Tampa Bay still holds memories for James Shields

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — James Shields’ transition was never difficult, just a little weird. He is clear to make the distinction. The Tampa Bay Rays were his home, his professional family, for seven major league seasons. Something was formed in that time.

Comfort, yes. A workhorse reputation, sure. But also a bond to a place and its people. Those ties never disappear, even if his uniform has become a deeper shade of blue.
 
On Thursday evening, Shields was back in the bowels of Tropicana Field, speaking about his former life with the Rays and a new one with the Kansas City Royals. The visit was his first to his former stadium since he was part of a blockbuster trade in December that sent him to a franchise searching to contend in the American League Central. He was among friends.

The setting provided intrigue, but his sensation was not completely unfamiliar. The odd pangs of facing his former team were felt the first time at Kauffman Stadium, where he allowed two runs and five hits and struck out seven in a Royals victory April 30. That was the start of moving on.

For Shields, this visit to the Bay Area is more about nostalgia than performance. Because of odd coincidence, he will not pitch in the four-game series. Clearly, that fact disappoints him.
 
Still, these days are necessary. They are part of the evolution for him, the Rays and the Royals. They are enjoyable. In some ways, though, they are also bittersweet.
 
“Being in the same organization for 12 years, you get accustomed to the same thing every year — going to spring training, seeing the same guys, seeing the same coaching staff,” Shields said. “Now, you’re the new guy. I’m 31 years old now. Now, I’m finally the new guy, and I’m not the old greybeard anymore.”
 
Since Shields left, it was known his departure would be a theme for this Rays season. He pitched no fewer than 203 1/3 innings in each of the past six years. He became a mentor to David Price, the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner. He grew into a face of a turnaround from the hopeless “Devil Rays” days to a more successful era.
 
Shields became a veteran voice. He matured into an example. That is his legacy here.
 
It is found in his memories (he called the World Series berth in 2008 his best), his influence (Price and left-hander Matt Moore speak about him with reverence) and his impact (the Rays played a tribute to him on the videoboard beyond right field Thursday that ended with the message, “THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES, JAMES”).  

“For me to get here and see James go about his business — he’s a beast,” Moore said. “He’s going to battle through a workout if he doesn’t want to. He’s going to use that as fuel. And to see how he goes out there in later innings was especially important for me to watch. It was especially important for me to get to see the way that he attacked late in a game.”

Part of why Shields was so popular here is that he achieved a rare balance. He was a grinder but also a giver. He set a standard for his peers but also inspired them to match him.

He was a competitor, fierce and relentless. Big Game was Big Time. He also approached his role with a deft touch.
 
“I really pride myself in helping each and every one of those guys over there,” Shields said. “No matter how good or bad I was doing, it didn’t matter. All I cared about was winning.”
 
He did plenty of it here with 87 victories in 217 starts. That is partly why he is gone. He became an asset, an innings-eater, someone who has continued that reputation in helping lead the Royals to the top of the American League in staff ERA (3.45 before Thursday).
 
The transition includes some glances back. On Wednesday night, Shields flew into the region with his wife, Ryane. They looked forward to seeing friends, Shields’ former teammates, their old Clearwater, Fla., neighborhood.
 
But something about the arrival felt … different. As his plane approached, Shields thought, “This is our home. It’s kind of weird.”
 
This season, that former home has never drifted far away. The move is too recent.
 
Price still texts him, asking for leadership advice. Before the game Thursday, Shields stood in the batter’s box for warm-up pitches in Price’s simulated game. Shields chatted with Rays manager Joe Maddon, hugged designated hitter Luke Scott during batting practice. Shortly before the game, Shields struck up a conversation with a Rays employee in a concourse near the Royals clubhouse.

“What’s up, dude?” Shields said.
 
“Did you miss home?” the man said.
 
“Yeah, I miss it.”
 
“It is strange seeing that different blue over there,” Maddon said a little later. “I told him just enjoy your four days here. … Enjoy the family. Enjoy the vacation here at home. But he’s pitching well for them.”
 
The transition continues, but Shields’ memories linger. During the Rays’ video tribute, midway through the second inning, slow applause from the crowd built with time. He stepped from the Royals’ dugout and turned toward the stands. Fans stood. He waved and patted his heart.
 
This place, this former home, will never be distant from it.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford

or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.