Pena transitions smoothly to backup catching role

LAKELAND, Fla. -- The transition from a young catcher into a veteran backup is a difficult one for a lot of catchers. It was not so tough for Brayan Pena, who has had tougher decisions and far less certain futures in his life.

He had no idea what was waiting for him on the other side of the bathroom window in a Caracas, Venezuela, hotel on the day he decided to defect from Cuba. That was in the spring of 1999, when he was a teenager for the country's junior national team playing in a tournament in Caracas.

He didn't tell his family what he was planning when he left for Venezuela, he said. He didn't want them to suffer any potential repercussions. He only told a friend.

"You can't imagine how fast my heart was beating," Pena said Wednesday morning.

He crawled out the window to a waiting car, where a man hired by his agent to help him defect took him on a five-hour drive towards the Venezuelan beach town of Chichiriviche, where he would spend the next five months hiding in a house so that Venezuelan authorities couldn't find him and deport him. He wouldn't dare go outside.

He finally emerged for a trip to Costa Rica, where Pena spent five more months working out and preparing to try out for Major League teams. He signed with Atlanta, moved to Florida, became an American citizen, welcomed his parents and his siblings to America, and started a family of his own.

"When I became an American citizen five years ago, I felt, 'This is the highlight of my life,'" Pena said.

It's more than just baseball for him now. After coming to the United States to pursue his Major League dreams, he's living the American dream. After four years with the Royals, he gets to train close to home in Florida, seeing his two kids every morning before he makes the short drive from his home in Kissimmee to Lakeland. He speaks English fluently after knowing nary a word when he first landed.

"I came from Cuba with no expectations," he said. "I'm so thankful."

And now, he has a chance to live out his World Series dreams. It wasn't a role the Tigers were looking to fill when the offseason began, but they jumped at the chance to fill it with Pena once he became a free agent.

Detroit went into the offseason planning on Bryan Holaday backing up Alex Avila but wanting an option at Triple-A Toledo in case of injury. As it turned out, finding a veteran catcher willing to sign a Minor League deal with a contending team was tougher than finding a veteran catcher willing to sign a reasonable Major League deal to be a backup. The Tigers liked Pena, so they changed course.

"It's a great feeling," Pena said. "I'm very excited. I feel like I belong here. All the guys, they've welcomed me. The chemistry here is amazing."

Manager Jim Leyland admired Pena from the other dugout for the past few years, especially as a switch-hitter.

"He's always been a pretty good little hitter," Leyland said. "He keeps innings going. He's a good kid. He's a hard worker. He's got a good personality. He's a perfect fit. I don't think anybody realizes the importance of somebody understanding and accepting a role. And when you get that combination, that's really a bonus for a manager, because that's one less headache."