Ultimately, first baseman Carlos Pena's decision to return to the Rays as a free agent after one season with the Cubs didn't come down to money.

"At the end of it all," he said, "it gets to the point where you say to yourself, 'What do you want to do? Where are you going to be happy?'"

Pena said he has "so many great memories [with Tampa Bay], and I look forward to creating some new ones and even better ones. This is where I belong. This is where I want to be."

In four seasons with the Rays before leaving as a free agent, Pena averaged a club-leading 36 home runs and 102 RBIs. He and third baseman Evan Longoria, each among the best fielders at his position, were pivotal in the Rays' run to the 2008 World Series.

"I have so many emotional ties with this club that it was a no-brainer," Pena said. "There's something special you can't put a dollar amount on."

He split his first six Major League seasons with the Rangers, Athletics, Tigers and Red Sox, averaging barely 14 home runs a year, before joining the then-Devil Rays in 2007.

His 46 homers that year, fourth best in the Majors, and 121 runs batted in earned him the American League Comeback Player of the Year Award. Two years later, he was a first-time All-Star.

When the Rays slashed their 2011 payroll, Pena became expendable. The Cubs signed him, and he hit a team-high 28 homers and third-best 80 RBIs. Meanwhile, Rays first baseman Casey Kotchman had 10 homers and 48 RBIs.

The Rays began scouting the field and, as the possibility of getting Pena back became apparent, Rays president Matt Silverman said, "We pounced on that opportunity," blowing up their budget limitations to get him, "in part, because of who Carlos is, who we know he is as a clubhouse presence, as a leader, and a fan favorite, but mostly about the play on the field.

"He adds a dimension of power to our lineup that we were missing last year, and we don't take a step back on defense."

Pena said he might have asked his agent, Scott Boras, to call the Rays if they hadn't been interested. But the Rays called first. Still, he said, it wasn't until a few weeks ago that he realized he might return to Tampa Bay.

"I've always said there's a certain magic that goes around here in Tampa. You can't express it in numbers except when you see those banners in April, when we open up. That's when you see the magic has materialized. There it is."

There were other pursuers for Pena's services, including the Tigers, for whom he played from 2002-05, and who were looking to fill the void left by DH Victor Martinez, out for the year with a torn ACL.

That, and the free-agent signing of another left-handed bat -- projected DH Luke Scott for $6 million -- contributed to the Rays' expanding their projected 2011 payroll of about $41 million to well beyond $60 million.

When the ink was on the new contract, Pena said he called his family, including younger brother Pedro in Minnesota.

"He texted me, 'Best decision you ever made.' And I said, 'Indeed.'"

Bruce Lowitt is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla.