Carlos Peña, a man of many words, has a hard time finding just one to describe his time with the Rays.
"It was definitely magical," Peña said. "Miraculous. Divine."
So while Peña, 35, is on a different team (Astros) and in a new role (designated hitter), he'll have a fondly familiar feeling tonight when he returns to Tropicana Field to start a three-game series against his former team.
"It's going to be special," Peña said, flashing his trademark smile. "We all go through these stages in life and our career where we grow, and going back to Tampa is going to be a pleasure for me. That was my home. I saw dreams come true right before my eyes in Tampa Bay so it's a very special place. It will always be."
Peña, a 13-year veteran, resurrected his career with the Rays in 2007 thanks to some serendipity and was a big part of the transformation from worst to first in the 2008 World Series run. Peña's final memory in Tampa Bay isn't as sweet, hearing boos from the home crowd last year as his production plummeted (.197 average, career-high 182 strikeouts). But he said the five seasons in Tampa Bay (2007-10 and 2012) were the best time of his career.
He'll never forget being summoned into manager Joe Maddon's office the morning of March 30, 2007. On his third team in three years, Peña was on a minor-league deal and despite a strong spring, he was told he was being sent down. Peña, the eternal optimist, told Maddon: "I'm going to be back, and I'm going to make an impact here."
As Peña was driving to his Orlando home, he was called back. First baseman/DH Greg Norton had injured his knee, propelling Peña to the opening day roster. He rewarded the Rays with 46 home runs and 121 RBIs, resulting in a three-year contract worth $24.125 million.
"That story is just amazing. It's something I hold very close to me and always protect it," Peña said. "It's nothing short of miraculous. I wasn't even supposed to be on the ball club. I got cut, and I was going home. But I refused to believe it. Sure enough, I got an opportunity to be on the ball club. In one day, I went from being home on a couch to having to sign back with the Rays and being on that plane to New York. And the rest is history. That's something I'll tell my grandkids. The fact I'm playing ball is a miracle."
Peña provided not only power — his 163 home runs remain a club record — but leadership for a young team. Before Game 7 of the American League Championship Series a year later, Peña held a pregame meeting to calm them down, telling teammates to ignore the hoopla and "play your game." The Rays beat Boston 3-1, moving on to the World Series before losing in five games to the Phillies.
"How can I describe it?" he said. "How do you go from never winning (more than 70) games in franchise history in 10 years and next thing you know you're in the World Series and in a matter of months without changing a lot of players? It speaks volumes of unity, what chemistry can do. It's virtually magic when you have that going, and we had that back then."
And Peña — hitting .213 with eight homers, 25 RBIs and 84 strikeouts — sees the same possibilities with the rebuilding Astros (32-59), who have a $24 million payroll and the worst record in the American League. He isn't the slugger he was with the Rays, but as Maddon points out, Peña still has that "nurturing component" that can boost a young team. Peña, on a one-year, $2.9 million deal, relishes the role, hoping for a sequel.
"I feel like I'm getting another opportunity to fulfill that dream and do it the right way," Peña said. "I could go to a winner and jump on the bandwagon. But I like to start things from scratch and finish them. Hopefully, I'll get an opportunity to do so here."