HOUSTON – In the second at bat of his first World Series game, Jeremy Peña laced a double down the right field line. A few batters later, he scored on Kyle Tucker’s second home run of the night to put the Houston Astros up 5-0. Ultimately, that would be the setup to a stunning comeback by the Philadelphia Phillies to take Game 1. But in the moment, it was just the 10th time in Major League Baseball history that a rookie shortstop has scored in the World Series. On a team full of Fall Classic veterans, the 25-year-old, who played just 182 games in the minors before making his big league debut on Opening Day, fit right in.
Which was no surprise to his best friends. “This is nothing to him,” one quipped. “In Maine he used to play in front of 25 people.”
“Twenty-five people and 30 degrees,” the other replied.
Fast friends in Maine
Peña’s arms are like an optical illusion. From afar, he appears lithe and agile, up close in conversation he is boyish and shy. But standing at the plate, coiled for an impending swing, his arms are almost jarring in size, Popeye-esque and powerful. And somewhere, if you looked closely enough at these gargantuan arms, you’d see the scars from a college cooking accident.
It was several years ago at the University of Maine in an off-campus apartment shared by three baseball players so close they’re practically family. It’s not just baseball that bonds them, it’s also their heritage, three teen boys who are perhaps the only three Hispanic people in all of Penobscot County. And so on this particular night, two of them are trying to make the familiar picadillo that they probably won’t find anywhere else.
What they haven’t yet realized, and what they’re about to learn the hard way, is that you have to defrost the ground beef before you add it to the simmering hot oil.
Nick Silva thought his roommates were lame for staying in, so he was not home for this.
“I went out with a couple buddies to watch the Patriots game that night,” Silva remembers now. “And then they get like 10 missed calls from them like, ‘Hey, come pick us up, my face is burning.’ I was like, ‘What is wrong with you guys? Why are you guys lying right now?’ All of a sudden, they show up to where I'm at and they make me drive into the hospital.”
It wasn’t funny back then, but now they can laugh at it.
“That was not my fault!” Peña protested on the eve of his first World Series appearance. “That was on Danny.”
Danny Casals does not dispute this. “We were just broke college kids figuring it out,” he says by way of defense. He took the brunt of the grease splashes at the time, but the marks have all since healed. Peña, though, has those scars on his arm to this day.
Danny, Nick and J.P. met in the dining hall, freshman year. Silva, who is Dominican, and Casals, who is Cuban, had gone to high school together in Miami. The culture of northern Maine was as shocking as the cold weather. And so when they noticed Peña behind them in line, they asked if he was Hispanic, learned he was also on the baseball team, and figured they’d found a new best friend.
Peña is reserved and can be guarded, so he ate alone that day, which they never let him live down. But it didn’t take long for him to open up to Silva and Casals.
“And from that day, we were inseparable,” Casals says.
A star in the making
“They were very obviously the Latin guys amongst a bunch of very white Massachusetts, northeast guys,” their baseball coach, Nick Derba, says.
Peña, though, would have stood out no matter what. “He was just better than everyone from the get-go,” Derba says. “He was a Double-A level shortstop in high school.”
Evaluators didn’t quite see it at the time. The Atlanta Braves drafted Peña, whose father played seven years in the bigs for St. Louis and Cleveland, in the 39th round out of high school in Rhode Island. Peña never saw his father play professionally, but he loved to regale his roommates the stories of Gerónimo Peña playing alongside Ozzie Smith. He was born a year after his father retired, in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. When he was 12, the family moved to Providence.
Which is where Derba found him. “I think Jeremy understood that he probably could have gone to play at a Power 5 school,” he said. “But his goal wasn't to go play just Division I baseball, his goal was to be a big leaguer.”
So he went to Maine, where he could struggle and still play, develop on the field and not the bench. He made jaw-dropping defensive saves and hit first-pitch, 99-mph fastballs out of the park. He was quiet but goofy, with the energy of a little kid. He would watch his roommates play video games for hours, hit the batting cages at 3 a.m., and eat cheap Kraft Macaroni & Cheese when he stayed up too late.
