Carlos Pena is having a career year. One of the most highly-respected players in the game, the Dominican-born first baseman has clubbed 42 home runs in his first season with the Devil Rays. Drafted tenth-overall in 1998, the 29-year-old Pena showed flashes of his potential with the Rangers, A’s, Tigers, and Red Sox, but never lived up to his billing as a first-round pick–until now. After spending most of last season in the minor leagues, the former engineering student at Northeastern University is hitting .278/.400/.610 and is a leading candidate for comeback player of the year in the American League.
David talked to Pena about his home run numbers, keeping things simple and focused, and the challenge of acclimating to a new language and culture.
David Laurila: Talking about your All-Star-caliber season, Gerry Hunsicker was recently quoted in the Sunday New York Times as saying, “There are a lot of things in this game that people can’t explain, and this is one of them.” Can you explain it?
Carlos Pena: This is what I’ve always envisioned myself doing. Ever since I was a kid, it’s what I’ve dreamed of. As to what–for other people–might seem as a surprise, they should do their homework and see that all through the minors I was able to put up good numbers. Even in the major leagues, when I had a fair shot at playing, I hit 27 home runs and drove in 82 runs, at 26 years old. I’m close to 30 now, and I’m more mature, and I’m getting a chance to play. So it’s not like it’s coming out of nowhere. However, I’m extremely pleased and happy with what I’ve been able to accomplish, because it’s a career year. It’s the best year I’ve had, and it’s very satisfying because we’ve put in a lot of time and gone through many different things. So, to finally get to the point where I can say, “Good job,” or “Great season,” it’s very satisfying to me.
DL: From 2002-2005 you averaged 20 home runs in only 398 MLB at-bats per-season, so you’ve obviously shown that you have good power. However, this year you’ve jumped to a whole new level. Is it a simple case of maturity and opportunity, or have you changed either your mechanics or your approach?
CP: Power-wise–look, I’ve always had power. There were a couple of seasons in the majors where I hit 18 home runs, but I actually hit 30 those years when you include the ones I hit in the minors. So I’ve always had the power. For me, the most important ability is to be a consistent hitter, which is putting the ball into play hard and putting the barrel of the bat on the ball consistently. That’s something that Joe (Maddon) talks about: hey, let’s focus on being a complete hitter, let’s focus on using all of the field and on making more contact, let the power take care of itself, focus on pitch-recognition and taking your walks. Besides all of those things, it’s also my ability to keep things simple. I think that’s true for every hitter in this game. Your success relies on your ability to keep it simple at the plate, and I think I’ve kept it simpler than I ever have in the past.
DL: That’s something you’ve worked a lot on with Joe Maddon?
CP: Yes. It’s been a lot of talking to Joe, and also to Steve Henderson. When I go up to him, he never has a word to say about my swing. He doesn’t tell me to do this, or that, or to put my elbow up; he doesn’t have any mechanical thoughts in his mind or mechanical comments to make to me. In fact, all he says is: “Turn your brain off and just see the ball.” When you do that, you’re at your best because you let your talent express itself. It’s when you get in your own way that things get difficult. So free your mind, be relaxed, stop thinking, be clear.
DL: In a 2002 interview, you said that being mentally focused without wearing yourself down is incredibly important. Can you elaborate on that?
CP: Let me tell you one thing. When I think about great athletes–great athletes, I believe, are able to focus, but at the same time keep it so simple, and fun, that they can save up some energy. It’s not draining, because it’s not about focusing hard, it’s about focusing easy and relaxed. It’s something that you can’t really pinpoint, or put your finger on, but I know that guys who have reached the highest levels of athletics, like Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali, they were able to keep it simple and focused, but still relaxed and fun where they were in their own little world. That’s what I’m saying. It’s what we all strive for as hitters, and as athletes–how simple can we keep it?
DL: Have you worked with a sport psychologist, or is that approach mostly self-driven?
CP: I’ve always understood the importance of the mental side of the game. Your mind, in sports, is incredibly important. But I have read books, and nowadays pretty much every ball club in the major leagues has someone–has sport psychology as part of their repertoire to help their players. No doubt about it. The Red Sox have one, we have one, the Marlins did–you know, Harvey Dorfman–the Yankees. Everybody has one, because they understand the importance of having your mind healthy at all times when you’re playing this game.
DL: On a young club like the Devil Rays, do you find yourself taking on a role of trying to help guys better understand those facets of the game?
CP: You know, I don’t think you do that on purpose. Personally, I just try to be myself and enjoy my teammates. By nature, if there’s something I can help with, I’m always there. That’s something I would expect from my teammates, also–for them to have my back, and to help me out if I need something. And we do that; we help each other out, and not just in the mental aspects of the game. It might be in a physical type of situation where someone may suggest a different way of doing things. Or maybe it’s just a pat on the back. But you never set out to do something like that; it just happens because of the relationships you build with your teammates.
DL: You came to Massachusetts, from the Dominican Republic, at the age of 14. Can you talk about that experience?
CP: It was a cultural shock. You go into a totally different culture, with totally different food and a different language. So it was a little bit of a shock period. But I think I adapted pretty well. I was eager to take on the challenge, and enrolled myself in all English classes, straight from the get-go. That wasn’t easy, but I think it accelerated my learning of the language. I had taken (English) classes in the Dominican Republic, but it’s never the same when you actually get to the country and have to speak it for survival. As you talk to people, and interact with teachers, and classmates, that’s how you really start to learn how to speak English. So it was a pretty big challenge, but I took it on, and I was speaking fluently pretty quickly.
DL: While you had an opportunity to acclimate yourself to the language and culture prior to starting your professional career, many Latin American players sign contracts as young as 17 and come directly into the game. Just how much of a challenge is that for them?
CP: It’s incredibly different for them. Obviously, I went to school here; I went to college here. That helped me to learn the culture and the language. When a kid comes straight from the Dominican Republic, he’s starting from zero. It’s a totally different world. However, I’ve seen many kids, smart kids, have incredible success. As far as adapting to the culture, and speaking the language, they’ve done incredibly well, and I think it’s mostly your attitude. If you’re willing to learn, you will.
DL: You didn’t grow up in poverty, or without an education, but many Dominican players are confronted with those obstacles. Can you address that?
CP: The level of poverty in the Dominican Republic is no secret; we do have a high level of poverty. But some of these kids are incredible baseball players, and when they get an opportunity to become a professional, they’ll do anything to help their families. They’re going to take that chance; they’re going to try to seize that opportunity the best they can. I think it’s unfortunate that they have to leave so early in their life, when they’re so young, to pursue a dream, because it would be cool if they could have some education before that. But I can understand it. They’re trying to better themselves, and help their families, and they see baseball as an opportunity to do that.
DL: Do you think that the perception of young Latin players is often skewed by a lack of understanding of the educational and cultural challenges they face, that many people have unreasonable expectations for them given the circumstances?
CP: You know, we’re a very warm culture, a loving culture, a passionate culture. We have so many beautiful things to offer, and I think it all comes down to the people–the people on the outside looking in–being willing to give our culture a chance; to learn from it and see how rich we are. If they did, they would immediately see that it’s a beautiful thing. We bring so many beautiful human qualities; that’s one thing I can say about my culture. You might not know who that person is on the street, but you wouldn’t think twice about hugging somebody you don’t know, a perfect stranger. That’s the way we are; we’re warm people. So, regardless of the education, we have what I’d call moral, mom and dad, family values. Those are priceless, and go way beyond what you can read in a book.