Sitting in the Raysvision booth at Tropicana Field Wednesday night, we all watched in awe as Carlos Pena's fourth-inning grand slam sailed into the rightfield seats. The blast was Pena's first of two in the game, and only made a blowout victory over the sad-sack Orioles even more of a laugher. But it also brought up a question from someone in the booth; "Comeback Player of the Year?". Oh yes, absolutely.
In terms of postseason awards, the Comeback Player of the Year Award ranks not-so-near the top when you have the MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year Awards. But it is an award to be proud of if you're the recipient because so many players peak and then flame out and disappear. It speaks volumes to a player's talent, and ability to deal with adversity, to come back from the dead to a point of prominence. The fact that the award is sponsored by Viagra is only appropriate since Pena has been swinging the lumber well this season.
Saying Pena has swung well is the mother of all understatements. Pena has shattered the Rays' records for home runs in a season, RBI in a game, and he is on pace to eclipse Jorge Cantu's club record for RBI in a season. Although the Rays have been languishing in last place since June 27th, one can only shudder at the idea of where the Rays would be right now without Pena's offense.
The numbers are impressive and flashy, but it's the story behind Pena's season that makes him more deserving. A first-round draft pick for the Rangers in 1998, Pena would only see 22 games in a Rangers' uniform in his debut 2001 season. From there on he would become the piece to numerous trades. The Rangers sent him to Oakland for four players who have for the most part been forgotten (except for the greatness that is Gerald Laird). Less than six months later, and with only 40 games with Oakland, he was involved in a three-team deal between the A's, Yankees, and Tigers. It seemed he had settled in Detroit when he led the young and upcoming Tigers in home runs in 2004. But injuries sidelined him in 2005, and the sudden surge of Chris Shelton pushed Pena into the minors in 2005 and out of Detroit in 2006. Then began the now-legendary tour leading him to Tampa Bay.
Three weeks after Detroit released him, the Yankees picked him up but kept him in triple-A despite the Yankees rotating nine different players at first base. The Yankees released him in August, where he was then picked up by the Red Sox who used him for only 18 games despite rotating five other players at that position. This past spring, all Pena could get was a minor league contract from the Rays, a team that was stockpiling first basemen as if Stuart Sternberg got a hot tip from Goldman Sachs that a shortage was coming. But then luck came Pena's way, at the expense of Greg Norton.
Norton's knee injury at the start of the season opened up a roster spot. Couple that with injuries to Akinori Iwamura and B.J. Upton that kept Ty Wigginton off first base, and Pena had the chance to grab hold of an opportunity. When you compare Pena's story and numbers to previous winners of the Comeback Player of the Year Award, he seems to be a lock. Compare his stats and story to the rest of the American League, and you won't find anyone else more deserving of the award. Pena's performance this season has also sparked some discussion of the MVP award, but that's a bit premature.
There's no doubt Pena means the most to the Rays, and he has put up some tremendous offensive numbers that have placed in him in the top 10 of numerous offensive categories. But the MVP will more than likely be Alex Rodriguez simply because he is in New York, and mostly because without his insane season the Yankees wouldn't even be close to contention at this point of the season. Boston's Josh Beckett could also merit some MVP talk. Pena, at the very least, deserves some votes and should be in the top five of the final voting.
If Pena somehow doesn't get MVP votes or the Comeback Player of the Year Award, there will be much outrage and bellyaching here (and rightly so). But the good news Rays fans is all indications are he will be here for quite a while. Not only have the Rays found their first power-hitting first baseman since the days of Fred McGriff and Tino Martinez, they also have a guy who can help the young infielders with his tremendous defense. That aspect of his game is often overlooked, and it's scary to think Pena's .993 fielding percentage is actually the fourth-WORST percentage he's put up in his career (he put up a .996 in 2002, and a .995 in Detroit while averaging .993 for his career).
The most overlooked part of his game though is his leadership. A model of fighting adversity, of not giving up or complaining out loud when you're sent to the minors, Pena is a much-needed leader in this Rays clubhouse. The next time you see a pitcher, particularly a young one, struggling, take a look at the first person at the mound calming him down. If it isn't the catcher, it's more than likely Pena. Little things like that don't show up on a baseball card or a postseason award, but they do show up on a team that seems to be gaining confidence more and more each day.
