PORT CHARLOTTE — The excitement, the admiration — heck, the unadulterated love —for Carlos Peña was obvious as soon as he walked into the Rays clubhouse early Thursday morning.
Players, staff, clubhouse workers, even manager Joe Maddon headed immediately to his corner, leaning in for a handshake or a hug and leaving with a beaming smile, and the feeling was obviously mutual.
"They've really made me feel like I had never left," Peña said. "And I truly feel that way."
He has been aglow since agreeing a month ago to a one-year, $7.25 million deal to rejoin a Rays team for whom he starred in 2007-10 before spending last season with the Cubs.
"Smiling constantly," he said, "and just letting it all sink in.''
As ecstatic as he and his family have been, he didn't anticipate the widespread welcome he has received.
He was at the Apple store in Orlando the other day when a fan approached to share his excitement. He stopped at a Walgreens during a trip to St. Petersburg a week before that, and a couple told him excitedly how they had kept his jersey knowing he would some day come back. He heard it when he was looking at a potential beach-front home for the season, when he was pumping gas, almost on a daily basis.
"That's been the most overwhelming thing of all," Peña, 33, said, "and I just kind of sit quiet and absorb it and say, 'Wow, this has flattered me.' Just noticing how many people are happy for me to be back on this team, it's like, wow. It just fuels me. And I just want to make sure I honor that."
There are some players who show up in different places each season saying how happy they are to be there, but Peña's sincerity is obvious as he enters his 12th big-league season.
He resuscitated his career when he came to the Rays in 2007, was a key part of their 2008 rebranding as a successful team and was pained to have to move on after the 2010 season. He has played for the Rangers and the A's and the Tigers and the Red Sox and the Cubs, but he considers himself a Ray.
"My greatest memories of my whole entire career are in this organization," he said.
As Peña made the 20-minute drive Thursday morning from his Punta Gorda spring rental to the Charlotte Sports Park, those good feelings started to come back.
"You run through all the good memories, and you're looking forward to making new ones," he said. "So it was a cool ride."
The Rays turned back to Peña to provide thunder at the plate — he has averaged 34-plus homers the past five seasons — and his usual golden touch at first base.
But ask teammates the best part of having Peña back, and it goes beyond what he can do on the field.
"It's just who he is on a daily basis," shortstop Reid Brignac said. "He's always happy, he's always positive, he's always there — you can always talk to him if you're having a troubled day. I love being around Carlos. He brings me up — even when I'm happy he brings me up."
"It's how he keeps the clubhouse loose," starter James Shields said. "It's how much fun he has."
"It's his attitude — it's never bad," centerfielder B.J. Upton said. "He always brings a positive presence to the ballclub and to the clubhouse, and if you're going to win, you need guys like that."
It's even simpler than that, starter David Price said: "Seeing that pretty smile every day."
Peña didn't want to leave after 2010, but he didn't have the chance to stay as the Rays were slicing their payroll from $73 million to the low 40s. He and his wife, Pamela, never took down the Rays memorabilia hanging in their Orlando house, and their kids, 6-year-old Isabella and 18-month-old Nicolas, were still sporting Rays gear last summer in Chicago.
"This has been such a very emotional situation for me, because I feel at home," Peña said. "It just feels great. I feel comfortable here."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]