Cliff Pennington is Texas through and through.
Born in Corpus Christi, the MLB veteran attended Texas A&M before getting drafted in the first round in 2005. After spending most of his 14-year career with teams based in California, he returned to the Lone Star State with the Express.
“It’s been fun getting to play close to home and be able to have friends and family come out,” Pennington said. “It’s always a lot of fun. The Rangers gave me the chance to play here. It’s been a lot of fun with great guys and the staff has been great to me and my family.”
The biggest difference about this season for Pennington is that he didn’t spend most of it in the big leagues. Since he was first called up late in the season in 2008, he’s played at least 60 major league games in every season before this year.
He started the year with Cincinnati, playing 16 games for the Reds before signing with the Texas organization on May 18 and joining the Express.
Pennington isn’t the loudest person in the Round Rock clubhouse, and his leadership style reflects that. He has more big league experience than nearly every player in the room and focuses on building trust.
“It’s all about building relationships,” he said. That way you can talk to somebody honestly when they’re not right or need some help. I don’t prefer to just come in and yell at them from the beginning.”
Pennington has nearly 2,800 at-bats in the majors and he has a 36 home runs, 242 RBIs and 84 stolen bases in his big league career.
But it’s his defense that stands out. He’s one of the most consistent infielders on the Express, committing just four errors this season. In his most productive MLB season in 2010, he ranked sixth in defensive wins above replacement, fourth in putouts and second in assists.
“I almost enjoy taking a hit away from somebody as much as I do getting one,” Pennington said. “I just enjoy playing defense. It’s just like any other part of the game, you’ve just got to continue to work at it and not take it for granted.”
He fondly recalls the high school rivalries in Corpus between Corpus Christi Kind and Calallen in front of thousands of fans at Cabaniss Field. Now a Houston resident, he saw his new Texas community just over a year ago when Hurricane Harvey devastated the city.
“I had a couple family members that were affected by it and I had a lot of friends,” he said. “We’re still recovering. But you got to see the city of Houston come together and see neighbors help each other. It turned out to be one of the most incredible things that I’ve seen from a community standpoint.”
The goal of every Triple-A players is to get the call to the big leagues, and Pennington remembers when he got the call for the first time in 2008.
Normally the everyday shortstop, he spent two straight games at third base. He got slightly better, but was still confused why he was being instructed to switch until the manager came to him after the second game and told him he’d starting there for the A’s the following day.
He didn’t get a hit in his major league debut, but he said it was special to see all the work he put in throughout his baseball career pay off.
The 34-year-old isn’t ready to be done playing baseball, but when he does, he plan is to go back to Texas A&M and finish up his degree and get into coaching.
Pennington doesn’t know anything else.
“My dad had a ball in my hand as soon as I was born,” he said. "By the time I could remember, I was years into the game. I’ve always loved the game and I still do. It’s been a good sport for me and my family.”