ST. PETERSBURG — Carlos Peña played a significant role in the stunning transformation from downtrodden Devil Rays to rising Rays. As sad as he was to leave after the 2010 playoff loss, as much as he missed them while playing last season in Chicago, as vicariously as he celebrated their Game 162 dramatics in the middle of the Cubs clubhouse, as unlikely as it seemed over the past few months there'd even be a chance to return as a free agent, he held on to one inspiring theme.
"I always felt there's still one more chapter that needs to be written to this story," Peña said. "And here I have an opportunity, we have an opportunity, to give it a nice ending. We understand it started at, 'Once upon a time there was a ballclub called the Rays …' We haven't gotten to that last page. …
"I have incredible memories, but I'm looking to make some new ones. And some better ones."
Peña was re-introduced as a Ray on Tuesday, wearing his familiar No. 23 jersey, after agreeing Friday to a one-year, $7.25 million deal. From the start of what turned into nearly an hour of talking during a media conference and in individual interviews, the slugging first baseman, who turns 34 in May, made it abundantly clear how happy he was to be "home" again and excited about the chance to help the Rays to that first championship.
"This is where I belong," Peña said. "This is where I want to be."
He talked about a "certain magic" he believes surrounds the franchise, the "emotional ties" he maintained with Rays players and execs, how "special" he felt walking back into Tropicana Field again. He laughed about the parking lot attendant's greeting, joked about how many Rays he'd heard from and seemed genuinely impressed that manager Joe Maddon — whose own new contract is just about done — called with congratulations from Rome.
"It almost seems surreal," he said.
After waiting through most of the offseason, the Rays felt strongly enough about bringing Peña back that they boosted their payroll, already pushed beyond their original limits, to the mid $60 million range, up more than 50 percent from last year. And with the Tigers among other interested teams hovering, they went higher than planned to get Peña signed.
They did so, team president Matt Silverman said, "in part because of who Carlos is — who we know he is, as a clubhouse presence, as a leader, as a fan favorite — but mostly about the play on the field. He adds a dimension of power to our lineup we were missing last year and is a big part of our focus for this year, and we don't take a step back on defense. … That combination, along with who he is, gave us the courage to extend ourselves."
Though they are "never comfortable" doing so, Silverman said they aren't looking to trim payroll elsewhere, making the additional investment because "we feel like there's an opportunity here," and heralded the move with electronic billboards throughout the area. (To make room for Peña on the 40-man roster, they designated for assignment outfielder Justin Ruggiano.)
Peña had to give, too, unusual for a client of agent Scott Boras, passing on more lucrative offers. Silverman acknowledged "it took both parties willing to work on this to get it done."
But once Peña found out there was a legit chance to return, he said it actually was a "no-brainer" decision.
"You make the right choice only if you listen to yourself," he said. "What makes sense for me? What's resonating with me? What decision makes me the happiest? And then you do it. There's no monetary value on that."
But it clearly can be worth a lot.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow his coverage on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.