Full Count
One player's hard-fought journey through baseball
Photo credit: Jacob Rose, jacob.rose2014@gmail.com
by Tim Curtis

Jerome Pena looks like a baseball player.

Listed at 5 feet, 11 inches, the Arizona native carries himself like the prototypical middle-infielder, like the kind of man who has starred on every team he's ever played for.

But at 13, he was cut from a travel baseball team and he's had to fight for every position since then.

"Maybe I just didn't understand why, but that was what kind of added a little fuel to the fire and the chip on the shoulder. In a way I'm kind of grateful and thankful for that," Pena said.

He's sitting on a bench outside the team's clubhouse on the concourse level of Harry Grove Stadium, the home of his Frederick Keys. His knees swing back-and-forth while the opposing Wilmington Blue Rocks take batting practice and top 40 music blasts throughout the stadium.

Click to see a timeline of the twists and turns of Pena's career.

In a couple of minutes he'll join his teammates for dinner and get ready for the game.

Every time the conversation turns to the field, the 25-year-old second baseman starts talking faster, like that will somehow get him out there quicker.

Pena's father, Frank, helped him realize that getting cut was an opportunity to learn.

"I told him that's how life is going to be when you get in the real world," Frank Pena said over the phone from Arizona. "I told him that's why it's so important to keep working at what you do. All you have control over is how hard you work."

Pena worked hard to get better and in 2006, as the starting shortstop on his high school team, he began to see success.

As a junior, Pena helped lead Cactus Shadows High School, in Cave Creek, Arizona, to the 4A Division II state championship.

Still, Pena received no scholarship offers to play Division I baseball. "You know I just love that feeling of when someone says you can't do it and you can," Pena said.

Pena takes a swing against the Wilimington Blue Rocks on June 2, 2013.
Photo Credit: Jacob Rose, jacob.rose2014@gmail.com

He traveled to Carson City to play for Western Nevada College, a junior college.

"I remember getting on the plane and leaving for right before school started and I remember just having that sick-to-my stomach feeling and I was like 'Wow'," Pena said.

Mouse over or touch the image to see back of the baseball card

He still misses his family, but Pena's never felt homesick again, he said.

As a sophomore in 2009, Pena again helped lead his team, the Western Nevada College Wildcats, to the semifinals of the Junior College World Series.

Pena was also recognized for his individual success and was named to the all-tournament team at catcher.

During the same season, major league teams sent him the questionnaires they send to players they might have an interest in drafting.

"When I got that first questionnaire I thought, 'Wow, I can do this'," Pena said. "So from then on that's been my biggest goal that I have set for myself."

That June, he was drafted by the New York Mets in the 40th round of the draft, but Pena fulfilled his commitment to play for Texas Christian University.

At TCU, Pena moved back to the middle infield, playing second base for the first time.

He hit .313 with 11 HR and 52 RBI and once again found postseason success -- the Horned Frogs advanced to the semifinals of the College World Series in Omaha.

Coach Jim Schlossnagle still remembers Pena for his smile and demeanor.

"He was one of those guys that always had a smile on his face and kept things loose," Schlossnagle said. "If he was having a bad day, you couldn't tell it."

He wasn't drafted in 2010. But Pena heard his name called in the 38th round of the 2011 draft by the Baltimore Orioles.

Click to see how far everyone drafted as the same round as Pena has gone in their career.

His father says he was relieved and happy that his son was going to get an opportunity.

"I think my dad was more excited than I was," Pena said. "He wanted to [play] himself and he couldn't do it himself."

Pena rose through the system quickly and reached High A Frederick just over a year after being drafted.

But now, Pena has stalled in his trajectory and he has been at Frederick for two years.

Some stadium employees enter from a nearby gate while Pena talks. They stop to say hello and he gives them a big smile.

Pena entered August on a hot streak, going 11-for-24 with four extra-base hits.

He was enjoying the streak, while it lasted.

"It sucks when you're not swinging it well, so you've got to ride these times out, cause you know hitting whatever you're hitting, it doesn't come along too often where you're just on a tear, an absolute tear, so you've got to ride these things out and you've got to enjoy it," Pena said.

His streak ended that night. He went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts.

Pena rounds the bases after hitting a homerun against the Wilmington Blue Rocks on June 2, 2013

Photo Credit: Jacob Rose, jacob.rose2014@gmail.com

He's gone hitless with nine strikeouts in the six games since.

During the dog days of summer those struggles can feel worse, Pena says.

"This is when you get out of bed in the morning and you're hurting a little bit," Pena said. "And people don't understand the minor league bus rides, you know, eight hours you're sitting on a bus and that's never good for your back. You get up in the morning and it takes a little bit."

Pena's parents came out to visit him last month for the first time since 2010.

"I love when they come out, you always love when your parents are in the stands and watching you play and you get to go and make them proud," Pena said. "And just show them all that they did for me and just give thanks back to them."

Pena's father is a big part of his career, helping Pena through the tough times.

"We talk about every game after the game whether it's good or bad," Frank Pena said. "I'm most proud that you wouldn't know that he's struggling because of his smile and big laugh."

When he's out on the field, Pena talks to everyone, after every play, every pitch and in between innings.

"When you keep it lively in the clubhouse and on the field you're going to play better," Pena said.

"There's always chemistry and when you have good chemistry as a team, you win a lot of ballgames and you mesh a lot with your club."

His parents miss having their son around.

Click the chart to see how Pena has done compared to the league average each season.

"We're anxious to see him because he lights up the whole place when he's here," his father said.

Players with Pena's profile don't normally make it to the show, but he's still out there working hard.

He goes to the gym every other day and preaches about the importance of breakfast.

"It's just for the love of the game you just have this competitiveness to you that you want to be the best, you want to make it, and when you make it you want to see how far you can go and how good of a player you can be."