The Story Behind Pena’s Smile

(Jupiter, FL)- It has been rare to see St. Louis Cardinals catcher Brayan Pena without a smile on his face. Whether it was his first experience of the team’s Winter Warm-Up a couple of weeks ago or this first visit to Spring Training with the team, Pena has constantly provided a contagious and energetic vibe.

“Energy’s the right term,” agreed Mike Matheny. “He loves the game. You can tell he’s going to be the kind of guy that’s going to be infectious. We want that.”

“That’s naturally who he is–it’s not something that has to be forced. It’s what he thinks about the game, he just loves being here. It becomes very obvious as soon as you meet him that this guy’s just going to be the kind of teammate that I believe makes people better.”

Yes, Pena is happy to be with the St. Louis Cardinals. Yes, he is excited to be teammates with a “legend” such as Yadier Molina.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Pittsburgh PiratesBut this happy and grateful attitude for Pena goes back several years ago, when at the age of sixteen, a good friend helped him defect from Cuba.

“He  told me ‘I’m going to be there when the Cuban delegation arrives and I’m going to have a green batting glove and a red batting glove,” recalled Pena. “If you pick the red batting glove, that means it’s a no-go–you’re not going to do it. But if you pick the green batting glove, that means you’re going to defect.”

Pena had overnight to make the decision–one he faced alone as he could not tell anyone, not even his parents.

“In my heart I did it because I knew it was the right decision,” said Brayan. “My mom and my dad, both were teachers and they were making $5 a month. I felt like, it’s time for me to step up and be the man of the house and I did it. I did it. But I couldn’t tell them because number one, I separated my feelings from my conscious because if you get your feelings involved you will never do it.”

Focused on how to help his future, Pena chose the green glove. But he then had to make it past Cuban security to escape through a bathroom window in the hotel his baseball team was staying in.

“He goes ‘Pena, where are you going?’ I will never forget those words. I told him ‘What? I need to go to the bathroom.’ He said, ‘Okay,  well I need to go with you,” I said “What? I need some privacy. C’mon man, where am I gonna go?’ He said ‘okay, I’m gonna be waiting for you in the lobby’. It was the last time he saw me boss.”

Alone in the bathroom, Pena scrambled out the window to the waiting car outside. He had no money, no identification.

His parents lost their jobs the next day, which made Pena feel guilty until he was finally able to speak with them three weeks later and they shared their support.

“We have to leave work but we support you, we’re with you 100%. We want you to be happy, we want you to pursue your dream,” was the message. “Those words of encouragement, they really gave me a lot. It drove me even more to follow my dreams–to work harder, to be hungrier.”

A couple of weeks later, Pena had some of his fear eased as Costa Rica granted him a green card.

“I was very scared, I was very skeptical about my future,” said Brayan. “After that, it made me feel much better because I knew no matter what, I wouldn’t get sent back to Cuba.”

“The decision that you make, it really has consequences,” continued Pena. “It was very tough time for my family, but at the same time there is no regret from either party. America gave me that opportunity and here I am.”

Pena shared even more details about his daring escape in a personal blog entitled “The Window” at Player’s Tribune last month.


–During his time with the Cincinnati Reds, Pena became very good friends with pitcher Johnny Cueto. And despite the storied history between the right-hander and the Cardinals, Pena confirms that Cueto indeed was interested in signing with St. Louis as a free agent.

“He really appreciates what this organization means to baseball,” said Pena. “He appreciates the talent and he appreciates the fan base because he knows our fans support our ball club 100% no matter what. Johnny, him and I we talked about it–especially after I signed here. There was no doubt, him and I we talked about it but it wasn’t meant to be.”

photo credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports



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