On Your Marc: 1/31

Home runs and charity

Carlos Pena’s reach extends beyond the baseball field

By Marc Katz

You pass through this town, even for an instant, you’re one of us. That’s the way it works.

And Carlos Pena is one of those you’re glad to consider your own.

In a capsule, he spent 1996 at Wright State University, returned home to Haverhill, Massachusetts, as homesick as he could be, resurrected his baseball career at Boston’s Northeastern University and the Cape Cod Summer League, was drafted in the first round in 1998 by Texas, hit 286 major league home runs in 14 big league seasons and currently works as an analyst for the MLB Network.

He scarcely takes a breath while running through his resume and deftly inserts, “the hand of God,” wherever he can.

This is a guy who won’t forget where he came from, where he intends to go, and whom he can help along the way.

“Carlos Pena is different,” an online article says. “Educated and erudite, he has a vision that extends beyond the outfield fence.”

You don’t read stuff like that about many big-time athletes, especially those with left-handed power and Baryshnikov moves at first base.

His philanthropy is more impressive.

Visiting his native Dominican Republic—he and his family moved to the U.S. when he was 14—a few years ago when neighboring Haiti suffered a major earthquake, Pena sprung to action with money and supply donations. His largess has continued with many groups, and he recently visited Nicaragua with his church to distribute not only donations, but to hold sports camps for children.

“I’ve been blessed to live my childhood dream,” Pena says. “I believe it is my responsibility to reach some kids. This is something that burns inside of me.

“You have the physical strength to help at the moment; it should be something you do that just grows out of you.

“It’s something that my parents instilled in me and my brothers and sister. It’s something I teach my kids, something my wife and I are very clear on. We’re going to do everything we can to lift everyone around us.”

Ron Nischwitz, his WSU coach, knows the story. “What a great family,” Nischwitz says. “Oh, my golly.”

Like an Academy Awards acceptance speech, Pena moves through a list of helpful accomplices—family, friends, coaches, and faith in God.

As a top student at Haverhill High School, just north of Boston, Pena wrote 100 Division I colleges requesting scholarship help. Wright State responded.

“There was a major league scout in New England I had befriended,” Nischwitz says. “He said Carlos could play.”

Pena played behind senior first baseman Brian Bautsch, hitting .247 in part-time duty.  He thought full-time of home.

“It hit me really hard,” Pena says. “I didn’t expect that. It was a combination of not playing and I was so far away from home. [Nischwitz]let me go. He understood as a father himself. He was gracious enough to do that.”

Pena took a job on a loading dock and looked for a new school. Boston’s Northeastern U. offered a walk-on opportunity, pending his grades (no problem) and tuition money, which Pena struggled to raise. He became a two-time school MVP.  Between seasons, he looked for a place in the Cap Cod League.

Here came, as Pena says, “The grace of God” again.

He hit a “500-foot” homer in an NCAA play-in game that has grown in family mythology to at least 600 feet—clearing everything and hitting a house.

A Cape Cod general manager saw the game and had an ineligible first baseman.

Only Pena’s .318 batting average—third best in the league—kept him from winning the Triple Crown during an MVP summer. The next season, he was a first-round pick of the Texas Rangers.

“It was a crazy beautiful journey,” Pena says. “It’s a miracle. And God’s hand was all over that.”

In the majors by 2001, Pena began bouncing around in 2005 and 2006, mostly in the minors. In 2007, he received, “an invitation” to spring training from Tampa Bay.

Cut on the Friday prior to Monday’s opening game, Pena insisted to manager Joe Madden he’d see him on opening day.

Madden played along. A player was injured in a final spring training game. Another player was hurt when the regular season began. Pena, in the starting lineup, hit 46 homers with 121 RBIs and a .282 batting average. The next year, he was in the World Series.

“The hand of God is all over it,” Pena repeats.

Sometime during that period, Pena met Dayton hitting guru Ted Mills, who operates his own baseball school next to Fifth Third Field. He provided Pena with a DVD of hitting aids, which Pena viewed. “It’s hard to tell what helps you, what doesn’t,” Pena says.

Something worked, from Mills, or elsewhere.

Pena last played in 2014 and contemplated going back to spring training in 2015. But then the network called.

“This is awesome,” Pena says. “Even though I’m not playing, I still have the reach to give back.”

It’s a longer reach than any of his home runs.

The views and opinions expressed in On Your Marc are the views and/or opinions of the author and do not reflect the views and/or opinions of the Dayton City Paper or Dayton City Media and are published strictly for entertainment purposes.

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Columbus-born Marc Katz had a 44-year newspaper career, 41 of those years covering sports, 40 of them at the Dayton Daily News. He now blogs at KatzCopsNSports.com. Reach Dayton City Paper sports writer Marc Katz at MarcKatz@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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