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Following His Heart: Cardinals' Pena to Join US Army Reserve

St. Louis Cardinals' Brayan Pena swings while working out in a batting cage during spring training baseball practice Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, in Jupiter, Fla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
St. Louis Cardinals' Brayan Pena swings while working out in a batting cage during spring training baseball practice Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, in Jupiter, Fla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

ST. LOUIS -- Backup catcher Brayan Pena of the St. Louis Cardinals will participate in U.S. Army Reserve activities in the off-season.

Pena, 34, announced his decision Tuesday afternoon on Twitter. He said his stint with the Reserve will include two weeks of training.

"It's just something that I've been feeling for a long time. It's something that I feel is the right thing to do," a native of Cuba who defected in 1999 and has been a U.S. citizen for six years. "It's time for me to give something back to this great country. It's not something where I just woke up and did it. I've given it some thought and some research. I'm very excited. It's an honor for me."

Because Pena is in the first season of a two-year, $5-million deal he signed with the Cardinals, he can't be listed in the Reserve. He can, however, be an ambassador, visiting the troops overseas and conducting baseball clinics.

"I've been waiting for that phone call for a long time, and I finally got it today," Pena said of hearing from a sergeant in the recruitment center in Orlando, Fla., on Tuesday. "They apologized because it's been a long week due to the Fourth of July. Early in the morning I got the call, and I was really excited to share it with everybody."

Pena said he knows his commitment to the Reserve is "not a game." He began considering the Reserve several years ago when he talked about it with former Cincinnati Reds teammate Jay Bruce.

"But sometimes you have to do what you have to do, and I feel like this is the right thing," he said. "I've been thinking about this for a long time, ever since I became an American citizen. It's something that I'm feeling in my heart. Anything I can do to help, I'd do it."

Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak was unaware of Pena's decision until late Tuesday afternoon, after Pena made his Twitter announcement.

"I'm certainly surprised," Mozeliak said. "It's always interesting to learn things off of Twitter. But I guess that's a good place to get it.

"I certainly have some questions. In time, I'll get with him. ... There's definitely not a lot I can do. Look, it's a very patriotic move after July 4. Nothing surprises me with Mr. Pena now."

The Cardinals took pitcher Mitch Harris in the 2008 draft, knowing that he still had to serve five years of active duty with the US Navy. He began working his way up the Cardinals' minor-league system in 2013, reaching the majors in 2015.

"When we had Mitch Harris (in the draft), it was more about what his commitment to serving was before he would become available," Mozeliak said. "This is a voluntary sign-up and I'm not exactly sure everything what it entails.

"We have not really had to deal with military issues with current players. Most of the rules in Major League Baseball were written back for World War II and subsequently the Korean War and Vietnam. It's not something I've had to actively follow up on."

Pena said leaving Cuba for the United States dramatically changed his life.

"Just the fact that I was able to find something that I didn't know existed," Pena said. "I was able to find freedom. I was able to find hope. America gave me all that. Obviously, my wife (Lina) and my beautiful kids, I met her here and they were born here. It's something I really appreciate."

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