ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- Brayan Pena isn’t shy about his love for his adopted home. Since telling the harrowing story of his defection from Cuba in the Player’s Tribune, he has always answered questions about America with bright eyes and a big smile.
“Just the fact I was able to find something I didn’t know existed. I was able to find freedom, I was able to find hope. America gave me all that,” he said Tuesday.
For a long time, he wanted to repay his new country (he gained American citizenship six years ago), and before Tuesday’s game against the Pirates, he announced a move he had been planning for several years. He will join the Army Reserve at the end of this season.
Im very proud to announce with the support of my wife & family that i will be joining the ARMY RESERVE this off season " God Bless America "— Brayan Pena (@cuban2727) July 5, 2016
“It’s just something I have been feeling for a long time. Something I think is the right thing to do. It’s time for me to give something back to this great country,” he said. “It’s not something that I just woke up and did. I’ve been giving it some thought and done some research. I’m very excited, it’s an honor for me.”
The process started two-three years ago in conversations with then-teammate Jay Bruce. Pena was searching for ways to give back, and he and Bruce began talking about how best to do it. From there, he began research on how to make the Reserve work given his baseball career. That research graduated into conversations with recruiters and finally a phone call from a sergeant Tuesday morning. Pena will enter training this offseason. There is one hitch though.
“Due to my contract, they told me I can not be enlisted, but I can go there and do a lot of stuff for our soldiers. I can still get the training, but officially I can not be enlisted,” he explained.
Essentially he will go through all the training of a Reservist, as well as travel to speak to soldiers, put on baseball clinics and presumably serve as an ambassador for both baseball and the Army.
However, Pena is eager to remind reporters he’s “not 25 anymore,” and has begun seriously contemplating his post-baseball path. While his work this winter is structured around his contract commitments during the season, he is eying a larger obligation in the future.
“After baseball I think I’ll do more than I’m going to do this offseason. I talked to my family and they support me. Definitely after baseball, it’s something I want to do,” he said. “I know it’s not a game. Sometimes you have to do what you have to do. I feel like it’s the right thing. It’s something I’ve been thinking about ever since I became an American citizen.”
He also added if there were ever call-ups from the Reserve and they needed him, he would step away from baseball to serve.
“If they called me and said ‘Pena can you go?’ I would go,” he said.
His Twitter announcement took many by surprise, including General Manager John Mozeliak. Mozeliak and Pena had not spoken about the decision, and reporters got to Pena before the GM did, so their pre-game discussion was delayed. From a baseball business perspective, there are still a few questions that needed answering.
“We haven’t really had to deal with military issues with current players. As you can imagine, most of the rules that are in Major League Baseball were written back around World War II, then subsequently the Korean War and Vietnam. Thus, it’s not something I’ve actively had to follow up on,” Mozeliak said.
The Cardinals did experience some of those complications after drafting Navy grad Mitch Harris, but that came down to how baseball would work around his existing military commitments, not the other way around.
“This is a voluntary sign-up and I’m not sure everything that entails,” Mozeliak said. “What does that look like? What happens if you’re injured? How does it affect things? I’ll go through all that in the next day or two and try to get an understanding.”
But for Pena, the decision was driven by the heart. He worked diligently to figure out the details, but the passion fueling the choice was clear Tuesday.
“They’re the true heroes. Not us, we just play baseball. They’re the true heroes. Not just them, the firefighters, the police officers, anybody that has something to do with defending our country and our freedom,” he said. “Baseball is great, I love baseball and it’s amazing. But what those guys do for us, especially for me and my family, after what this great country did for me, it’s something I have to do.”