But mostly, he talked about baseball, played baseball, trained to be better at baseball. Took his innate talent and paired it with an unparalleled work ethic, all while developing the kind of grit that comes from running sprints while there’s still snow on the ground.
“Jeremy and Nick and I were just talking about that the other day,” Casals says, “because playing baseball in 40-degree weather is difficult. And the only ones who make it are the ones who are mentally tough. Jeremy's the epitome of that, of mental toughness.”
All of them — his college coach and two closest friends — tell the story about the tire. The baseball team worked out five days a week; on their own, they’d hit the gym on the off days. “But that still wasn't enough for Jeremy,” Casals says. “Seven days a week wasn’t enough for Jeremy.”
So he went to Walmart to buy a rope, went to the local tire shop to see if they’d give him a couple spare tires. He had come into his sophomore year determined to get faster, and for that he needed to run with resistance. So he tied the rope to the tire and dragged it behind him as he raced across the frozen field.
“Nick and I would watch him, and in hindsight we probably should have been doing wind sprints too,” Casals says.
Instant impact in Houston
All three were hoping to get drafted in 2018. Only Peña was. He was folding laundry at the time, his mom and sister rushing into the room to tell him the Astros had taken him in the third round. Four years later, Houston let former first overall pick, Carlos Correa, leave in free agency without pursuing another major league shortstop.
“The Astros know exactly what they're doing,” Derba remembers thinking at the time. “Everyone else in the entire world has no idea how good they've got it. It was our secret for a little while, and now the world got to meet Jeremy and the secret’s out of the bag.”
Silva, whose uncle is Alex Rodriguez and now works for A-Rod Corp., and Casals, who teaches English and coaches baseball at the high school they attended in Miami, flew to Anaheim to see Peña’s debut. But the world must not have realized yet who it was meeting, because they had to order bootleg jerseys from somewhere overseas to show their support. Instead of “Peña,” though, the jerseys just said “Pena” — no tilde over the “n.”
“That’s his pet peeve,” Silva says.
Peña was hitless in his first game. But the next day, he was 3 for 5 with a home run, the first of 22 on the season, second among rookies only to the Seattle Mariners’ Julio Rodríguez.
As he rounded home, he winked at his friends, who had snuck down to the seats just behind the visiting dugout and fist-bumped them a few minutes later on a private curtain call. “And at that moment,” Silva says, “I'm so glad that we made that decision to go see him.”
Six months later, another home run from Peña, this time in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees, would send the Astros to the World Series and earn the rookie ALCS MVP honors.
Silva and Casals, of course, knew they had to go.
On MLB's biggest stage
Peña insists he’s a good cook nowadays, Or, at least, he has an air fryer that he calls the “greatest invention ever” for making potatoes and sausages, and apparently even pizza can be air-fried without the risk of oil burns. But on the morning of his World Series debut, Peña’s mom made him mangú, the classic Dominican breakfast.
His parents are staying with him this weekend in Houston, as is Casals (“It’s perfect Jeremy, I’m staying on a twin air mattress with no covers,” he says). The night before Game 1, they FaceTimed Silva, who arrived day-of, and watched video of Peña’s at bats this year.
“It feels like it was just yesterday that we were all playing together,” Peña says, and his friends agree that time flies, but they see how much better he’s gotten in the years since.
“There’s no other choice,” Casals says, and it’s true. To them, Peña is the same kid who made stupid jokes and did silly dances, but everything else is elevated: the stakes, the competition, the recognition.
It wasn’t so long ago that you couldn’t get an officially licensed Jeremy Peña Houston Astros jersey no matter how hard you tried. But on Friday, the people who know him best showed up to a stadium full of strangers wearing his name. It underscores how far he’s come — from Santo Domingo, from Providence, from Orono, Maine, and from the start of the season. And so, during the game, Silva and Casals went to the Astros’ team store and bought the real thing, dropping $200 to be like every other fan of their best friend. They got out just in time to see him get a hit in the World Series.