GOODYEAR, Ariz. — When Brayan Pena says with a smile, "I am so proud to be an American," he means it from the depths of his being. To say becoming an American citizen caused pain to him and his family is a massive understatement.
Pena was 16 and playing for the Cuban Junior team in Venezuela in 1998 when he decided to defect because he wanted to pursue his dream of playing professional baseball in the United States.
"It was the right decision, but I was only 16 and it was very hard for me," said the 32-year-old catcher who signed a two-year contract this winter to play for his beloved Cincinnati Reds.
"I had to separate myself from my family, my friends, my country, my land," he said. "I was pursuing my dream, to be a big-league player and help my family."
It didn’t help his family at the time. The Cuban government immediately took away the jobs of both his father and his mother.
"As soon as the Cuban government learned of my defection, my father and mother lost their jobs, but that pushed me even more to reach my goal, to work harder, to be hungrier. Because of me my family lost their jobs. In my heart I was feeling guilty about my decision because they didn’t know I was going to do it. I couldn’t tell them. It was a surprise for them, too. It was very hard, man, because you don’t know when you will see your family again."
Pena still loves his native country, but has only been back for two days since his defection, a quick in and out visit to a place he calls, "The most beautiful place on earth."
Pena has been in the United States for 16 years and this is his seventh year in the majors and he says, "I have no regrets. I’m so thankful to America for giving me the opportunity to follow my dream and help my family. America gave me everything, man — a beautiful wife, beautiful kids. I’m very proud to say I am an American. I became a citizen five years ago."
Because of their early history with Cuban players — tey had shortstop Leo Cardenas in the 1960s and Tony Perez in the 1960s and 1970s and coach Reggie Otero in the 1960s —
the Reds are one of the most popular teams in Cuba.
When pitcher Aroldis Chapman defected and signed with the Reds, he said one of the reasons was because he could wear a red hat with ‘C’ on it, "Just like the Cuban National team, and Reds has four letters, just like Cuba."
"The Reds have a good tradition in Cuba because they had a lot of Cubans play here and come through here," said Pena. "We know a lot about the traditions of the Cincinnati Reds because they were like pioneers. So we follow Reds baseball. Right now they are excited in Cuba because Chapman and I are on the same team. They are very excited in the Cuban population."
Not so much the government. They have begun televising major league games in Cuba, but they won’t televise games of teams with Cuban defectors — meaning no TV of Reds games.
"Very soon they are going to have to do something because it won’t be long before every team has at least one Cuban player," Pena says with a laugh. "They can run, but they can’t hide."
There have been 175 Cuban-born players make it to major-league roster, 97 since Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1958. And 86 since the U.S. slapped an embargo on Cuba in 1961. There have been, according to Baseball Reference, at least 30 defectors make it to the majors since 1990.
Pena has played for the Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers and said, "Two years ago I told Reds manager Dusty Baker, ‘I am going to play for the Reds some day.’ He just laughed at me, thought I was joking, but I was serious. They couldn’t use me last year when I was a free agent because they had Ryan Hanigan and Devin Mesoraco. But here I am now."
And Pena says Aroldis Chapman had a big influence in getting him into a Reds uniform. When Chapman was conducting tryout camps after he defected, Pena was his catcher.
"I had a couple of other options to sign this year but Aroldis told me how great it is here with the Reds," he said. "We had a good conversation and, actually, I always wanted to be with the Reds. I really loved all the feedback I got from the organization.
"The tradition, one of those teams everybody in Cub knows who they are, everybody follows the Reds," he said. "I always heard great things about the front office, the coaching staff, the fan base, the media — always great. I’ve been in the great country a while now and I know a lot of things."
So he walks around the Reds camp, always a smile, always an upbeat attitude, and as he says over and over and over again, "God bless America for giving me the beautiful life."