James Shields of Tampa Bay Rays had to grind way to All-Star Game

Shields’ debut came little more than a year after his most uncertain moment.

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Shields’ debut came little more than a year after his most uncertain moment.

Some destinies are obvious. Some ballplayers are that blessed.

The left-handers. The flamethrowers. The guys stamped early with greatness and viewed forever with anticipation.

These are your first-round draft picks. Your Baseball America darlings. These are the majority of the players who will line the field during introductions at the All-Star Game on Tuesday evening.

Then there is James Shields.

The self-made All-Star. The blue-collar millionaire. The guy who saw 465 players selected ahead of him in the 2000 draft, and the guy who missed an entire minor-league season with a shoulder injury. The guy left off all of Tampa Bay's minor-league rosters in 2005, and the guy who took a step backward in 2010.

Today he makes his final start of the first half before taking off to Phoenix for the All-Star Game and the latest affirmation of a journey plotted by design rather than destiny.

"I wasn't a high draft pick. I wasn't on anybody's radar," Shields said. "I had to work my way through the entire organization. I had to outpitch all the first-rounders, I had to outpitch all the guys in front of me in order to get moved up.

"I had to put up the numbers, and I liked that because it was a challenge for me. I had all of these prospects ahead of me, and my goal was to outpitch them all. If I outpitched them, then no one could stop me.

"It's been a long road, no doubt about it. But I'm a grinder, man."

For a change, the grinder is being noticed. It has never been quite enough that Shields is one of the most durable pitchers in baseball, or that he has earned the only World Series win in franchise history. He has never gotten the acclaim of Scott Kazmir and never come close to a posed Sports Illustrated cover shot like David Price.

It has bothered him, truth be known. But it has bothered him in the right kind of way.

It is what drives Shields to spend offseasons working harder than almost anyone else. It is why, four days a week in the winter, he sets his alarm for 5 a.m. and spends a couple of hours in the gym before going to Tropicana Field at 9 for the regularly scheduled offseason workouts with Tampa Bay's other pitchers.

"He works his (butt) off," Rays trainer Ron Porterfield said. "I will vouch for that."

Some of this, no doubt, was instilled in him by his father, who had a construction business in California when Shields was growing up. Much of it was learned from his cousin Aaron Rowand, an 11-year veteran outfielder now with the Giants, who taught him that the best big leaguers are born in the sweat of the offseason.

But much of it was instilled by the Devil Rays, an inadvertent gift in the final days of an outgoing regime.

Shields had missed his second season of pro ball because of shoulder surgery in 2002, then was dogged by nerve damage in his shoulder in 2004.

By the time he went to spring training in '05, he had spent four seasons in the minor leagues and had only four starts above Class A. His lone shot at Double-A ended abruptly when Kazmir was acquired from the Mets, and Shields was shipped back to Class A Bakersfield to make room for the hot-shot lefty with the 95 mph fastball.

Shields thought he pitched well that spring, but when the rosters for Tampa Bay's minor-league teams were posted in the clubhouse, his name was nowhere to be found.

Not in Triple A. Not in Double A. Not even with the high Class A team. Shields had been relegated to extended spring training, a 23-year-old playing with high school draft picks and teenagers from Latin America.

He had a baby daughter, a crummy minor-league salary and no clue where his career was heading.

"That scared him. It scared me," his wife, Ryane, said. "Spring training is like the first days of school where everyone is excited about what classes they're going to get, and he finds out he's not going anywhere. It's hurtful. It hurts your ego. I could see it in him.

"I think it triggered something inside of him. It gave him that drive, gave him that push. That's really what changed his entire career."

As a 16th-round draft pick, Shields was someone in whom the Rays did not have a lot invested. And with the accumulation of injuries, they still weren't sure what type of pitcher he could be.

They weren't necessarily down on him. They just had no reason to believe in him.

Shields pitched well in extended spring. He said then-Tampa Bay player development director Cam Bonifay called to tell him he was going to Class A Visalia. Shields said he was adamant about not going back to the California League and offered to pitch out of the bullpen in Double A. One relief appearance later, he was in the starting rotation and finished the season with a 2.80 ERA. He was in the big leagues a year later.

"There comes a time in a career where a player has to self-evaluate and figure out where he is in his journey," Rays director of minor-league operations Mitch Lukevics said. "Jamie was always a good worker, but I think he would tell you himself that he wasn't the type of worker he is today. It took a while to figure that out, to become that consummate pro, and now he's reaping the benefits.

"He should be very proud of where he is today."

Today he is one of the finest pitchers in the American League. He corrected a tiny flaw in his mechanics with pitching coach Jim Hickey in the spring — Shields rocked too far back toward first base in his delivery, so his hips would swing too far in the other direction, causing his fastball to stay too high and flattening his breaking pitches — and he has shaved his ERA in half (5.18 to 2.47) from last season.

Shields, 29, has always been determined. He has always been confident. Beginning his sixth season in the big leagues, he believed it was time to master his craft. In a spring training meeting with manager Joe Maddon, Shields told him he was determined to throw more complete games in 2011.

"There were times last year where he obviously didn't trust me to finish games," Shields said of Maddon. "I basically told him this spring, 'Hey, you know I've always been a workhorse, I've always been the kind of guy that wanted the ball late in the game.' I basically told him this is what I want to do.

"He gave me the ball and said, 'Here, show me.' "

Shields enters today's game with the Yankees with a league-leading six complete games. Because he is starting in the final game of the first half, Shields is not eligible to pitch Tuesday in the All-Star Game.

That's a little disheartening, but he'll take the night off.

After all, he did all the work to get there.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

James Shields of Tampa Bay Rays had to grind way to All-Star Game 07/09/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 9, 2011 11:52pm]

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