It was happenstance that the Cuban defector and the former U.S. Navy Lieutenant were at the same place at the same time.
Both were at the St. Louis Cardinals’ spring-training facility in Jupiter, Fla., last year working their way back from injuries. Pitcher Mitch Harris was trying to return from a right elbow strain, while catcher Brayan Peña was rehabbing a knee injury.
When the two crossed paths in the clubhouse in Jupiter, they soon learned they shared a passion that eclipsed baseball: a love for the United States of America.
Peña, who signed a minor-league deal with the Royals in February, felt so deeply about giving back to his country that on a June day last year, he called a U.S. Army Recruiting office in Orlando, Fla., and said to sign him up.
That plan didn’t go as expected.
After Peña tweeted last July that he was going to join the Army Reserves, a couple of hurdles appeared. One was his age — he was 34, which he said made him too old to join. The other was his baseball contract, which prohibited him from fulfilling that dream.
The Army offered him the next best thing: the chance to be an ambassador, which means visiting troops overseas and holding baseball clinics for service members.
“It’s just one of those things that I was feeling like this country gave me so much that I want to give something back to the country. You know what I mean?” Peña said on a quiet morning in the Royals spring-training clubhouse.
“And what better way than to join the Army reserves and do different things for them, like baseball clinics and being able to talk to them and tell them how much we as Spanish(-speaking) players appreciate what they do for us and our families.”
When Peña publicly shared his desire to join the Army Reserves, it reportedly was news to the Cardinals’ front office. To the casual observer, it may seem he made a rash decision, but Peña had pondered it for years, almost since the time he completed his amazing journey from Cuba to the United States.
Peña, who shared the story of leaving Cuba on The Player’s Tribune, was with the national team for a game in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1999 when an opportunity arose. A friend there had a plan to get Peña out of the country, which would allow him to defect. While at a team breakfast, Peña went to the bathroom, squeezed through a window and ran to a waiting car, where his friend drove him away from his old life.
As he wrote in his essay, Peña had only the clothes on his back. He had no money or passport, and his friends and family had no idea he was leaving.
He was just 16 years old.
“It’s one of those things that you have to go out there and think about your family and put your family first, no matter what the consequences were,” Peña said in the Royals’ spring clubhouse. “That was exactly what I did. I was thinking of my family and making sure that I was going to do whatever it takes for them to have a better future. That’s why I made that decision and I defected.”
Peña spent a year in Costa Rica before signing with the Atlanta Braves after the 2000 season. He made his big-league debut in 2005. During the 2008 season, Peña was waived by the Braves and signed with the Royals.
The next year, Peña became an American citizen while a member of the Royals, and called it “one of my best days of my life.”
That citizenship test required Peña know all the amendments to the U.S. Constitution. He thought back on that frequently last year while watching athletes choosing to not stand during the national anthem.
“This is one of the things why America is so great, because you have the opportunity to express yourself with no remorse,” Peña said. “Freedom of speech, it’s one of the amendments that we have — I had to learn them because I became an American citizen.
“It’s one of the things that I respect everyone’s opinion and stuff like that. But one thing for sure that they are always going to know is that Brayan Peña is going stand 100 percent every time.”
Peña was granted free agency by the Royals after the 2012 season and he played for the Tigers and then the Reds before signing a two-year, $5 million contract with the Cardinals ahead of the 2016 season.
During a spring-training game last year, Peña slipped on the steps in the dugout and injured his left knee. That required surgery to remove cartilage and loose bodies. He was placed on the disabled list and eventually went to Florida, where he and Harris got to talk about the U.S.
Harris had been a lieutenant in the Navy, and he is now in the Navy Reserves while playing for the Cardinals. The two bonded quickly.
“We went on a rehab assignment and me and him were talking and me learning from the guy who was there got me even more involved,” Peña said. “Touched me even more. It’s one of those things, man, that’s amazing.”
Harris still had contacts in the armed forces, Peña said, who were open to him helping out.
“I told Mitch, ‘I’m down 100 percent. Whatever it takes.’ That’s why we’re going to continue to be in touch and do something great,” Peña said.
Peña ended up back on the disabled list not long after he announced his intentions to join the Army Reserves. He appeared in just nine games last season for the Cardinals, who released Peña in November. Throughout the winter, he worked on getting his knee healthy so he could play for another team.
That team ended up being the Royals.
The knee is fine these days, but the winter work meant putting his duties as an ambassador for the Army on the back burner. But it’s never far from his mind, particularly when he looks at the faces of his wife, Lina, and their children Brayan Jr. (age 7), Javy (age 6) and Isabella (age 2).
“I always want to do something for this great country and especially these soldiers, the men and women,” Perez said. “It’s all about how much I appreciate and how much I love and respect what this country has done for me and my family. Without them, I wouldn’t be enjoying it.
“Obviously, with my background, coming from Cuba, a country where there is no freedom of speech, you have no liberty at all. The government controls what you can say, what you can read and what you can watch. And then coming here to this great country and seeing how much freedom we have and see that you can reach your goals if you really do the right thing — all that is because of them.”