This is the original version of an article which appeared in the Oct. 23 edition of the Huntington News, the student newspaper of Northeastern University, in Boston. The published version of the article can be viewed at huntington-news.com, along with the latest news in Husky sports.
When the Northeastern University athletics department adopted the slogan “Now is the time” for the 2008-2009 athletic season, they probably only had their own teams in mind.
But it’s also a fitting mantra for former Northeastern slugger Carlos Pena, currently the first baseman for the American League champion Tampa Bay Rays.
Pena, who grew up in Haverhill, MA after moving from the Dominican Republic at age 14, won the American League Comeback Player of the Year award in 2007 for Tampa, setting career highs in virtually every category, including batting average (.282), home runs (46), and RBI (121). All this came after spending much of 2006 in the minors.
But he and the Rays took it a step further this year.
After finishing dead last in the A.L. East with a 66-96 record in 2007, Tampa Bay vaulted over traditional power houses New York and Boston en route to a 97-65 record and the A.L. East crown.
Pena and the Rays continued their success in the postseason, beating the Chicago White Sox in the Divisional round before taking down Boston in seven games in the League Championship series.
Despite missing just over three weeks in June with an injury, Pena still finished among the American League leaders with 31 home runs and 102 RBI, which ranked him 11th and 10th, respectively. His 96 walks ranked him fifth, while his .377 on-base percentage was good for ninth.
His home runs and RBI led the Rays, while he finished behind B.J. Upton in both walks and on-base percentage.
In the playoffs, Pena is hitting .279 with three home runs and nine RBI, including going 0-for-3 in Tampa Bay's 4-2 win against Philadelphia Thursday night.
Even though he’s enjoyed the two best statistical seasons of his career in Tampa, Pena alluded to the team chemistry and atmosphere as one of his favorite aspects of playing there.
“It has been an awesome experience for me,” Pena said about getting to the World Series in an e-mail to the Huntington News. “To be on a team with such an unbelievable chemistry and unity, [it] reminds me of my college team at Northeastern. We are not afraid to be ourselves and just feel so comfortable walking around this clubhouse,” he said.
In an interview last September with the then Northeastern News, Pena mentioned his excitement regarding the young players on the Rays. This season saw many of those players transform from promising prospects into key cogs on a World Series team.
“When you are in that state of mind, so relaxed and happy, the talent will express itself with ease,” Pena said in his e-mail. “That’s what I think has happened here in Tampa Bay with all the young players producing and blossoming into great stars. This environment is conducive to success,” he added.
Even as he is about to debut on the biggest stage of his baseball career, Pena hasn’t forgotten those who helped him get there.
“I e-mail Carlos regularly,” said manager Neil McPhee, entering his 23rd year at the head of Northeastern baseball.
McPhee said he e-mailed Pena immediately following Tampa Bay’s series-clinching win over the White Sox on Oct. 6. Pena had three hits and a pair of RBI in that game.
“It wasn’t two days later that he returned my e-mail, and it was just a wonderful e-mail, one that will stay with me forever. It’s just an indication of what kind of person Carlos is. He doesn’t forget where he’s come from,” McPhee said.
McPhee said Pena’s talent was unlimited when he first came to Northeastern after transferring from Wright State in Ohio. But it was his work ethic and dedication that set Pena apart.
“What really set Carlos apart from most players was his work ethic and his plan that he put forth for his future,” McPhee said. “It was an amazing thing to watch him be so disciplined [and] to come down and work with the athletic trainers and weight-room people on a plan to make sure he followed a regimen.”
McPhee added that Pena did this year round, not just during the season.
Pena’s dedication paid off. From 1997-'98, Pena posted a .324-24-93 line in 100 games with the Huskies and was taken with the 10th overall pick by the Texas Rangers in the 1998 draft.
“[There] was enormous excitement,” McPhee said of Pena’s selection, which was the first time any Husky baseball player was taken in the first round.
McPhee also said there was a lot of excitement leading up to the draft.
“Peter Gammons came to campus to interview him and all the local TV stations did interviews. It was a lot of media attention and something that was great for us, great for our program. But to have it actually culminate in the first-round pick...There’s always a lot of speculation as to who is going to go in what round. Of course, he got that call from Texas and it was bedlam at that time,” McPhee said.
With one of his former players on baseball’s biggest stage, McPhee is once again excited about the publicity his program will receive.
As for Pena, he’s once again shown that despite his stardom, he hasn’t forgotten his days on Huntington Ave.
“[When] representing Northeastern, I always do so with pride," Pena said in the e-mail. I really loved the years that I spent there, and everywhere I go I talk very highly of my university.”