He took longer than expected for a first-round pick, but Carlos Pena established himself in the majors with Tampa Bay — his sixth organization — by hitting 46 homers and driving in 121 runs in 2007. His agent, Scott Boras, made a three-year, $24.125 million deal with the Rays, who had some bedrock on which to build what would become a World Series team. The money was nice, but Pena appreciated finding a home. As a teenager with his family Pena had made a traumatic move, from his birthplace in the Dominican Republic, to New England. As he would in baseball, Pena handled the changes with grace because of an open and hungry mind.
Few people have Pena's reputation for friendliness, intelligence and good humor. This interview started in late September, with the Rays about to clinch the AL East and finished in early March, in spring training. But so affable is Pena, once he does get down to business, it's easy to realize why you waited.
David Brown: In a San Francisco Chronicle story, you were quoted as saying, "When I'm in a bookstore, I think every book is talking to me."
Carlos Pena: Man! When did I say that?
DB: Does that sound like something you might say?
CP: [Laughs]. No, no, of course. Somebody had asked me why I liked to go to the bookstore or libraries and stuff and it really is because I like books. That's what it is. Someone's telling a story, expressing a point of view and I like that. They're quoting history. That's what books are all about. Every one is trying to tell you something. All you have to do is pick the one you want to listen to.
DB: So, you didn't say that just to get chicks?
CP: [Pause... laughs]. Does it get me chicks?
(Editor's note: I overlooked the following question in transcribing my original notes from the interview, but add it here to help give context to Carlos' answer):
DB: Did it (in the past)?
CP: I'm very happily married, and I didn't meet my wife (Pamela) at a bookstore, so it obviously didn't help me that much then.
DB: It's pretty deep.
CP: Yeah, but you know what? That's me, though. I would say I'm a thoughtful man, by no means superficial. At the same time, I'm light-hearted and fun-loving, you know?
DB: What's on your recommended reading list today?
DB: Are you a Borders guy or a Barnes & Noble guy?
CP: Barnes & Noble. It's a little bit less commercial, it has more of an old-school feel, maybe more of a library feel. Borders seems more mainstream. Barnes & Noble seems to have more of an antique feel to it. Classy feel.
DB: There's Internet video of you signing a guy's taco at spring training and you say, "That's the weirdest thing I've ever done in my life." Why do you think autographing a taco is strange, Carlos?
CP: [Laughs]. Well, because tacos are really to eat. You're not supposed to get it signed. It's one of those weird ingredients to get some flat marker ink on it. So, yeah, it's one of the coolest things anyone has asked me to sign. And the weirdest at the same time.
DB: Did you read the taco before signing it, as your attorneys would advise?
CP: I just made sure there was enough signing space and put my beautiful signature on it.
DB: Do you think ink makes Taco Bell go down any easier?
CP: Uh... it might serve as a digestive aid, yeah [laughs].
DB: What won't you sign?
CP: Body parts. That's too personal.
DB: A deer carcass?
CP: What? [Laughs].
DB: Dirty undies?
CP: Mmm... no.
DB: How long are Scott Boras' fangs?
DB: Because he's supposedly, reputedly, a terrible human being. Never met him. Just saying.
CP: He's a good guy, man. Actually, I enjoy talking to the guy. Very smart. He's got a unique perspective because of everything he's been through and involved in. It's a hard business and he's really successful so he must be doing something right as far as his profession is deserved.
DB: So it's an undeserved reputation?
CP: I don't think he has anything to do with it. It's just people's perspective. Sometimes, because he's such a tough negotiator with valid points, you might get a worse reputation that he actually deserves. Because when I talk him, he's actually a very pleasant man. You gonna be outside? Save some questions, man.
* * *
Nearly 6 1/2 months pass. The Rays reach the World Series but fall in five games to the Phillies. The off-season comes and goes and now it's spring training time in Port Charlotte, Fla. Extra hitting practice in the cage is canceled and Answer Man is about to conclude.
