JUPITER, FL. (KMOV.com) -- Brayan Pena’s Twitter profile, perhaps his most direct line to the thousands of fans that watch him play baseball, is one sentence. “I’m a great person.”
Within five minutes of being around him, it’s clear it’s not boastful. It’s just a statement of fact.
Pena, who was acquired by the team this offseason to be the second catcher on the depth chart, is 100,000 watts of walking, talking, grinning energy.
“He’s the best guy ever,” said catching prospect Carson Kelly, who spends the bulk of every day in camp around Pena. “He’s funny, too. He’s such a great dude.”
The 33-year-old backstop is at ease with everyone he talks to. He glides around the clubhouse telling jokes, dispensing advice, and giving encouragement. He darts back and forth between English and Spanish, never uncomfortable or out of place.
“I’ve seen him fit in like he’s been here for years,” Michael Wacha said. “He adds that energy into the clubhouse. Great spirit, great personality. I’ve only known him from playing against him and he seems the same way. I’m glad he’s on our team now.”
Pena seems to do all things with an unbridled joy, and has said before it’s because of how blessed he feels to be where he is. In a gripping op-ed he wrote in the Players’ Tribune, Pena told the story of how he defected from Cuba. Here’s a sample:
It was my dream to play in the big leagues, but it wasn’t like I was some big star and had an MLB team waiting to sign me to a million dollar contract. I was just a chubby 16-year-old catcher from Havana who was a pretty decent ballplayer. If I got caught trying to defect, the consequences would be devastating. Not just for me, but for my whole family. I told him I had to think about it.
“Okay, but we don’t have much time,” he said. “Tomorrow morning I’m going to come to the hotel and bring you some batting gloves. I’ll have a red pair and a green pair. You choose which ones you want. Green means you really want to do it. Red means we forget all about it.”
This was all that was said.
After enduring such an experience, everything that follows feels like playing with house money.
“How could you not be happy?” he said simply when chatting in Jupiter. “We all embrace the chance and blessing to be here.”
He takes that attitude with him into his work, combining a tremendous discipline (Mike Matheny said Monday he may be the most improved catcher in camp) with an infectious enthusiasm during the team’s on-field drills.
“He likes to talk,” chuckled Jamie Pogue, St. Louis’ bullpen catcher and catching instructor.
Pena’s voice is in the air all afternoon. He makes jokes during batting practice, delivers rapid fire evaluations between the bullpen and the mound for pitchers and issues cordialities to players, fans and media alike.
During live pitcher batting practice, he chatters behind the plate like Hamilton Porter, commenting on the strike zone and appealing down to imaginary umpires on check swings.
Pena’s demeanor is a necessary lubricant in a game where each piece must not only work in concert, but do so over a longer period of time than almost any other professional sport.
“I would say he’s rare,” pitcher Mike Leake said.
Leake spent the better part of two seasons in Cincinnati with Pena, and remains impressed by his ability to remain genuinely invested in the people around him.
“He cares about every teammate. He wants to get to know you, he wants to be part of a team. He approaches it the way I believe you should approach it. That is: this is your family. You spend more time with this group than you do with your own kids. It’s nice that he approaches it that way and it’s refreshing to have people like that around you,” Leake said.
That dedication to each individual, the genuine interest in their wants and needs, is also instrumental to who Pena is as a catcher. With Yadier Molina still working back from a second thumb surgery, the chance exists St. Louis could open the season with a brand new catcher behind the plate. If the first couple weeks of camp are any indication, Pena- and his operating philosophy- will fit right in.
“This is the only position where you can cheat on your marriage,” he said. “What I mean by that is, you’re married to every one of those starters. You’re married to every single one of those relievers. You have to understand what they want, how can I help you to make you feel comfortable on the mound? How can I help you feel like, ‘OK this is my day.’ That’s the way I see it. You have to make sure our pitchers feel good, feel comfortable. It’s like a marriage. The communication factor is huge. In every marriage, if you don’t communicate it’s not going to last long. But if you communicate with your peers, you’ll have great success.”
Catching young Cardinal pitcher in a live session just days before games start, Pena showed his dedication to building lasting nuptials. Each pitch brought a constructive comment, each well-executed delivery brought a chorus of praise.
“Every good pitch there was a hoot and a holler and pointing. I thought he was going to get out balloons and stuff. It was unbelievable,” said Matheny. “Every time the kid made a good pitch, [Pena] made him feel like he was king of the world. The kid just got better and better as the session went.”
Communication is never in short supply for Pena, which explains why he’s had such a successful career. Monday, he’ll take the field for the closest approximation to game action for the Cardinals yet, an intrasquad game at 12:30 p.m. eastern. Fans in attendance will get the treat of not only meeting Pena the catcher, but also Pena the person. Both are pretty darn good.