DETROIT -- Brayan Pena simply exudes bubbling joy. Regardless of the day or the situation, his attitude remains a remarkably positive one, whether you're a teammate, a fan, or a member of the media. Pena has now been playing at the major league level for a decade, spending time with four teams, but whether it's been a year or four, he still appreciates the opportunity every team has given him, and now, what he's able to do for others.
Pena spent just one season with the Detroit Tigers but he remains a fan favorite, and it's easy to see why. Back in Detroit for the first time since going to the Cincinnati Reds through free agency in 2014, Pena didn't start the first of the short two-game series between the Tigers and Reds. He was in the game on Tuesday. But if you didn't look at the lineup card, no one would have known the difference by Pena's demeanor. Many of the players that Pena played with while in Detroit are no longer with the Tigers, but for Pena, it was just "awesome" being back.
"I had a blast (playing with the Tigers)," Pena said. "Every time that I have the opportunity to see you guys play or see anything from the city or related to the Tigers, it brings such great memories. It was great here. But especially the playoffs, I thank God when we had the chance to be in the playoffs, that's something that always is gonna stay in your heart because it's something special."
As much as the Tigers meant to Pena, mentioning the fans quickly followed. Highly active on Twitter, Pena doesn't just post a comment once in a while or reply to a random fan -- it's hard to get him off social media. And that's not a bad thing. He loves interacting with the fans, regardless of the team. For Pena, though, he doesn't just use social media for the fun of it. There's a purpose behind the why.
Yes, it's been 10 years since Pena entered the big leagues. Yet, the freedom that Pena enjoys through living in the United States, it's something he treasures. His ability to use Twitter as a platform to speak for those who can't, or give recognition for those who risk their lives for freedom, that's something Pena cares a great deal about. For him, it's not just something to do to pass time. And perhaps, that's why fans, and fellow players (present and former), find Pena to be one of the most uplifting, and upbeat players they've come across.
"Remember, I come from Cuba, and in Cuba there was no free speech," Pena remarked. "And here in America, that's everything about America. Whatever is on your mind, you can say it. I do have the opportunity to tell people how much I appreciate what they do and their support, but especially, I just never take nothing for granted, and I want people to know that."
Like, for example, catching some of the best starting pitchers in the game, such as Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez. Pena looked back on that year as an incredibly unique opportunity, not just to catch great starters, but to learn from them every time he got behind the dish. Looking back on his time as a member of the Kansas City Royals, Pena learned how to conduct himself, go about his business, and prepare for a game through then-Royals starter Zack Greinke.
It enabled Pena to carry that experience into his time with the Tigers. Seeing the Tigers starters on a daily basis, their level of confidence was what stood out the most, for Pena. Catching pitchers like Verlander and Scherzer isn't an everyday opportunity, and Pena was fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of that experience -- literally.
Pena's favorite memory as a Tiger: the 2013 playoffs. And while the roster has almost entirely turned over in the two seasons since, seeing players like Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, and Alex Avila again was special. Even as a Red, Pena still has a strong following from Tigers fans, fans who still miss Pena being in a Tigers uniform, and still notice what he does for a team they don't cheer for.
"The fans, man, the fans were great, and they still are," Pena said. "(Tigers fans) still appreciate my time here and what I did for the team. The fan base is very strong, and very loyal. ... It doesn't matter if I'm not with the Tigers anymore, I still get a lot of positive tweets and emails and stuff like that from Tigers fans. It shows a lot of loyalty and shows how much they appreciate how I handled myself here on and off the field. And I'm thankful for that."
It's a level of loyalty that Pena can relate to among fellow Cubans. Players like current Tigers Yoenis Cespedes and Jose Iglesias. Players who, in hopes of a better life through the pursuit of baseball, can also never return home due to the ongoing situation in Cuba. A situation that, while getting incrementally better, still has its difficulties.
It's also provided Pena with an opportunity to mentor other Cuban players who come to the United States. And seeing players like Iglesias and Cespedes play at such a high level, and with such skill through hard work and dedication, Pena sees that as a representation of the Cuban people. That both players are in what Pena believes to be one of the best clubhouses in the league, through support and the overall environment, makes it increasingly special.
During the offseason, Pena and fellow Cubans get together. They talk about the U.S.-Cuban situation, those they left behind, what it means to be an example for those who don't share the freedoms they currently enjoy. Enjoying Cuban traditions like playing dominoes and sharing a traditional Cuban pork meal -- forming a special bond and mentoring younger players who continue to come to the states in the hopes of a better life.
"We talk about it, exactly what we represent, not just Latin players but Cuban players because everybody knows what we have to go through to get here to the states," Pena said. "Defection, taking rafts, taking boats, and not being able to go back to your country and to see your family again God knows when, it's something we've always done together. It's something that it's kind of like a family for us. We kind of have this special bond because we're not allowed to go back to our country."
Pena, now 33 and in his final season of a two-year contract with the Reds, is more than a positive example for fellow players. He's a representation of how to play the game with a thankful and an exuberant attitude -- and see every day as a chance to affect the lives of others, on and off the field. Pena noted the importance of players being a positive role model to fans, especially the younger generation. Not only by respecting the game and other players, but the fans, as well, one of the few things a player can control.
The MLB All-Star lineup may be a heavily debated topic and out of the players' control, but the actual All-Star Game, hosted at the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, is an event that Pena is thrilled to see. Not only for the city and the players, but for the fans of a team that has been through an up and down season so far.
"Oh, man, it's unbelievable," Pena beamed. "The atmosphere down there is beautiful. Hopefully you guys can go out there and see. The Cincinnati Reds fans, they're unbelievable. They're so excited about the All-Star week, and our front office people have been doing such a great job, especially our PR people, that they deserve a lot of credit. Everywhere you go in Cincinnati, people are talking about it and people are so excited. They can't wait to have the festivities. Everybody's very pleased and hopefully some of our players can represent us."
Whether Pena remains with the Reds after this season is a discussion for another day. What he focuses on is what he can control in the present, playing the game he loves every day, in the country that gave him the freedom he cherishes. It doesn't matter if he's 0-for-4 or reaches base in every at-bat during a game, Pena is a joy to watch. And while some things change with time, Pena's outlook on life and his approach to the game, never has.