ST. PETERSBURG — He has traveled a long road through baseball, facing his share of detours and disappointments.
But James Shields has forged on with the same determination and inner fire he developed as the youngest of three highly competitive brothers in Southern California.
He has persevered with the same passion for a challenge that he had in high school — honored as the best Los Angeles area baseball player in his junior year, plummeting in the draft after a season-long back injury as a senior, then getting back on track toward a dream.
Today, the journey leads to a moment in history for a player, a ballclub and a community.
In his third season with the Tampa Bay Rays, the 26-year-old right-hander will head to the mound inside Tropicana Field today at 2:30 p.m. and pitch the first playoff game in the franchise's 11 years.
"Whatever happens is going to happen," he said. "All I know is that I'm going to leave my arm out on the field.
"That's what I do."
It is an improbable storyline to say the least.
The Rays' first winning season after a decade of dismal losing campaigns has vaulted them to the American League East title and the Division Series opener against the Chicago White Sox. And it will be the first time Shields has ever attended a major league playoff game — let alone occupy the spotlight.
"I've never been as a fan, never been to a playoff game period," he said, minutes after being named the first-round round starter by manager Joe Maddon. "My brother actually called me last night and said, "I'm glad I get to my first playoff game ever and the amazing part is I get to see my brother pitch in it.' It's something very, very special to me and my family. And I'm going to try to do my best."
For Shields, 14-8 with 3.56 ERA, there's never been a question about that. As a little boy known as Jamie — a nickname his family still calls him today — he constantly wanted to prove he could keep up with older brothers Jason and Jeremy.
"When they were all young, the other boys would be out in the yard playing home run derby, and Jamie would want to join them at 5 years old," recalled his father Jack by phone this week. 'They just teased him and wouldn't let him play, and said, "You can't do this, you can't do that.' But he would still do everything he could to part of what they were involved with. You couldn't keep him away. It didn't matter how he was performing — he was out there just fighting, trying to rise to the occasion."
"A lot of that became the basis of his competitiveness," added his mother, Cindy. "They made sure he knew he had to work hard to keep up with them."
The family basically lived on youth baseball fields year round, with all three boys excelling at the game. But the little brother with the big desire to achieve soon began making a mark — also inspired by his older cousin, Aaron Rowand, now an outfielder for the Giants.
Playing for William S. Hart High School, Shields had a junior year to remember in 1999. He led the school to the Division II title by going 11-0 with a 2.35 ERA and striking 123 batters in 71 innings, along with a .478 batting average with 11 home runs, a school record at the time.
The honors poured in — the Southern Section's Division II Player of the Year, the Los Angeles Times' Valley Player of the Year, and touted as one of the top high school prospects in the nation. Shields credits his high school coach, Bud Murray — a former minor league pitcher in the Brooklyn Dodgers system — with helping develop his pitching ability and knowledge of the game. Murray knew there was something about his star player.
"I remember him being one of the nicest, most humble people I knew, but underneath all that there was a lot of fire and competitiveness," he said by phone. "If he got pushed in the corner, you were gonna have a fight. That was Jamie."
But then came a major setback. Shields suffered a strained back before the start of his senior season. The pain robbed him of his effectiveness and forced him to sit out three-fourths of the season. Shields tried to come back early, wearing a back brace. "He'd come home and have spasms after he pitched," Cindy said. "But you couldn't keep him off the field."
After the torment of his senior year, the player who had been ranked as the No. 16 prospect in the country by Baseball America found himself falling in the 2000 major league draft to the 16th round, selected by Tampa Bay.
"You've got to learn to deal with adversity," Shields said. "No matter what sport you're in, or where you are in life, you have to learn to handle it. And how you deal with that adversity dictates how you're going to succeed."
Shields would experience more health problems in the minors.
He missed the entire 2002 season recovering from surgery on his right shoulder. In 2004 — after throwing out the first pitch in Class AA Montgomery Biscuits history on opening day — he developed tendinitis in his right shoulder and wound up on the disabled list. "There were a lot of people who doubted me, a lot," he said. "I was nearly released from this team. But I kept striving and showing what I had."
Rays minor league pitching coach Dick Bosman coached Shields during his climb to the majors and was an early believer.
"Even when I had him in (Class A) Hudson Valley in 2001, the kid had all the basic ingredients you'd like to have," he said. "He had a change-up, was competitive and threw it over the plate."
When they crossed paths again in '04, Bosman could tell Shields was barely able to hold his own due to his sore arm and eventually sent him back to Class A.
"James was really disappointed, but it's part of the game," Bosman said. Eventually, Shields was sent home to L.A. in hopes the arm would heal on its own. It did. He worked hard during the winter and came back strong in 2005 with Montgomery, earning Pitcher of the Year honors and a promotion to Triple-A Durham.
"When he showed up in '06, he was on a mission — you could see it," Bosman said. "He came in throwing at the knees, with something on it. He was going to make an impression and be one of those guys to get the call in the summer. And he did that."
The 6-4, 214-pounder became the first Tampa Bay pitcher to begin his career 4-0, eventually finishing 6-8 with a 4.84 ERA. In 2007, Shields improved to 12-8 with a 3.85 ERA. And this season, he established himself as the take-charge member of the staff. "He's a leader," said Bosman. "He's a guy who wants the ball when the game's on the line."
Shields agrees: "That's my M.O. That's what I like to do. If I get the opportunity to get the ball, I want the ball. My dad's always taught me that. I'm from L.A. and guys like Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale wanted the ball. That's the only way I know how to pitch."
When he does so today in his landmark start, the Shields family will be cheering from the stands, looking at the mound and undoubtedly remembering a little boy with the fire in his eyes.