10/02/07 5:56 PM ET
Pena named AL Comeback Player
First baseman nearly didn't make squad in Spring Training
By Bill Chastain / MLB.com
"It's like a gift, you never expect things to come your way," said Pena during a Tuesday afternoon conference call. "... I'm very excited about it."
The slugging Devil Rays first baseman hit 46 home runs, had 121 RBIs, 103 walks, scored 99 runs, and had a slugging percentage of .627 while hitting .282 for the season. All of the marks, save for runs and batting average, set new Rays club records.
The club beat reporters at MLB.com, the official Web site of Major League Baseball, selected the winners for the Comeback Player of the Year Award, which is presented annually to one player in each league who has re-emerged on the baseball field during the season. Pena won the award for the American League while Dmitri Young, the brother of Pena's teammate Delmon Young, won the honor for the National League.
Pena pulled a Roy Hobbs for the Rays this season -- he'd been away for awhile -- before making his return with a vengeance.
"I think there's a good message [in winning the comeback award] about learning how to get up again after falling down," Pena said. "... Even though things might not go the way we want, don't let any setbacks get in the way of your dreams."
Pena's final home run came on Sunday in Toronto to complete a most unlikely year that saw him report to Spring Training as a non-roster invitee, actually get told he wasn't on the team before making the team, winning the starting first-base job and, ultimately, hitting more home runs than any player in Rays history.
And by going from one home run in 2006 to 46 in 2007, Pena enjoyed the second-largest one-year home run increase in Major League history, trailing only Mark McGwire, who went from three in 1986 to 49 in 1987. Pena also became the 11th player in American League history to reach 100 walks, 45 home runs and 120 RBIs in a single season.
"This is the most fun I've had playing baseball," Pena said. "It was a lot of fun going out there every day."
Rays manager Joe Maddon is sold on Pena and can't say enough nice things about him.
"You know what I love, how he took every at-bat," Maddon said. "He does not waste an at-bat. ... I think Carlos as this season went on, really became involved with his at-bats. Every at-bat became a new adventure. I think as the season wore on, this last month, his pitch selection got even better."
Pena wasn't slated to make the club coming out of Spring Training. But Greg Norton injured his right knee in the second to last Spring Training game and had to have surgery to repair a torn meniscus. On that same day, the Rays reassigned Pena to Minor League camp. Upon getting reassigned, Pena returned to his home in Orlando. While weighing his options, his agent called and told him what had happened with Norton and that the Rays might be interested in bringing him back. Pena said he slept with his phone that night. The Rays struck a deal with Pena that became official two days later.
Pena cited his ability to focus as the overwhelming reason for his success in 2007.
"I'm happy I was able to maintain the focus," Pena said. "... As a player, that's all you look for is that consistency of mind. If you get that consistency of mind, you eventually find consistency on the field."
Pena credited Rays hitting coach Steve Henderson for helping him keep his mind focused on, of all things, nothing, in addition to remembering to having fun on the field. Pena believes the better he is able to keep things simple and have fun on the field, the better chance he has of success.
So it's an easy conclusion to make that Carlos Pena simplified the 2007 season and had a blast while doing so. Don't believe it? Check out the numbers.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.