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."
Peralta feeling 'quicker' at camp, deflects PED talk
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Jhonny Peralta will let last week's statement from his attorney stand in regards to the SI.com report from earlier this month that his name was found in the records of Anthony Bosch and the Biogenesis clinic in Miami.
"I don't have any comment for that," Peralta said Wednesday afternoon. "I talked to my lawyer already, and I don't have [any] comment. We can talk about this year coming up."
Peralta's attorney, Barry Boss, released a statement soon after the SI.com report. The statement quoted Peralta saying, "I have never used performance-enhancing drugs. Period. Anybody who says otherwise is lying."
That was the one topic on which he declined comment. Everything else was open, including questions about his weight and his range. Peralta said he's down to 215 pounds, compared with 227 last spring, and he could lose a few more before Opening Day.
"If I can be 210, it's better for me," Peralta said, "so I'm working out for that."
The weight loss came partly at the suggestion of Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski, Peralta said, and partly from himself.
"I worked [out] in the Dominican Republic," Peralta said. "I have a strength trainer over there, and I'm working really hard this year to be how I've been [in the past]. I've lost about 20 pounds. I feel really good."
Peralta said he also has a chef who has changed his diet. He stopped short of the cliche that he's in the best shape of his life, but he said he felt a difference immediately once he started taking ground balls.
"I feel quicker," Peralta said. "I feel lighter. Taking ground balls today in the field, I feel I've got a better move side-to-side."
His goal is to stay at shortstop as he heads into the next phase of his career. He'll turn 31 in May.
Santiago keeps his swing active with winter ball
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Jhonny Peralta isn't the only Tigers shortstop who reported to camp lighter on Wednesday. Ramon Santiago came to camp looking and feeling thinner as well.
In Santiago's case, it wasn't a workout and dietary overhaul. It was more about his return to winter ball, something the Tigers wanted the 33-year-old to do after he skipped the Dominican League last winter and then struggled through most of the summer.
"I don't play every day here," Santiago said, "so I need those at-bats [in winter ball]."
Santiago said Wednesday morning he plans on doing more agility work with strength and conditioning coach Javair Gillett before the season begins.
Santiago hit .325 (27-for-83) in 21 games for Escogido in the Dominican regular season, then helped them to a Dominican League title last month. He didn't join them for the Caribbean Series, preferring to get at least a week of rest before reporting to camp.
Leyland pleased with Porcello's early progress
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Jim Leyland issued his annual Spring Training warning earlier than usual about not reading too much into bullpen sessions. Everybody looks good, he likes to say, before they face live hitters, let alone game situations.
That said, Leyland had a note of encouragement for fifth-starter candidate Rick Porcello, who appears to be making progress on the pitch he needs to get hitters off his sinker.
"It caught my eye," Leyland said of Porcello's side session Tuesday. "He threw some really good sliders yesterday, so that registered."
Porcello came to camp working on his overall mechanics after some tweaking by pitching coach Jeff Jones, but the slider seems to be the pitch most likely to benefit. He threw fewer sliders as a percentage of his pitches last year than he had at any point since his rookie season.
Kelly hopeful glove versatility helps earn roster spot
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Don Kelly is a non-roster invite to Spring Training this year, no longer assured of a roster spot. He's still a man of many gloves -- eight of them, to be exact.
He started compiling them as he became more of a superutility player in Detroit a few years ago. If he's going to make this year's team, he's going to have to rely on that strength once more.
"I've got a depth chart of gloves," Kelly said.
He has five different kinds of gloves. For third base, first base and the outfield, he has two gloves each -- one that's game ready, the other being worked in. His middle-infield glove is a few years old, but he plays up the middle so rarely -- all of one inning at second base last year -- that he doesn't need a backup. The same goes for his catching mitt, which he grabbed in Spring Training a few years ago when the Tigers began working him out there.