HYDE PARK, London – Moments before Carlos Peña hit the batting cage before his crowd-pleasing performance at MLB Battlegrounds, we spoke to him about the event and his transition into the instructive phase of his career. Peña had an illustrious career spanning 14 seasons, hitting 286 home runs with an .808 OPS, most notably for the Tampa Bay Rays, from whom he played in the World Series in 2008. Yet it was the jersey of his hometown Red Sox that Peña suited up for that night, as he once more wore the team’s colours as captain of the Boston club in Battlegrounds’ Home Run Derby.
The appearance was an enormous success, as the charismatic and easygoing Peña started the day off with Cliff Floyd in a clinic for Great Britain Baseball’s junior national teams. Floyd and Peña played together in 2008 with the Rays, when the club lost to the Phillies in the World Series. The hour-long talk included discussions and demonstrations by both on fielding and hitting, with the pair good-naturedly teasing and interrupting each other in what was a fantastic inside look into the life of major leaguers.
“Baseball is a game of failure, which is great because life has a lot of failures,” explained Peña. “You gotta learn to deal with failure. You gotta take something positive everyday. You want to focus on process, not outcome. It’s a privilege to be out here. It’s an honour to put on a jersey.”
Peña then suited up for the crowning moment of MLB Battlegrounds, the Home Run Derby, which pitted Boston versus Los Angeles. The veteran joined Julsan Kamara, a former Phillies’ prospect from Germany, Gary Davison, a GB Baseball player, Jos Buttler, an England cricketer, and Taylor Hoaglund, a USA Softball legend. All five cleared the fence with some frequency, but Peña, who at 39 looks years younger and in prime playing shape, was the leader, advancing all the way to the Home Run Derby final.
After a huge 16-point first round, which singlehandedly Boston in the lead, a clearly elated Peña told host Colin Murray, “That was really fun! I want to get right back in there.” Before the final, his words matched his appearance of an active big leaguer as he noted that it was “A team effort, and we have to stay focused.”
Despite accruing 17 points through a mixture of roundtrippers and ‘target strikes’ of distance, Peña lost to 22-year old Federico Celli, an Italian signed by the Dodgers at 19, in an explosive final. The result drew rapturous cheers from a crowd of more than 20,000, the majority of whom were wearing baseball-related gear, including numerous fans supporting Peña’s Red Sox. Our chat with him is below, and is also available to listen here.
Gabriel Fidler: It’s been quite a day for you at MLB Battlegrounds. You started off with a clinic for GB Baseball youth squad, you’re about to get those final preparations ready for the Home Run Derby, but this is not the typical event for a retired major league player to end up in London [Peña laughs] and doing clinics with people who speak English with a very strange accent, because of course, it’s English rather than American. [Peña laughs again: “It’s awesome!”] How did this happen? How did you get involved?
Carlos Peña: Wow, this is amazing, man. Just the whole entire journey has been amazing. We heard about the idea of bring baseball, Major League Baseball, to the British people and we [thought], “Okay, I understand. We want to go globally and share this beautiful game with the whole entire world, and what a beautiful place to start it at: London! There’s a lot of stuff going on in Asia, but when I heard that London was our next stop, it immediately sparked my interest. I’ve been here with my wife once before and we fell in love with the city, and here we again, but even better because I’m going to share the game that ever since I was a little kid I’ve been in love with.
As you’ll hear, there’s a lot of love in the air [smiles as he looks around], and that’s what it’s all about—a clash of cultures, of sports, and some healthy competition. And, as you can see, it’s going to be a spectacle, it’s going to be wonderful. We’re going to put on a show, so it’s going to be great to share this moment with the UK fans.
GF: Am I correct in thinking that you’re actually a MLB Ambassador now?
CP: I am. That’s a word, a title, that’s being thrown around. I want to keep it [lowkey]. Modesty aside, I am an ambassador! [laughs]
GF: And what do you think that’s going to entail, whether it’s in an official capacity, or not? You’re just out here having fun today, and we’ll make that an ‘ambassador’! [Official asks if Peña wants to go hit, but he replies, “No, I want to finish here.”] What do you think this ambassador role is going to entail?
CP: I think it’s, like you said, I’m having fun and I’m enjoying it, but there’s a specific mission and it’s that we want to globalise this game and we want to make sure these very important cities and places are really attracted to the game of baseball. The best way to do that is to show the most interesting parts of this game, for example, today it’s the home run derby.
One of the most exciting plays in baseball is a home run, it’s crazy to be able to make that precise contact to make the ball leave at the right launch angle and to leave with enough force for it to go as far as it needs to go, which is over a wall, 400 feet, 350 feet, 275. That’s incredible, and the ball’s coming in at 90 miles per hour and you have less than four tenths of a second to react, to decide, and to get your swing in…
It’s amazing that this is happening. So, when fans really get a glimpse of that, they can’t help…I think their knees will buckle for this game and they’ll start growing that interest. And hopefully, we can bring games here [to] to the UK, because we want to play games here…a few years from now: 2019 I want to see games being played here, so we have a very specific mission.
GF: Another big change that will help this is that the World Baseball Classic is now cemented in every baseball fan’s mind as a can’t miss event, but maybe even more so for the players. But when you were growing up, there was no WBC, there was no concept of any stuff like this. How do you think that has changed baseball, the move to deliberate events marketed internationally?
CP: It’s awesome! It’s a great idea. As you can see, the WBC has been an absolute success. The way that they have marketed the game globally because of the WBC—and again, we had a lot of doubts about it, because it was a tough schedule—but it’s been amazing. You’ve seen how people go nuts all over the world for that tournament, so there’s really something special happening and that is the globalisation of baseball. And we’re loving every second of it!
[Cliff Floyd comes over to tease Peña, who is wearing highly reflective sunglasses.]
Cliff Floyd: You hitting with those glasses on?
CP: Yeah, I’m gonna try. I look cool?
CF, laughing as he claps Peña on the back: Damn, he looks good, right!?
GF: I know, right?
[Floyd laughs as he clasps my shoulder and leaves.]
GF: Final question, what a thrill is it to put on that Red Sox uniform one more time?
CP: You know where I went to school? Northeastern University in Boston. I went to high school at Haverhill High, just north of Boston. This is unbelievable! This is an absolute thrill.
GF: Thanks very much! Have fun out there and, hey, stay balanced, stay on that lower core like you were telling [GB Youth] earlier.
CP: Hey, you were listening!
GF: Of course I was! Thanks.
For more on the event, our recap of the day is here. Stay tuned for interviews with Cliff Floyd, Shawn Green, MLB International’s Charlie Hill, GB Baseball’s Will Lintern and Gary Davison, and more. All photos copyright Gabriel Fidler.