It also shows up under the "Tampa Bay" heading to the box scores, and I couldn't be happier to see everything Pena brings to the field being brought to the Rays.
Other notes from Raysland and beyond:
- For some reason following Pena's record 7-RBI night Wednesday, Rich Hererra wanted to talk to him about Jonny Gomes' fanclub known as "Johns for Jonny". Pena played along, and noted that John the Baptist is his favorite of the bunch.
- Say what you will about Paul Nauert's horrendous call against Carl Crawford Monday night, but you have to keep your composure in a situation like that. MLB seems to have sided with Crawford already by handing him a two-game suspension instead of the usual three, but I hope that gets reduced even more since the only penalty Nauert has to pay is getting booed by a few thousand fans at Tropicana Field.
- I'm fair and balanced, and after ripping the Rays for being worse at certain points of this season compared to last season I have to acknowledge at 58-82 the Rays are now two games BETTER than they were after 140 games last season. It's a small step and nothing to crow about, but it's better than being worse than you were at the same point last year.
- And while we're talking about the team's record this year, could we please get the local media and fans to stop cooing about how the Rays are so close to passing Baltimore for fourth place? I got sick hearing some people say the most recent series between the two teams was a "battle for fourth place". Do you know what fourth place is? It's second-to-last, that's what it is. Let's keep raising the bar by trying for first and not fourth.
- Down on the farm, I like what the Rays are doing with teaching winning in the minor leagues. We all want a winner here in Tampa Bay, and another Durham Bulls or Montgomery Biscuits championship may not mean much to people here, but it shows the youngsters what it takes to play 140 games a season and then how to ramp it up when the playoffs come. The Rays will only be successful when they bring in a couple of grizzled veterans who know what it takes to win. But merging those vets with kids from the minors who know it takes a lot of hard work and dedication to win a championship can only mean a positive winning attitude for many years to come.
- San Francisco Examiner writer Mychael Urban (that's really how you spell his name) clearly has nothing to do and suggested in Thursday's edition of the paper that the Giants would do good to trade some pitching for Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena. While the Rays need some bonafied pitchers, trading Pena or Crawford is not only unlikely, it's incredibly stupid.
- For a guy who apparently doesn't like the Rays, Tropicana Field, Rays fans, or the Tampa Bay area that much, ESPN's Bill Simmons sure did take a lot of photos of his trip to the Trop recently. In fact, he took TEN PAGES worth of photos. Simmons should thank the Rays for giving him something other ESPN writers don't get-- a break from writing about Michael Vick, steroids, or suckling the teat of Mother Disney to promote High School Musical 2.
- Then you have this asshole who claims vandalism to his Yankees paraphanalia is a hate crime. If there was some way I could alter the time-space continuum and have this bonehead meet with the spirits of every black person lynched, every Jewish person gassed in Nazi Germany, every homosexual beaten to death, every woman held back from a job promotion because she wouldn't put out, I would so he could see what a real hate crime is. Normally I wouldn't throw profanity in my blog, but this guy's a first-class douchebag.
- Dear Joe Torre, you have bigger worries than Akinori Iwamura's bat. Get back to work and get the Yankees in the playoffs or inspect Iwamura's bat as a scout for some other team next season.
- Ruh-roh... the New York Daily News is reporting Rick Ankiel was the recipient of an HGH order back in 2004, which only tarnishes his feel-good comeback story. While Ankiel probably won't be punished for this if it's true (MLB didn't officially ban HGH until 2005), it's interesting to note in 2004 Ankiel was recovering from Tommy John surgery and was still pitching at the time. In case you still have your head in the sand, pitchers are users too... it's not just fat-headed sluggers finding illegal ways to enhance their performance.
- Finally, after getting bombarded by commercials for Head-On, Prefer-On, and some other "On" product that supposedly makes you feel better after you apply it directly to your body, I've decided to create a new product called "Mor-on". You can apply it anywhere because it doesn't work... moron.