Pena proud to continue Reds' Cuban connection

Catcher/first baseman says many on his home island are Cincinnati fans.

Cincinnati Reds Brayan Pena and Aroldis Chapman are part of a rich history of Cuban-born players to wear the 'C' on their caps. 

Al Behrman / AP

CINCINNATI -- Another in the long line of Cuban baseball defectors made his major-league debut Wednesday night. And even though Jorge Soler plays for the Chicago Cubs, Cuban native and Cincinnati Reds catcher/first baseman Brayan Pena's smile was as wide as The Pravado in Old Havana.

It is getting to the point where there are so many Cuban players that Major League Baseball should consider sticking a franchise in Havana when the political climate permits it.

Pena will be rooting hard for Soler, as he does for all Cuban players, as long as he doesn't do enough to beat the Reds.

"It is so exciting to see all the Cubans players coming from my island to be in the big leagues," said Pena. "I know how hard it is for us to make it, especially the route they have to take to get here to play where the game is the best."

Pena has been in the United States since 2001 after he left his family when he was 18, paying a severe price. After he defected his mother and father lost their jobs in Havana.

"It is not easy for us because when you make that decision, when you defect, you don't know when or if you can ever go back," he said. "You don't know when you will see your family. You don't even know if you will realize your dream or if it is just a dream. Nothing is written, nothing guaranteed. You don't know if you will make it or if you will be struck in Triple-A."

He said for most Cubans, while the money is fantastic, "But a lot of them sign for the money and never get past Triple-A. They have to go home and shut their dream down."

The Cincinnati Reds historically have embraced Cuban players and at one time had a Triple-A team in Havana, the Sugar Kings. There have been 28 Cuban-born men who have either played or coach for the Reds since 1911.

Right now they have Pena and closer Aroldis Chapman and recently signed pitcher Raisel Iglesias.

Pena says the fact that Cubans are flooding to the U.S. in greater numbers doesn't mean it is easier to get here.

"It is not as easy, it is still very difficult," he said. "It is just the fact that more and more and more are making it onto this big stage. So more players from the island see that and it is like an inspiration for them to defect. They say, 'You know what. That guy just yesterday was sitting next to me in Cuba and now he is a big league and look now much attention and money he is getting, so why shouldn't I give it a try.'"

Pena is proud of the fact he is one of the players who opened the door, "Because when I first made it to the big leagues there was only one or two others playing in the big leagues. Now it seems every team has at least one, the Reds have three and the Chicago White Sox have five or six."

Of putting a franchise in Havana, Pena laughed and said, "That would be nice to be able to play in our homeland. But there is a lot of stuff we can't control, a lot of politicians involved in the middle. It is a very difficult topic because there is no solution and there won't be any solution any time soon."

So the status quo remains. Pena calls it Plan B. "The only out we have is Plan B and Plan B is defection."

Fans in Havana love the Reds and are excited that Pena and Chapman play in Cincinnati. Because of the history of the Reds with Cubans, the Reds are popular there.

"They can't follow us as much as they want," said Pena. "But it is a baseball town and a baseball country, so they pass around news and pictures and newspapers. They do what it takes to follow the players in the states.

"Everybody follows the Reds, including Chapman and myself when we were kids," said Pena. "They all know the history. The Reds are famous because they've had a lot of love for the Cuban players."

Pena smiled and took off his Reds hat and looked at the 'C.'

"This is another reason we love the Reds," he said "The 'C' on the hats. 'C' as in Cuba. This is the Cuban National hat. On the streets of Cuba everyone wears the Cincinnati Reds hat."

Pena put the hat back on his head and walked toward the clubhouse, passing Chapman on the way. They bumped fists and the smiles were as wide as the Caribbean Sea.