Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays, Bucs, Lightning have great examples of leadership

At the time, the Rays were in need of a little leadership.

If you remember, they were new to this thing called success. They were on the road. They were behind in the game.

And so they looked to James Shields.

Who promptly threw a baseball right into the leg of a Boston outfielder named Coco Crisp.

For all the games he won, for all the moments he had, this was one of those when Shields became a man of respect in the Rays clubhouse. His teammates needed protecting, and in the time-honored tradition of the game, he did it.

It didn't matter that Crisp charged the mound. And it didn't matter that Shields tried to plunk Crisp with his right fist as well. And it didn't matter that both players were ejected from a game the Rays eventually lost. The ensuing debate over whether Shields should have waited for another time, or whether a pitcher should throw at a hitter at all, didn't matter, either.

What mattered was the Rays needed a sheriff and Shields was willing to stand up.

Above all, this is what the Rays will miss about Shields, who was traded this past week to the Kansas City Royals. He never backed away from leadership. He was the guy who was there at the crack of dawn on the first day of spring training. He was the guy who was in the corner being accountable after good games and bad. As fellow pitcher J.P. Howell once said, the Rays clubhouse belonged to Shields. Everyone else was just visiting.

As Shields leaves, and as the Rays attempt to fill his void, it invites discussion about leadership. What is it? Why is it so important? And has any area had as many leaders as Tampa Bay over the past decade?

There has never been a great team that didn't have great leadership in some form. It can be loud, it can be quiet, and it can be profane. It can come by example and by instruction and sometimes by confrontation.

It can be Dave Andreychuk or Derrick Brooks or Troy Percival. It can be Marty St. Louis or Hardy Nickerson or Cliff Floyd. It can be Tim Taylor or John Lynch or Eric Hinske. All of them helped change a culture. All of them helped a team win a championship.

"I don't think leadership is about one guy,'' Andreychuk said. "It's leading by committee. In our case, it's about someone who is willing to listen to each guy. You have to listen to your teammate and still be able to put pressure on them to perform. With some guys, maybe that's done by yelling and screaming. But I think leaders have to instill the internal pressure to succeed.''

Few have done it as well as Andreychuk, the captain of the Lightning's 2004 Stanley Cup-winning team.

It was Andreychuk, remember, who was the go-between in the early days of the John Tortorella-Vinny Lecavalier feud. To Tortorella he tried to explain what drove Lecavalier. To Lecavalier he tried to explain what Tortorella was looking for from him.

Then came the Pittsburgh game in November 2003 when Lecavalier scored a hat trick. Symbolically, Andreychuk took the helmet from his head and dropped it on the ice in salute. "We're with you,'' Andreychuk was saying. "That's what we want.''

Another story: After a 6-2 loss to the Islanders in 2003, reporters were stunned to walk into the Lightning locker room and find every player sitting in front of his locker, ready to answer questions. Andreychuk had told them to be there to be accountable for the way they had played.

Brooks always showed up. There was a reason his Bucs teammates called him the "Godfather." There have been louder players, and more showy players, but you didn't have to be around football much to know how important leadership was to Brooks.

Take the December 2002 game against the Falcons. Quarterback Michael Vick had spent two months looking unstoppable.

"He's been hot for eight weeks,'' Brooks said to teammate Warren Sapp that week. "We've been hot for eight years.''

Then came Sunday and Brooks was on Vick like body sweat. He had 10 tackles by halftime.

He also led the team in quiet. Even after that game, he didn't have a lot to say. But he did give people a glimpse into his role on those Bucs teams:

"When we get together,'' he said then, "the other players know who the leader is. They know where to come to get their fire.''

When Joe Maddon joined the Rays in 2006, one of the first things he saw was a lack of leadership. That changed when the team signed Floyd, Hinske and Percival before the 2008 season.

Every morning Percival would canvas the room, coffee in hand, and talk to every pitcher on the staff. He once sat down with pitching coach Jim Hickey and diagrammed how the Rays — who had never won more than 70 games in a season — could win 90. Sure enough, they won 97.

There have been others. There was the Rays' Evan Longoria, the day he fussed at B.J. Upton in the dugout. There was the Bucs' Nickerson, the day he threatened to fight fellow linebacker Keith McCants in the weight room.

There was the Rays' Carlos Peña, gathering the players before Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, telling them not to let the moment awe them. There was St. Louis the day he stood in front of the Lightning's locker room before a playoff game against the Islanders.

"Some people are born leaders,'' St. Louis said. "Some people grow into it. When you're a younger player, the only way to lead is by the way you play.''

The Bucs still have Ronde Barber, and Gerald McCoy has leadership qualities. The Lightning, assuming it plays again, has St. Louis, and Steven Stamkos has the sound of a leader. The Rays have Longoria and David Price.

If you are a young athlete in Tampa Bay, these are the athletes to emulate.

Follow them, and they will lead you places.

Listen to Gary Shelton weekdays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. on 98.7-FM the Fan.

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