Pena values being 'great teammate' above all else
Catcher, who defected from Cuba at 16, known for selflessness, unbridled enthusiasm
CINCINNATI -- Even in a sport like baseball where hitters fail more than they succeed, where the marathon schedule of a season takes a toll on a body and mind, it's almost impossible for Reds catcher Brayan Pena to have a bad day at the ballpark.
If Pena is doing well, he pulls for others to do the same. If he is struggling, he encourages his teammates to do the opposite. If Pena is not playing at all, he's a positive presence from the bench. He almost always wears a smile.
"[Pena's] attitude, selflessness impresses me most," Cincinnati outfielder Chris Heisey said. "No matter how well he's played in a certain game or stretch, he genuinely cares about how his teammates are doing. If we win the game, he could have the worst game of his career, and he would be happy. That's his No. 1 everyday goal -- to win. …
"In the short time I've been with him, he's played well, but even in individual games where he hasn't played well, he is completely focused on winning and picking his teammates up. That's very important, especially for a catcher."
A Major League player since 2005, Pena's enjoyment of game and life are well-rooted, because he takes none of it for granted.
As a 16-year-old in the spring of 1999, Pena defected from Cuba while playing for the country's junior national team in Caracas, Venezuela, by sneaking out through a bathroom window at a hotel. When he reached the United States several months later, via Costa Rica, he spoke no English and encountered not only a strange new country, but one that he felt was the polar opposite of everything he had learned about as a child.
"In my country, everything they teach about America is everything is bad here in America," said Pena, now 32. "You get here and you're scared. You're skeptical and always on the watch-out because of the things you've been taught all these years."
Six years ago, Pena became an American citizen. He and his wife have two young boys and a baby girl on the way. Pena now speaks English fluently, and he's no longer scared. He's embraced American life, right down to its numerous pop culture offerings. For example, Pena has become a fan of television shows such as HBO's "Game of Thrones."
"Personally, America has been great to me. I love it here," Pena said. "I'm so proud to be an American citizen. That's the highlight of my career and life, besides my kids, when I swore to become an American citizen. It was so important and special. Words can't describe how much I appreciate being an American."
The Reds' November signing of Pena to a two-year contract worth $2.275 million wasn't one that shook the industry. He was added to be a backup to Devin Mesoraco, who was replacing Ryan Hanigan as the primary catcher.
A switch-hitter, Pena is batting .290/.324/.478 with three home runs and nine RBIs in 23 games. He's picked up the slack for Mesoraco, who has been on the disabled list twice already. Pena has caught most of the games for ace Johnny Cueto, who is off to a historically good start for Cincinnati.
"Considering how much time we've missed Devin, [Pena has] done an outstanding job to keep us going," Reds manager Bryan Price said.
Pena has taken to the Reds quickly and they, too, have welcomed him with open arms.
"The first time I got here in Spring Training, all these guys embraced me like they knew me forever," Pena said. "The stars like Jay Bruce, Joey Votto and Cueto and Brandon [Phillips], they're always together and joking with each other. That says a lot. No superstars. Everybody is the same. When you see that, you feel like you belong in this clubhouse. It makes it easier for you to be happy."
Pena's signing has paid dividends both on the field and off, especially from his little corner of the clubhouse.
"[Pena is] of extremely high character," Price said. "I think he's not just universally liked on our team, but universally respected. To me, he's very similar to [former Cincinnati outfielder] Jonny Gomes. He was as good of a teammate when he was playing as when he wasn't playing. He was an unbelievable teammate. He wasn't sitting on his hands upset that he wasn't in the lineup. He was embracing his role on any given day of being a support player.
"I think there's a reason why [Pena has] been a part of winning teams. He does whatever it takes to benefit the team. You need those guys."
Previously, Pena played for the Braves (2005-08), Royals (2009-12) and Tigers ('13). Early in his career, he says, he was taught that being a good teammate was critical to his job.
"I think it's more important than anything," Pena said. "Homers, base hits, strikeouts and all of that stuff are part of the game. But you being a great teammate, you being a good human being, that's something that you can control, 100 percent.
"If I feel like I'm doing the right thing and being the best human being possible, I can live with that. I can go home and look my children in the eyes and say, 'Your daddy is making you guys proud, and tomorrow, I want you guys to do the same.' That's the way I was raised since I was little, and especially since I've been in the game."
Pena freely speaks to reporters who have started to gravitate toward his locker before and after games.
"Here, I can breathe. I can talk to you without anyone watching me or checking on what we say," Pena said. "Everything I tell you comes from my heart. I'm not afraid because we have freedom of speech in America. I've got my family. I'm married to my beautiful wife. What else can I ask for? Being a baseball player is great. I'm very happy that it's my job."
The Reds won 90 games last season and reached the National League Wild Card Game, but they fell well short of expectations. One of the noticeable things missing was the intangibles of a veteran clubhouse presence. Scott Rolen was not re-signed and eventually retired. Ryan Ludwick suffered a shoulder injury and missed four months. The requisite players who boost other players with encouragement were lacking.
"[Pena has] been great and a good addition in a lot of ways," Bruce said. "We may not be playing well or he might not be playing well, but he's always the exact same. It's something I can really respect as a player who plays every day. It's hard to really keep the same level of intensity, whatever that level is. This guy brings it every single day, and it's something I've been really impressed with."
With Mesoraco expected to return to the lineup by this weekend, Pena will once again be a contributor in ways that may not be as visible in the box score.
It's all in the name of winning, and it comes from Pena's appreciation for what he has and how far he's come.