Pena couldn't be happier with Rays
First baseman loving St. Petersburg, direction team headed
ST. PETERSBURG -- It's amazing what a little change in scenery can do.
Just ask Carlos Pena.
Every morning, the Rays' first baseman opens the window in his ocean-view St. Petersburg home, watches the sun glitter on the bay below and takes a deep breath of fresh, salty air.
The sun always shines in Florida -- at least on Pena's side of the street.
"He's probably the most positive guy I've ever been around," said teammate Jonny Gomes. "Glass is half full, head is always up.
"There's some guys that play with a chip on their shoulder; he just plays for the game. If he's healthy and he's in a baseball uniform, he's the happiest guy."
And every day at work, Pena lives Gomes' testimony. The clubhouse doors swing open and he's already wearing an ear-to-ear smile. He may stand outside and chat up a security guard before he comes in, stopping only to greet each of the media members in turn before he rounds the corner to join his teammates.
This, Pena said, is the life.
"To me, every time I come here, it's like a party," he said. "Everything is just such a good environment, and it's conducive to being successful. And even though our team is not where we want to be, I think this is a perfect stage for us to all blossom into the team we all know we can be."
And Pena knows what he's talking about -- just look what he's been doing lately for proof. Released by the Tigers during Spring Training last season, he then watched his former team advance all the way to the World Series while he struggled, playing just 18 games with the Red Sox.
He didn't make the Rays team out of camp this season, either, and was scheduled to report to Triple-A Durham when a few injuries caused Tampa Bay to take a closer look at the left-handed power hitter. The Rays signed him to a Major League deal just two days after he was reassigned to Minor League camp, and he was off and running.
It was a move Rays manager Joe Maddon has yet to regret.
"We thought this guy had really high potential," Maddon said. "The age was perfect -- he's had some success in the past. I did some research ... and felt pretty strongly about the idea that this is the kind of guy that could turn into this year's Wiggy, as an example from the previous year."
Maddon was referring to Ty Wigginton, who came to Tampa Bay in 2006 and really brought pop to what was at the time a bit of a sleepy lineup. The utility infielder, whom the Rays traded to the Astros on Saturday, hit a career-high .275 (122-for-444) last season and also set new career marks in homers (24) and RBIs (79).
As it stands now, Pena is hitting .273 (83-for-304), nearly 30 points higher than his career average. In addition, the 29-year-old leads the Rays in home runs (25), RBIs (67), walks (53) and slugging percentage (.588).
It's a refreshing change for someone who wasn't nearly as successful toward the end of his tenure in Detroit. Still, Pena said he's not bitter about the Tigers' success. In fact, he relishes it. Those guys, particularly Craig Monroe, who made Pena his daughter's godfather, have a special place in his heart, and he remains in contact with them to this day.
"Now, when I look back, it was something that I think was necessary for me in order to get to this point, and something I was glad that I experienced," Pena said. "I look at it as a pleasant memory, more than anything. I don't even give it a second thought or waste my time thinking about what could have been had I stayed.
"I just live in the present and I try to live it joyfully and I know that greater things will come in the future. But in order to do that, I have to live joyfully in the present. It's a choice. You make choices. I rather choose to enjoy myself. There's so many things to be happy about."
Like his hitting, which to Maddon turned out to be a best-case scenario. However, even Maddon couldn't have hoped for something quite so good.
"When theory and reality come together, it's always a little freaky," the Rays skipper said. "In my game, you're always planning things and wanting to see things, and in your mind's eye you can see it happening this way. It's beautiful when it actually does occur. Wow, that's a pretty good thing.
"It's surprising, but then again it's not."
Maddon thought the main difference between Pena's performance now versus in the past had to deal with the stress on offensive mentality during Spring Training. Much of the emphasis was taken off trying to pull the ball, with the new focus on hitting up the middle. Even though he hits for power, it's not necessary for Pena to pull the ball in order to be successful.
Pena thought his success came from someplace a little bit different.
"I think the biggest difference is the place I'm at," he said. "I'm so happy with my teammates; they're so awesome. They add to that -- the staff also. They're really communicative and always pointing out the positives, keeping everything simple, and I enjoy that."
And the scenery?
"When you wake up, you're looking at the Gulf of Mexico. Wow, you know?" Pena said, pausing to smile at the picture in his mind's eye. "All I have to do is open my eyes and all of a sudden I'm getting all of that. It's the first thing you see every morning, the beautiful Gulf of Mexico.
"How can you not be happy with that?"
Dawn Klemish is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.