PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Carlos Pena strode into the Tampa Bay Rays clubhouse Thursday morning, sporting a blue team workout jersey and beaming with that old mega-watt smile.
The sight was so familiar, it was almost as if he’d never been gone.
But here he was again, back in the fold amid a flurry of hugs, handshakes and pats on the back from teammates who couldn’t have been happier about his return.
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After spending last season with the Chicago Cubs, Pena could hardly have been any happier, either. Sitting by his new locker in the team’s spring training digs felt just like home again.
“I feel good and comfortable just walking in and seeing the guys again, and some new faces also,” he said. “I feel very comfortable coming in and getting to say hello to everyone. They’ve really made me feel like if I had never left — and I truly feel that way.”
The surprise deal that brought him back to the Rays came out less than a month ago, the end result of the Rays’ quest to add some extra power to their lineup. Pena’s one-year contract with the Cubs had ended, and he was back on the free agent market. The opportunity to bring back a power hitter and top-flight defensive first baseman — not to mention a proven team leader — was too much for Tampa Bay baseball operations chief Andrew Friedman and club management to pass up.
“I feel grateful,” Pena told a crowd of reporters. “Just really happy that the opportunity came about and that I’m here. At first, it was just a possibility. And all of a sudden it’s reality that I’m part of this ball club once again.
“Even though I was away, I was always pulling for this ball club and staying in touch with my teammates and my friends, and so it just makes it a lot easier coming back, because I never did stop talking to them.”
And Thursday they couldn’t stop talking about Pena. While there’s a general buzz about the Rays throughout baseball these days, there’s a distinctive one now in their clubhouse about the popular 33-year-old veteran.
“It’s the same old Carlos — he’s so excited to be back here,” said pitcher James Shields. “You can see it in his face. I’ll tell you what, my grandpa’s pretty happy. Besides myself and my cousin (Marlins outfielder Aaron Rowland), I think Carlos Pena might be his favorite player. He just loves the way he smiles and presents himself on TV. And I can see that. He’s asked me, ‘Is Carlos that way all the time?’ I don’t think there’s one moment when he’s not.”
“He’s one of the better teammates I’ve ever played with,” said center fielder B.J. Upton. “A great guy on and off the field and definitely has a presence in the clubhouse. He was a leader before he left, and I think he can step right back in here and be a leader like he was.”
The hope is that Pena will not only provide an added long-ball threat as the club’s all-time home run leader (with 144 blasts from 2007-10) but also beef up his batting average. After hitting .282 and .247 in 2007 and 2008 respectively, Pena’s average dipped to .227 in 2009, .196 in 2010 and .225 last year with the Cubs. Still, in each of those years, he continued to go deep, with homer totals of 39 (tying for the AL lead despite suffering two shattered fingers from a CC Sabathia fastball on Labor Day ’09), 28 and 28.
“I try to be totally on a path not to look at things in statistics, but obviously in the back of your mind you always know what your standards would be — what you would consider a solid year,” he said. “And I have that. At the same time, it’s not conducive to success when you focus upon that. I try not to waste too much time on that. Instead I intend to have a very good year and leave it at that — and focus on the process. … I think that’s the way to go — and I think we will be satisfied at the end with the results if we are solely focused on the present and the process.”
Pena is well aware of the expectations not just on him, but the lofty ones on the Rays as a team lately — with various national media outlets labeling the team as a World Series contender. But he takes it in stride, sounding like the team leader the Rays have known in the past.
“I don’t expect us to change a bit,” he said. “We’re going to recognize that that’s probably what’s going on around us. But we have to stay true to ourselves and enjoy (it) without putting our mentality, our culture, our way of playing in danger by getting distracted by those things. We may chuckle at it and then we get back to work. And that’s the way we keep it.”
Manager Joe Maddon enjoyed Pena’s presence as much as anyone Thursday. Maddon spotted his first baseman holding court by his locker and walked over to show him a souvenir he’d bought during his vacation last month to Barcelona — something Pena had suggested his skipper should look for when they spoke by phone recently.
“I could see it immediately, how happy he is to be here, and we’re very happy to have him here,” Maddon said. “To an already great clubhouse, he makes it even better.”
For Maddon, Pena’s personality and presence rival his assets of defense and power.
“Well, of course, he’s going to do a lot of good stuff for us on the field, but I think he does a lot of great stuff off the field — whether it’s in the clubhouse or in the community. Carlos is very involved. It is his personality. It is his presence. It is who he is. I’m a big believer in bringing you to the clubhouse and the team, especially if you’re that — if you’ve got that effervescent kind of personality that really rubs off on everybody else. I felt it when I walked in.”
Maddon’s not been the only one. People around town have been stopping Pena at the store or gas station to welcome him back to town — and he’s savored those encounters. One woman shared how she was about to take all her Pena memorabilia down from the wall when he left the team for Chicago, but her husband wouldn’t let her because he had a feeling Pena would be back.
“These are stories I hear when they stop me for five minutes in the pharmacy. They go, ‘Hey man, listen to this!’ And I’m like, ‘Go ahead, tell me!’ The fans area great. They talk about quantity. Maybe we don’t have as many. The Trop doesn’t get filled up. I don’t want to hear it. I love how passionate and supportive they are.”
Pena tries not to lose sight of that deep connection between the team and fans.
“You’re like, ‘Wait a second, I must respect this excitement,’ ” he said. “There are some people who are really happy for the team and for me, and the only way to show how grateful we are for their support is to come out and play hard every single day. So I’ve been smiling constantly and just letting it all sink in.”
The reality of his return sunk in early Thursday morning as he made the familiar 15-minute drive to Charlotte Sports Park.
“You just go through all the old memories, the good memories, and look forward to making some new ones,” he said. “So it was a cool ride. I always think that ride to spring training is a very special time. And for those 15 minutes it took me to get here, I went through and played things over in my mind — (remembering) the good times I’ve had here with these guys, and also envisioning making some better memories and going after the dream we all have — to go as far as possible in this game.”