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Why making Hall of Fame ballot is a big deal to ex-Rays star Carlos Pena

Just the other day, Pena’s son asked him about being considered for the Hall.
Tampa Bay Rays' Carlos Pena hits a sixth-inning solo home run off New York Yankees pitcher Sidney Ponson in their baseball game at Yankee Stadium on July 9, 2008. [KATHY WILLENS | AP]
Published Nov. 19
Updated Nov. 19

Carlos Pena had a surprise for son Nicolas on Monday when he picked him up from his elementary school outside Orlando.

A couple days ago, 9-year-old Nicolas asked Carlos a question: “Hey, Papa, are you in the Hall of Fame?”

Pena told him he was not. Nicolas, like any innocently inquisitive kid, asked why. Pena explained it was based on numbers, that you had to be a great player who “had an unbelievable career.”

Nicolas pressed on, and Pena tried to impress upon him how the standard was so high and election such a rare honor. Which brings us to Monday.

Pena, the former Rays star, made the cut as one of 18 players approved by a screening committee to appear for the first time on the ballot for the Hall of Fame.

For Pena, who hit .232 with 286 homers, 818 RBIs and an .808 OPS over parts of 14 seasons, that’s about as close as he’s going to get to the Hall. Even receiving the 5 percent of the vote necessary to stay on the ballot next year may be a challenge.

But he was quite excited to share the news with Nicolas in a “glorious" moment: "I’m going to say, “Guess what, son? Remember when you were asking me about the Hall of Fame? Check this out.' ”

RELATED: Derek Jeter headlines 2020 Hall of Fame ballot

Pena, 41, has reason to be proud.

Growing up in the Dominican Republic dreaming like so many others of starring in the majors, he had a much more pedestrian goal in mind.

“All I could afford myself to think in the moment was that I just want to be there, I just want to get there, I want to put on a major-league uniform and play one game,” Pena said.

"One game. One game meant I realized my dream. I didn’t just play one game. I played more than 10 years. I went to a World Series. I won a home run title. That’s kind of crazy. To put that in perspective is nuts. I dreamt about just playing one day. And if I made it to one day, I could say I made my dream come true, I made it to the major leagues.

“And now I’m on the Hall of Fame ballot? That’s pretty cool.”

Pena was a first-round pick by Texas in 1998 and had some solid seasons with the Rangers, A’s and Tigers. But he didn’t emerge as a star until, after being released by the Tigers and Yankees in 2006, as he signed a minor-league deal with the Rays in 2007 and only made the opening day roster due to a spring injury to Greg Norton.

Bit Pena seized the second opportunity.

He hit 46 homers for the Rays in that season, and 191 total in a six-season span, five with the Rays. He had two top 10 MVP finishes, made an All-Star team, won a Silver Slugger award and a Gold Glove.

“I feel very blessed,” Pena said. “There were so many little things, little twists and turns in my career that could have easily been the end of it. Of course I persevered and I worked extremely hard, but I have to recognize the hand of God there, too. There’s many places where it could have ended and somehow, someway God opened some doors for me and opportunities arose. And I was able to take advantage of it.”

Pena, who re-signed with the Rays in Sept. 2015 so he could retire with them, works now for MLB Network, and joked that he would soon start a TV campaign to make the Hall.

“I’m very grateful,” Pena said. “It’s such an honor to be among so many players, so many great players. A very distinct honor.”

The other newcomers to the ballot are Derek Jeter, Cliff Lee, Josh Beckett, Jason Giambi, Paul Konerko, Rafael Furcal, Bobby Abreu and Alfonso Soriano, along with Brandon High product Chone Figgins, former Rays Heath Bell, Brad Penny, J.J. Putz, José Valverde, Adam Dunn, Brian Roberts; Eric Chávez and Raúl Ibañez.

They join 14 returnees to the ballot, with voting by 400-plus members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America done by Dec. 31 and results announced Jan. 21: Curt Schilling, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Larry Walker, Andy Pettitte, Billy Wagner, Todd Helton, Jeff Kent, Scott Rolen, Omar Vizquel, Andruw Jones, Manny Ramírez, Gary Sheffield and Sammy Sosa.

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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