Sunday, May 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Leaving Tampa Bay area difficult for former Rays pitcher James Shields

CLEARWATER

It's just stuff, really. Baseball jerseys, photos and newspaper pages tucked under glass. Silly-looking plastic figurines jammed into a few boxes. Dirty baseballs and scribbled-on scorecards. • A half-dozen empty champagne bottles. But as James Shields goes through the unexpected and uncomfortable process of packing up to leave the Tampa Bay area after spending the past dozen years in the Rays organization, he stops occasionally to muse that it's so much more — the remnants of the only life he has ever known. • "There's a lot of memories, so many memories, good memories," Shields said. "There's just a lot of stuff. It's amazing to sit here and think about how many years and how many things I've done. It's awesome."

Sad a bit, too. Amid the obligatory excitement Shields shares about joining the Royals thanks to the December trade, he admits there is pain in leaving, especially of someone else's volition.

"It's just bittersweet for me," he said.

"I've been in this organization for 12 years. I've formed a family here. That's the sad part about it. All the way down to Vinny (the Tropicana Field guard) in the parking lot. I've known a lot of people for a long time."

Shields was 18 and fresh out of a California high school when he showed up for his first instructional league camp. So while he has grown from a 16th-round draft pick to an All-Star and an ace, he also has grown up in the Tampa Bay area.

He and his wife, Ryane, bought their first house here, sent their oldest daughter to school here, had their second daughter here.

They also got heavily involved in charitable causes here, specifically to help foster children and the adoptive process, forming the Big Game James Club (which he said will remain in place at the Trop).

A move is hectic for any family with young kids, including a pro ball player with a $10 million salary. They've been packing for weeks, planning to sell the Clearwater house they had built four years ago and move to a new home base near San Diego, then figure out where James will live during spring training in Arizona and eventually get a house to rent for the season in Kansas City.

So when James, now 31, and Ryane took a break the other night, all they wanted was a quick bite at Carrabba's — but came home with much more.

"We had people passing us notes like we were in high school again," he said. "They didn't want to bother me at dinner, but they said they were going to miss me and that I've done a lot in this community.

"I think that's great. That's the stuff I'm going to miss. A lot of people say, 'Yeah, you did a great job. You're doing great with the team.' But what I'm most proud of is that a lot of people are going to miss me in the community and some of the things I've done."

Pitching in

The on-field accomplishments were pretty good, too. Shields leaves as the Rays' all-time leader with 87 wins (and 73 losses), 1,452? innings, 1,250 strikeouts, 217 starts and 19 complete games, and he struck out a team-record 15 in his last game in a Tampa Bay uniform.

He won the first playoff game in franchise history and has the only World Series victory. He enjoyed being one of the few players (along with Ben Zobrist and also-departed B.J. Upton and J.P. Howell) to survive wearing the green of the miserable Devil Rays days to be part of all of the recent success. He relished his role as the leader of a talented staff.

His legacy?

"I don't know," Shields said. "When I come back (with the Royals) in June, you never know, but I would hope I wouldn't get any boos. I guess my legacy, I feel like I've done a lot for this organization. I feel like I put my heart and soul into every single game. And I also put my heart and soul into the community."

Memory lane

Among Shields' prized possessions are his jerseys from the 2008 World Series and 2011 All-Star Game, balls from his first win and other milestone achievements, the Times front page showing him atop the '08 pennant-clinching celebration, a bottle from each champagne celebration, and, he figures, "every single giveaway the Rays have done since I've been here."

He has some stories, too.

Like his first day as a pro, after signing for $262,000, heading to the instructional league on a flight to Tampa so turbulent that passengers were told to brace with their heads between their knees, Shields wondering if he'd even make it.

Like seeking and not getting his release — thankfully, he admits now — in an April 2005 test of wills when then-farm director Cam Bonifay told him they didn't have a spot for him on any of their minor-league teams so he'd have to stay in extended spring.

Like the massive nervousness that overcame him on the eve of his long-awaited big-league debut in May 2006, how he couldn't sleep or eat and didn't know what was going on as he took the mound.

Like the residuals of the brawl he instigated with the Red Sox in June 2008 by admittedly throwing at Coco Crisp (in retaliation for a hard slide the previous night), then throwing a punch at the Boston outfielder when he charged the mound.

"I believe that was a huge turning point in how successful we were the last five years," Shields said. "We didn't take anything from anybody any longer. We didn't let anybody step on our face anymore."

Like the anxiety of the 2008 American League Championship Series with Boston, which he considers both the best and most nerve-wracking game he has been a part of.

Moving on

The Royals and Rays meet in Kansas City at the end of April and at the Trop in mid June, and Shields hopes it lines up for him to pitch, promising he won't try to claim it's just another game: "I'd go on record and say it right now — I want to beat them every time I play them."

He has already swapped texts with David Price and Evan Longoria (as well as Upton, whom he'll face in Atlanta), and he knows the volume will escalate as the series approach.

As exciting as the opportunity might be in Kansas City, where Shields is projected to be the opening day starter and expected to lead the Royals to the postseason for the first time since 1985, he knows a part of him always will be a Ray. And he wants to thank the team for giving him the opportunity, the staff for giving him the help he needed, and the fans for giving him the respect and admiration.

"It's a family," he said. "It's just family to me."

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]ay.com.

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