DB: Let's say you couldn't play baseball — based on your studies at Northeastern (in computer engineering) what are you qualified to do?
CP: [Laughs]. Have a seat, man. What I would love to do? I'd probably be making independent films.
DB: You're kidding. Did you take any classes for that?
CP: That was my minor. That's probably what I would love to be doing.
DB: Documentary type stuff?
CP: No, no, no. I just completed small projects in college but I love that stuff. Telling a story with a camera, visually, I've always been interested in that.
DB: You a photographer as well or does it have to be video?
CP: More video stuff. I love the combination of the sound, the visual and the story line. You can get a message across. I love that idea. It goes back to all sorts of movies that I've watched. You almost transfer yourself into this world you're watching. But for that moment, it becomes a reality. And then it ends and you go back to your life. But for that special moment, you can take the audience to a different place, a different level of existence. It can be kind of cool. It can be a relief for some, inspiring to some, it could be a learning experience, it could be a challenge. It's awesome.
DB: What's the last great movie you saw?
CP: I think one of my favorite films of all time has to be "Gladiator." I loved "The Dark Knight," loved it. That was so well done. I left the theater with such a cool feeling. Man, that was awesome. That's what I'm talking about — making the audience feel something good when they leave the theater. I'm not too into depressing types of movies. A movie that leaves you excited, pumped-up, thoughtful, happy.
DB: If you started filming tomorrow, what movie would you make?
CP: I don't want to give it away, because if I do, somebody else takes that idea [laughs]. Just in case, one day, I come through and do it. There's a story that I really want to tell. I don't want someone to take it and go with it!
You didn't know that was coming, did you?
DB: That was... this is why you wait five or six months to finish an interview with Carlos Pena.
CP: [Laughs]. You're the man.
DB: You get to the theater much?
CP: I love movies so much but over the last few years, with baseball and my baby, I haven't been able to get to the theater except for a handful of times. And it used to be one of my favorite past times. As soon as I had my daughter, it's not like I can go watch any movie. I've got to be careful. And usually when she comes to the movies it's just to watch cartoons. I love watching them in the theater. It's a different experience. I'm working on a room for house that I'm excited about. A movie room. I can't wait for that to be finished.
DB: So, what did college qualify you for?
CP: I was going for computer engineering, the idea behind which was, to get into the field of film. I wanted to get into filmmaking through computer engineering.
DB: You're probably going to want to see the James Cameron movie that's coming out eventually, "Avatar." Supposedly it will take filmmaking with computers to another level.
CP: That's the kind of thing I enjoy watching and that's what I'd like to do if I made movies. It's an incredible medium.
DB: Nearly three years ago the Crocodile Hunter was killed by a ray — yet, not sixth months after that, you signed here despite the obvious danger. How come?
CP: I'm growing increasingly afraid of stuff in the water because people around me keep drilling into me that, "There's sharks out there, there's rays out there, don't go swimming in there." Well, I live in front of the water, so I go to the beach every single day. It's just part of my day, getting into the water. I tell you, though, I don't go as deep as I used to because of all this fear people have instilled in my mind. Before, I used to swim, go touch the buoy, come back. When I got here in '07, I used to go all the way out. People are like, "You're crazy! You're going to get eaten by a shark." Before I was, like, "C'mon." Now, I'm staying in the shallow end, just splashing myself with water. I'm trying to break that fear.
DB: Your mom and dad waited nine years to get [permission] to live in the United States. Are they as patient as the story makes them sound?
CP: The good thing about them was, they weren't thinking about it. In essence, they weren't waiting. It was in the process of happening but they were focusing on other things. I think it was a good lesson for all of us kids to learn. You've got to focus on what's going on in the moment instead of distracting yourself with things you have no control over. They knew that we were in petition and the papers were processing but by no means were they anxious. In fact, we all were having a great time in the Dominican Republic when the papers came. When we got the call, they said, "Your case is up" and we just needed to finalize it so we had residency. Visa, we had. We could travel [to the U.S.] and go back, no problem. Residency is the thing you need, legally, to stay. When we got it, it almost caught us by surprise. "Oh, we're up for that? I guess we have a decision to make." In the meantime, we were having a great time in the Dominican Republic.
