Jeremy Peña adjusting to celebrity status

Jeremy Peña had barely stepped foot on the club-level concourse at Minute Maid Park when a security guard stopped him. The man pulled out his phone and Peña obliged, throwing up a peace sign with his right hand and posing for a selfie. 

Several hours into Astros FanFest on Saturday, Peña couldn’t even fathom an estimate of his selfie count for the day. 

“I don’t know, man,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. “It’s been crazy.” 

Peña’s celebrity skyrocketed following the Astros’ championship run in 2022, during which the rookie shortstop was awarded a Gold Glove and crowned MVP of both the American League Championship Series and the World Series. 

His months since have been filled with public appearances, from Texans and Rockets games to handing out chicken at a Cane’s drive-thru, as well as a trip back to the Dominican Republic. Most places he goes, he is mobbed by legions of loyal supporters who flash his signature heart sign and shower him with adoration. 

But on Saturday, less than a month from when Peña will report to the Astros’ spring training facility in West Palm Beach, he was content to say not much in his life had changed. 

“I feel the same,” Peña said. “I feel like my parents call me a little less now. Nah, it’s a good time.” 

Peña, the first rookie shortstop to win a Gold Glove and the youngest position player to win a World Series MVP, became a Houston hero when he delivered multiple clutch playoff hits. He is a key component of an Astros roster that this season returns 21 of the 26 players who were active for the World Series-clinching Game 6 win, and is further buoyed by marquee offseason signee José Abreu. 

As a new season gets underway, memories of Peña’s 2022 postseason exploits set the scene. 

“I’m still thanking him for what he did, giving me another ring,” Astros second baseman Jose Altuve said.  

Peña, however, isn’t one to rest on his laurels. 

“Last year’s in the past,” he said. “The goal is to turn the page. There’s a lot of work to be done and I feel good physically, mentally. We have a great team and we all know what has to get done going to the spring.” 

Peña is so indifferent to his accolades that he’s lost track of the hardware from his numerous awards. His Gold Glove and MVP trophies are off somewhere getting custom engraved, he said. Where, exactly? He shrugged, though this particular gesture lacked the panache of his playoff home run celebration.  

Peña’s humility did not dissuade Astros fans from flocking to Minute Maid Park to get a glimpse of him Saturday. Whereas most of Houston’s players and coaches signed autographs on the concourse in groups of eight or nine, inside the Diamond Club, Peña sat alone at a long table autographing 5×7 photos as a line at least 100 people deep snaked around the room. 

“Keep moving, please. No selfies,” an usher instructed eager autograph-seekers. Many fans held up their phones to snap photos from afar while still in line, though some disregarded the request altogether once they reached Peña. 

“I love you, Jeremy!” a man’s voice yelled from somewhere in the line. 

“Love you, too,” Peña shouted back. 

Peña’s teammates say he has handled his newfound fame gracefully. 

“He hasn’t changed one bit since the day I met him,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “He’s a hard worker. He loves the game of baseball. He’s a great dude. Everyone loves being around him and he’s got a great personality that I think all the fans here love, and I’m excited to see him continue to grow and continue to get better.” 

Still, Altuve acknowledged that navigating whirlwind publicity tours in the aftermath of a championship season, while preparing for a new season, can take some getting used to. 

“I don’t know, I wouldn’t call myself a celebrity,” Altuve said. “We get to play the game we love and in front of our people here in Houston, but I think the difference is that basically when you’re younger, you’re still learning how to prepare for the season versus at my age, you know what works for you. So you stick with that and it’s, I think, a little bit easier.” 

Peña is getting accustomed to being recognized and approached when he is out in Houston. If the attention is ever overwhelming, he does not admit it. 

“It’s awesome,” he said. “This fan base embraced me from day one. Since I went into spring, actually, and stuck with me all season. So nothing but love to the fan base.” 

Later, when Peña emerged from behind home plate and started toward the stage located down the third-base line, a horde of people playing catch in the outfield and running the bases made a beeline across the field. The seismic movement had the potential to strike fear into the hearts of officials in the shift-banning baseball commissioner’s office. 

As part of a fan Q&A session, a young woman asked Peña if he would attend prom as her date. He paused and smiled bashfully before answering. 

“You’ll have to ask the Astros,” he said. “I’ll be in spring training.” 

Heartthrob status and fame hold no allure for Peña, who like his teammates is focused on attempting to be the first team in 23 years to win back-to-back World Series titles. The Yankees were the last to do so with a three-peat in 1998, 1999 and 2000. 

After his breakout postseason performance, expectations for Peña, who turned 25 three weeks before he slashed .345/.367/.638 in 13 playoff games, are markedly inflated. He is unfazed. 

“I don’t say it’s pressure. I don’t use that term,” Peña said. “Pressure is something you put on yourself, and for me it’s going out there and playing my game hard and giving it my all and letting the results take care of themselves.” 

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