ST. PETERSBURG — James Shields made four opening day starts for the Rays, tied with Chris Archer for the most in team history.
Which made him an obvious — and most grateful — choice for ceremonial first pitch honors in Thursday’s opener to a season in which they celebrate much of their first 25 years.
“It’s amazing. The fact that the Rays are doing this, I mean, it’s so good,” Shields said Wednesday after a clubhouse visit.
“It’s a cool honor. I’m stoked to be here. Especially opening day, that’s a special moment. I was able to throw a few opening days here, so it’s definitely a good moment.”
Shields, 41, was drafted by the Rays in 2000 and made it to the majors in 2006. He pitched parts of seven seasons for them (until being traded to Kansas City in December 2012), and 13 overall, retiring after 2018 after also pitching for the Royals, Padres and White Sox.
He was a key part of the Rays’ transformation into contenders in 2008 with his performance, work ethic and leadership, and still holds the franchise records for starts (217), wins (87), losses (73), innings (1,454 2/3), strikeouts (1,250), complete games (19) and shutouts (eight). Shields also earned the Rays’ first World Series game win, and one of the cooler nicknames, “Big Game,” as a nod to his favorite basketball player, James Worthy.
In addition to throwing the first pitch, Shields will symbolically retire as a Ray, which he said was a great honor.
“The Rays are my family,” he said. “I’ve always had some love for Tampa Bay, all the fans, everybody here. All the clubhouse guys to you guys in the media, everyone’s always treated me with respect. I raised my kids here. So it’s a big deal.”
Shields said he had “a ton of memories” with the Rays — making a point to mention the recent passing of radio broadcaster Dave Wills — and was proud of what he did on the mound, and how they have sustained their success.
“We had a lot of special moments here; it was just an amazing thing,” he said. “And the tradition that the Rays have continued since I’ve been here, it’s just spectacular to watch. It’s a winning formula. (Manager Kevin) Cash has done a great job with the guys.
“It’s pitching and timely hitting and that’s what it’s always been. … That’s what wins ballgames. They’re constantly going to the playoffs, which is amazing to watch. I’m super proud of them. … It’s a family, and there’s not too many better organizations than the Rays.”
Shields will have his parents, wife, kids, brother and others on hand Thursday. In a cool touch, he will throw the pitch to the scout who signed him, 67-year-old Fred Repke, which gives him cover for not necessarily going up the mound to throw.
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How does the ceremonial honor compare to his previous Rays outings?
“I’m way more nervous for (Thursday),” Shields said. “I haven’t thrown a baseball in four or five years, and I didn’t practice. So this should be very interesting.”
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