and back to Arlington before ultimately landing at One MLB Network Plaza, Secaucus, New Jersey, where the most successful Northeastern baseball alumnus in program history analyzes the game that shaped his life.
Lead photo courtesy Northeastern Athletics