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A tough goodbye: Carlos Pena heads to the Cubs

3:02 AM, Feb 11, 2011   |    comments
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Windermere, Florida - There's a whirl of activity at La Casa Carlos Pena.

"I feel like I have this great tailwind pushing me forward, propelling me forth," says Carlos.

But it's not just Carlos' baseball career that's on the move since signing a free agent contract with the Chicago Cubs this past offseason. So is his family.

Photo Gallery: Carlos and Pamela Pena at home

"We're packing. Everything. I'm thinking, (I need) to send the baby's pack and play, the bottles," says Pamela, Carlos' wife. "The car, we have to ship the car. Just making sure he has everything he needs!"

"Busy, busy busy!" laughs Carlos.

As Carlos kisses his 5-year-old daughter Isabella goodnight, he savors the moment. Spring training in Arizona means he'll be away the next month and a half. It's just the start of change for this young family, that also includes 5-month-old Nicolas. Now forever grateful for their days in Tampa Bay, the Penas are at peace, heading to Chicago.

"I think what the Cubs mean was very appealing to me," says Carlos. "I also thought they showed a lot of interest. A lot of confidence in me, I felt the desire to have me be part of their ballclub, so I was thrilled."

There was always a connection. Growing up in the Dominican Republic, Carlos idolized George Bell, who at that time, was the country's biggest baseball star.

"I guarantee you I was envisioning myself in the big leagues with that uniform on. So, to actually have it on, that's surreal, that's a dream come true," he says. "It feels right, it feels right. I'm just excited full force, going after it."

Both he and Pamela have always loved the city and the feel of Chicago. Now a cherished experience with the Rays' turnaround inspires him with the Cubs.

"The city wants a World Series. So just because that possibility exists, to be THE team that does it, it's such an opportunity."

"I went from great to great, that's the way I'm looking at it. (I'm) so very happy with this move. But I will miss Tampa Bay."

And that's where you see the excitement, while mixed with some sadness, also holds incredible pride. Walking through a memorabilia-lined hallway in his home, Carlos reflects on his career in Tampa Bay. It was a stop that not only catapulted his baseball career, it made him a believer in dreams.

"Something magical happened in Tampa Bay, something that no one would ever even imagine. And I was part of it. I was there."

And sometimes, he still finds it a bit surreal, as he points to a tiny, framed snippet of newspaper detailing his signing with the Rays in February 2007.

"This is where it all began with the Rays."

He went on to win the team's first Silver Slugger and Gold Glove Awards. He was an All-Star in 2009. And in between, he played in a franchise-first World Series.

"What a great story to be able to experience. That's why I think the Rays were so inspiring. I think everyone can relate to that story. Because that's the story the world wants to hear, the story of the team that no one knew existed."

As that incredible chapter is closing, Carlos and Pamela are finally ready to begin a new one with the Cubs.

"I'm leaving a place that's so dear to me, that it was so difficult to even envision myself in another uniform," he says.

Pena says wrapping up last season and not knowing if he was coming back to the Rays, was "nerve-racking to a point." But he and the team were in constant contact about a deal this fall. Bottom-line: the Rays weren't able to move when Chicago was. Both sides understood and share immense respect.

"It was just a mutual understanding, it was just time, and nothing could be done at the moment," says Carlos. "And it was best for me to move on to Chicago, which has given me great opportunity."

But, in no way, was the decision easy.

"He was like, 'I wish I could retire here, I want to play until I'm old, 39 years old, and I want to be here.'" Pamela pauses, but smiles, "It's going to be different, real different. I know."

Carlos admits there were tears shed over his decision. From teammates and their families, to stadium and clubhouse employees, the Penas were close to all.

Then, there is Joe Maddon, whom Carlos calls one of the best managers in the game - ever. The two friends had just spoken for an hour the morning of this visit. True to both men: a typical conversation can range from cultural issues to base running.

"Though I'm not a Ray on paper, I'm his guy. I've learned so much from him. So I hope I can bring whatever I learned, and not only on the field, but the way he handles himself as a man, and bring that value to the Cubs."

"We have some tough times, where we get emotional, because we know we're leaving behind 'home.' However, I'm so excited about what the future holds. That mystery."

So as he guides us around his home's "baseball room" that stores so many moments of his career, you see a man who has come full circle. One who is now embracing the future while the preserving the pride in his past.

The room is not all his doing, but mostly Pamela's, and he appreciates the work she has put into memorializing the journey they've shared in a decade together.

"We have old school, new school," she says as she smiles at the displays. "I need to clear a wall now."

"More than I, she knows that it's not going to be forever," says Carlos. "And I'm going to need this to remind myself how awesome it was."

Gratitude is the word to describe it now, he says. For a team, for fans...

"The fans were so supportive at all times. Their support is what I'm taking with me, "he smiles."It was a close relationship between fans and me as a player, and as a person, so I will be forever grateful."

And, of course, for one amazing run.

"To live through all that. That is such a huge gift."

Again, he smiles.

"I'm going to new things, new adventure, and I'm poised for it."

Angela Jacobs, 10 News

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