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Tampa Bay Rays' Carlos Peña doing anything he can to help neighbors in Haiti

Carlos Peña was in his native Dominican Republic when a huge earthquake struck neighboring Haiti. “I can’t even describe how horrible it feels to have that happen next door,” he said.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times (2009)

Carlos Peña was in his native Dominican Republic when a huge earthquake struck neighboring Haiti. “I can’t even describe how horrible it feels to have that happen next door,” he said.

Even for a man who has dedicated his life to it, some things matter more than baseball. Even for a man who likes seeing a baseball disappear into the distance, some things go deeper than a home run.

It is only now, in the aftermath of disaster, that we find out about the true power of Carlos Peña.

Peña, the first baseman of the Tampa Bay Rays, already has donated money and supplies toward the relief efforts to aid the earthquake victims of Haiti, the country that borders his native Dominican Republic on the island of Hispaniola. Now he wants to do more. He wants to visit. He wants to help raise money. He wants to make things better.

After all, it could have been his country that was devastated, and it could have been his family that was affected.

"That's the point," Peña said. "It hit just a few miles west of us. What stopped it from hitting a few more miles east? It's something I don't understand."

Peña was close enough to understand better than most of us. It was just before 6 p.m. on Jan. 12 when Peña finished his workout at the Body Shop gym in Santo Domingo when the tremors began. Peña — who had been scheduled to return to the United States the previous day — had just ordered a protein shake, one of those vanilla-with-pineapple-and-banana-and-strawberry concoctions he likes, and suddenly, the building was swaying like a palm tree in the wind, left to right and back again.

For several seconds, Peña remembers, he wasn't sure what was happening. Then he knew: earthquake. He started to think about how to get out. He found his mother-in-law, who was at the gym, and a friend, then headed toward the stairs.

Then the swaying stopped. It had lasted only 60 seconds, maybe 75. That might not sound like a long time to you. Unless, of course, your building is waggling like a bat before the pitch.

Once the tremors stopped, Peña's worry increased. His wife, Pamela, was with an aunt. His 4-year-old daughter, Isabella, was at a cousin's birthday party. The phones were out. The streets were jammed. And no one was sure what might happen next.

Peña started driving through the frantic traffic, still trying to work his Blackberry to reach his wife. Finally, after 35 to 45 stressful minutes, Pamela answered his text. She said another aunt, Violet, was bringing Isabella to her mother. She said CNN was issuing tsunami warnings. Get to high ground, Peña said. Go to the top of a building, and go to the roof.

"I wasn't concerned about another earthquake," Peña said. "I was concerned about a tsunami. I had seen what happened in Indonesia. Everyone was saying to go 10 kilometers inland. I knew we had the formula for a tsunami. There had been an earthquake, and we're a small island.

"It kind of puts everything in perspective. This is it, and this is what you have to do. It was a very weird experience, very unpleasant, but it's almost like you go into survival mode. You force yourself to be calm. I didn't want my wife to hear anything in my voice that didn't sound confident."

On the other side of the island, Peña would later find out, things were a thousand times worse. A magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit 10 miles from Port-Au-Prince, its epicenter only 146 miles from Santo Domingo. Estimates are that as many as 140,000 have died.

As it turns out, Peña and his countrymen were the lucky ones.

"I can't even describe how horrible it feels to have that happen next door," Peña said. "It's pretty much total devastation. We were very fortunate it didn't happen to us. I strongly feel it is my responsibility to respond as a human being. Those are our neighbors. This was the worst day in the history of Haiti."

With that in mind, Peña will be part of a telethon from 7 to 8 p.m. today on WFTS-TV Ch. 28. The Rays and the Rays' Foundation will donate $50,000 ($15,000 of it coming from Peña). The Rays will also donate proceeds from their FanFest on Feb. 20 to the American Red Cross and Save the Children.

In the days after the earthquake, Peña and his wife also bought food, medicine and other supplies. They bought canned juices, sausages, crackers, antibiotics, syringes, gauze and alcohol to try to get across the border.

Peña won't say how much he spent. He says it isn't the point. And perhaps it isn't. After all, Peña was the winner of the Roberto Clemente Award in 2008. If you remember, Clemente died while trying to get relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

"You know where he would be," Peña said. "He would be doing everything he possibly could to help the people of Haiti. He cared about people."

Peña, too. He has never been to Haiti, but after the earthquake, he wanted to go.

"It probably would have been a bad decision on my part," he said. "You probably put yourself in danger. All you might do is hinder the efforts to help.

"At some point, I would still like to go. Any man of heart would like to be there."

Odd how life works sometimes.

In the days before the earthquake, Peña had been reading about the history of Haiti, a nation that has had its problems with the Dominican Republic.

"When people discriminate against each other because of color, because of cultural differences, because of social class, it's a waste of time. When things like this happen, we're all human. Money isn't going to help you escape a catastrophe. The color of your skin isn't going to help you. We're all the same. There is one race, and that's the human race. The other stuff is gibberish and garbage."

"I don't need a pat on the back," he said. "This isn't about me. Haiti needs our help right now."

And so Peña, man of heart, does what he can.

At this point, shouldn't all of us?

Fast facts

How to help

Go to links.tampabay.com for our list, which offers dozens of agencies that are soliciting donations to help with relief in the Haitian earthquake.

Tampa Bay Rays' Carlos Peña doing anything he can to help neighbors in Haiti 01/18/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 6, 2010 2:58pm]

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