Sun shines on this Ray

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer
Published January 26, 2008

There aren't many people who have had a better year than Carlos Pena.

Tom Brady, with the super model and the Super Bowl? Jeff Garcia? Greg White, who went from Best Buy to the Bucs defensive line?

Twelve months ago, Pena signed a minor-league contract with the Rays, happy just for a chance to go to spring training, hoping he would get to earn his $800,000 major-league salary. His signing was hardly headline news, the five-paragraph story running on Page 5 of the Times sports section, below the news that Denver's Carmelo Anthony wasn't picked for the NBA All-Star Game.

Fifty-two weeks, one late-spring injury to Greg Norton, 46 home runs, 121 RBIs and a team MVP award later, Pena just signed a new contract with the Rays that was kind of a big deal: $24.125-million over three years, second largest in franchise history by annual average value. That one made the front page.

What was the year like? And what will the next one be like? Pena shared his thoughts on those and other subjects in recent phone interviews:

On the differences from last year to now:

It's night and day. It's amazing. Honestly, I think God's hand is evident in what had been going on over the last year with me. I owe it all to him. I'm a man of faith and I believe if you have faith, good things will happen. I've been blessed greatly. That I know for sure.

The best thing you can do as a player when you get an opportunity like I did to put on the uniform of the Rays is to go out there and enjoy every moment, every single second. Regardless of the situation, when you have the uniform on, how do you say thank you? Well, bring a smile to the park every single day and enjoy baseball as if you were a kid. That was truly my focus. It's amazing all the blessings that have landed on me in the last year.

On whether the money will change him:

That to me is something that honestly doesn't really make a difference. Obviously, I understand my bank account looks better than it did a year ago, but in reality it has no affect on me as a person. If anything, I'm more grateful than I have ever been before even though I didn't think that would be possible. ...

To come down and actually sign a three-year deal with the Rays, you can't even imagine, words can not express how I feel as far as how excited I am and how much I look forward to these three years with Tampa. ... So if anything I feel even more humbled than before because I see how things work and obviously want to make sure not even for one second that I take that uniform for granted. That's my main priority, to make sure I understand the importance of having the Rays uniform on.

On how he'll deal with the pressure of the new contract:

I think pressure is self-imposed. I think pressure comes when you perceive things the wrong way. Last year I probably had the most pressure I've ever had in my life professionally since I came into spring training without a shot, a guaranteed shot. Basically, I had no team. I was an invitee to spring training. So if we want to talk about pressure, maybe last year was the highest amount of pressure I ever felt, however it was the most fun I ever had in my career.

Why? Because I did not perceive it that way. If fact, I came out and felt like I was a little kid every single day. Every time I put on the uniform I just went out and played baseball. And it's my intention to keep on doing that regardless of how much money we make or how much money we don't make.

On how much the Rays have improved:

We all saw what we could do last year. Obviously at any point, at any given time during the season, we were the best team in baseball. Now we also know we were very inconsistent. I think our potential is there ... we can play against anybody.

The best team in the league? Who is the best team in the league? We are the best team in the league. Now, can we play up to that level on a consistent basis? Or maybe 80 percent of the time? Ninety percent of the time? Now we're contending. That's what we're looking for, that consistency. Obviously that comes with experience, that comes with us understanding that we actually can do it. I think we all need to start believing that, and it'll start happening more naturally. I think we're fairly close, and this team is much better than last year's team, even though I thought last year's team had enough.

On the Rays' off-season spending spree:

It doesn't surprise me. I think the Tampa Bay Rays are moving in the right direction. This is just part of it. I can see the way executive VP Andrew Friedman is working incredibly hard this off-season to better the team. They are making an honest effort to really improve our team, to make our team a contender, to make our team competitive in our league and our division. I think we're moving definitely north.

On getting a long-term deal:

Just to think I'm going to play in Tampa Bay the next three years, that's so cool. When you put it on paper, with what we're trying to do here, and how we have a common goal, it's a privilege.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com .