Just prior to the start of the 2001 season, the Cincinnati Reds completed a trade with the New York Yankees that would result in a 19-year-old power hitting outfielder coming to Dayton that season. When the Dragons took batting practice that year, damage was inflicted on a daily basis on the video board high above the left field fence at Fifth Third Field, and when the games began, the new member of the Reds organization set a record for runs batted in during a season that has never even been approached in the 11 subsequent seasons.
Even his name was fun to say. Wily Mo Peña.
Following his year with the Dragons, Reds manager Bob Boone described Peña like this in an article written by John Schwartz at ESPN.com:
"His tools are almost off the chart ... at the Hall of Fame, great, great player level, but he's got a lot of learning about baseball to do."
When his story was completed, Peña's primary contribution to the Reds was significant, but not because of what he did for them on the field. His major contribution to Cincinnati baseball fortunes resulted from what Reds were able to obtain in exchange for Peña in a trade: starting pitcher Bronson Arroyo, who would go on to become an all-star and consistent work horse for the Reds.
When the Reds picked up Peña from the Yankees in 2001, his clock was already ticking. Originally signed to a Major League contract by the Yankees, by rule, he could spend just two more seasons in the minors or be lost to another organization. Peña led the Dragons into the 2001 playoffs, belting 26 home runs, adding 113 RBI, and batting .264. Along with the power numbers, he struck out 177 times, exposing a weakness that Peña was never able to conquer.
Peña made his big league debut with the Reds on September 10, 2002, just one year after he left the Dragons. He hit his first career home run in just his second game, a 15-12 Reds win over the Cubs. The 2003 season was a learning year for Peña, now out of minor league options, and he hit just .218 in limited playing time for the Reds. But by 2004, Peña saw significant time as a starting outfielder, and at the age of 22, he slammed 26 home runs in just 336 at-bats.
But that would be as good as it would get for Wily Mo Peña. In 2005, his home run production slipped to 19 with a batting average of .254 and a huge strikeout total, 116 in 335 at-bats. In the spring of 2006, Peña was penciled in as the Reds fourth outfielder, and with 10 days to go in spring training, they traded him to Boston for Bronson Arroyo.
Peña spent just a year and a half with the Red Sox and then was traded to the Washington Nationals. At the end of spring training, 2009, he was released, and ended up back in the minors. The next year, 2010, brought more time in the minors and a stint with the independent Bridgeport Bluefish of the Atlantic League. In 2011, Peña got back to the big leagues for the first time in three years, playing briefly for both Seattle and Arizona. And in 2012, Peña played professional baseball in Japan, enjoying a huge season in year one of a two-year contract.
Wily Mo Peña is now 30 years old. He has played in 599 big league games over parts of eight seasons, and belted 84 home runs. His big league statistics show one important indicator that kept Peña from beginning the player that Bob Boone projected in 2002: 559 strikeouts, one in every three at-bats.
Longtime Dragons fans still talk about the home runs Peña slammed off the video board at Fifth Third Field. He was the fifth Dragons player to reach the big leagues.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.