DB: You were 14 years old when this happened. I can imagine moving to another town and feeling like my world was ending. You had to move to another country. That had to be an awkward time.
CP: It was devastating. I remember us being very, very sad. Especially when winter came. We had been here and we knew how fun it was to come and visit, but this time we had come and were still staying and, it was like, "I guess we're not going back, fellas." That's when it hit us. The first winter. My two brothers and my sister. We were like, "No, we're staying. We've enrolled in high school. Winter's approaching. We're staying." There was snow on the ground. No more baseball outside. No more playing outside, riding bikes all over the place, no more climbing trees, no more just being a kid out in the open. It was different. We had to change our games. But we adapted and we stayed tight as a family. You'll be OK underneath it, too, because you have that core and support around you.
DB: We just saw Matt Silverman (left), the Rays president, and Andrew Friedman (right) outside of the clubhouse. Did it take some getting used to, following orders from guys who appear to be entering their 20s?
CP: [Laughs]. They've been incredibly gracious. Those two guys are amazing people. I keep saying that Tampa Bay is the best-kept secret in baseball and I'm not talking about the talent or being a successful team. But thinking about St. Petersburg and Tampa as a place to play baseball, I can't imagine better.
I've got everything I want ‚ incredible teammates, incredible front office, personnel, coaching staff. Beautiful surroundings. I love my stadium. As much as people complain about it, especially visiting players. I love it. Then the fans. So nice, so hospitable. Every time you go to the supermarket, they always have good wishes. I go to the pharmacy, go to a restaurant, and instead of having the feeling that, "Oh my God, I need to hide!" you have the feeling of, "I feel welcome here, I feel supported, I feel backed up." There's a big difference.
DB: You felt that way even before last year?
CP: Even before last year, oh yeah. Thing is, I'm not the type of guy who's in the news a lot or even watching what people are saying. I just go about my day. I don't watch SportsCenter or Baseball Tonight. I try to keep it as simple as possible. I try to get a vibe and the vibe I get around town is one of support and appreciation and I love it.
DB: It's happened two years in a row. Has anyone asked you to sign a taco this spring?
CP: No! I'm waiting, man. You better come out soon. We've only got [a few] days left and he hasn't appeared. I am a little nervous because there's no way for me to contact the guy. He needs to come out and get a taco signed. He really has to. I don't know how to put out an APB. ... Hey, Bobby (Pena calls over a Rays beat reporter)?
CP (to the other reporter): Can you put out a call to the guy who always has me sign the taco? He always brings a Taco Bell taco for me to sign. Put something in the paper. That's funny, right?
Other reporter: OK, how about, "I'm not playing until the Taco Man shows up"?
CP: I won't, either. That'll work.
DB: What do you think of the Dominican as a destination wedding site?
CP: Oh, man. The place is idyllic. That the word?
DB: Idyllic, yep. Think I could get Sammy Sosa to officiate?
CP: [Laughs]. Maybe. Let me tell you something; the Dominican Republic is a beautiful [part of Hispaniola] island. It's gorgeous. Unbelievable beaches. The water looks fake. It's perfectly clear. Those pictures, you think, are enhanced. I'll do it myself, I'll take my pictures, use them as a screen saver and it looks not real. Yet, I know that I haven't retouched them. It's a real place and it's absolutely gorgeous. And if you go into the center of the island, we have mountains.
But the beach! ... At Punta Cana is almost where the Atlantic meets the Caribbean Sea, so it gets a little choppy — not flat, just enough waves. White and pink sandy beaches. It's crazy beautiful, man. I just love it.