Miss Congeniality with power — you can come home again.
What a delight to have the manifold pleasures of the Grand Old Game back again. And in its regular-season, now-the-games-count variety. It only seems like a year and a half since that great Cardinal/Rangers World Series last October.
Spring training exhibition games are welcome after months of games that aren’t baseball. But they aren’t the real deal. Pitchers are just getting their work in and trying new pitches. Managers are getting a look at minor leaguers, many of whom will start the season in A-ball and end it at their father-in-law’s hardware store in Keokuk. When the guy playing first base is wearing uniform number 106 ½, you know he isn’t going to make the big club. No one cares who wins the spring games. I sometimes wonder why they keep score.
Thanks to an accumulation of years and a dickey back, I’ve reached the point in my athletic career that I call Couch-22. With apologies to King Lear, I now confer all athletic exertions on younger strengths. Considering my athletic skills even in my youth, I probably should have traded my cleats in for a couch decades ago. Quoting from memory the self-evaluation of Chicago writer Joe Epstein (a very savvy baseball guy as well as an engaging writer): “I was a pretty good athlete — for a writer.”
This First Weekend featured the things that keep baseball fans coming back to their game year after year. Great defensive plays. Clutch hits. And some dominating pitching performances. Justin Verlander of the Tigers is a force of nature, and one of the reasons September seems to be continuing in Red Sox Nation. Kyle Lohse of the Cardinals, using finesse rather than Verlander power, spoiled the opening of the Miami Marlins’ new Tax-Payer Stadium. While we’re on the Marlins, am I the only one who thinks their new home uniforms look like a bad trip in Margaritaville?
But the biggest magic last weekend, featuring some of the electrifying moments baseball fans live for, took place at the Trop in St. Petersburg. And not just because the Tampa Bay Rays swept the Evil Empire, though I’ll take this anytime I can get it.
It’s appropriate that Carlos Pena plays for the Tampa Bay Rays. He’s a ray of sunshine. Always smiling, always positive, humble. Miss Congeniality with power. He’s the most popular player in Rays history. Even the Grinch who stole Christmas likes this guy.
Of course it’s not just Carlos’s Welcome Wagon personality that makes him so popular in the Trop and across the Tampa Bay Area. He holds a host of Rays offensive records: Career home runs at 146, single season home runs at 46 (2007). He not only drives in runs but he prevents opposing ones as well. He’s one of the slickest fielding first basemen in the bigs.
There was no joy around Tampa Bay in 2011 when in a salary dump the Rays did not re-sign Pena, who spent a year with the Cubs. But the numbers worked out for him to return, and he got a huge welcome from his many admirers when he was introduced before the Rays’ Opening Day game.
Just minutes later, after the Yankees had failed to score in their half of the first and the Rays had loaded the bases in theirs, Pena parked a 3-1, CC Sabathia fastball in the right field stands for a grand slam while a full house in the Trop alternately whooped and swooned. This was a triumph of Rays fans’ hope and Pena’s grit over expectation. Before this at bat Pena was 4 for 35 against Sabathia.
This Frank Capra moment would have been enough for a day’s work. But Pena wasn’t through. With the score tied 6-6 in the bottom of the ninth, Pena drove home the winner with a shot over Yankee center fielder Curtis Granderson’s head. This blast came against a very mortal looking Mariano Rivera, off of whom Pena had never before had a base hit. Who says you can’t come home again?
Pena’s Opening Day performance was so dramatic it took attention away from the fact that Rays slugger Evan Longoria reached base five times, including a solo homerun. The Rays took the next two, with Pena contributing a home run and a double Sunday, supporting a remarkable pitching performance by Jeremy Hellickson. Joy is unconfined in Mudville.
Of course there were many more important things to contemplate on Holy Weekend. But for many of us baseball is a blessing. And we can forgive those in the Tampa Bay Area, pious or heathen, who believe, after this weekend’s festivities, that Carlos Pena is too.
Welcome back Carlos. Welcome back baseball. Almost 160 games left, then the playoffs. Life is good.
########################## Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.
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