KANSAS CITY, Mo. – They’re not ranting anymore, those once haters of the Royals’ blockbuster James Shields’ trade last December.
The sports talk-show hosts, the fan bloggers, and the statistical worshippers who all but proclaimed the Shields’ trade the “death of the Royals organization,” have now put down their pitchforks and torches.
In fact, the haters seem to have quietly and secretly slipped into the pro-Shields faction, like a flip-flopping politician goose-stepping his position toward whatever the latest poll suggests.
As one Kansas City sports talker who originally applauded the trade said recently, “Where’s all the outrage over the trade now? Everybody acts like they loved it from the start.”
Of course that wasn’t the case when Royals general manager Dayton Moore pulled the trigger on shipping his top prospect, outfielder Wil Myers, and others to Tampa Bay for Shields, Wade Davis and Elliot Johnson.
The overwhelming reaction back then was pure ire, an across-the-board anger almost matching the fury unleashed from the infamous Bret Saberhagen trade over 20 years earlier.
Indeed, the critics threw up their arms in disgust and announced that the Royals had laid waste to their future (Myers) just to get one decent starter (Shields) who probably was past his prime.
Yet Myers, whom some wrongly believed would be a superstar this season, didn’t even make the Rays’ big-league roster out of spring (and he wouldn’t have made the Royals’ roster, either). And Myers’ super highway to stardom has been slowed a bit at Triple-A Durham (N.C.), where he is hitting a rather pedestrian .275 right now with just three homers.
This is not to say Myers won’t end up a star someday. The Royals drafted him, developed him, switched his position from catcher to outfield, demonstrated patience throughout his minor-league struggles, and always have remained convinced he would end up a highly-productive player in the bigs.
But the Royals and Moore needed to make an impact now, needed a competitive team now, and they got that instantly with the Shields’ trade.
The results have been immediate. The Royals are pushing the mighty Detroit Tigers in the Central, a whole city is embracing the team again, and the record-breaking television ratings on Fox Sports Kansas City are proof of the latter.
And there seems little doubt the catalyst behind all this is Big Game James Shields.
Turns out, Moore and his scouts were right about Shields all along, not just because of what Shields can do on the hill (2-2, 2.52 ERA), but also what he can do inside the Royals’ clubhouse and inside his teammates’ heads.
On the field, Shields is a pit bull who will bite, scratch, kick, spit, growl or whatever it takes to get a win. His body language is almost mesmerizing: He fights his way out of his jams, then pounds his glove into his chest and delivers a defiant shoulder shake as he struts off the mound and strides back to the dugout.
Shields’ teammates can’t help but pick up on that energy.
“You see that,” teammate Jeremy Guthrie said, “and you see how competitive he is, and you don’t want to be the guy who ever lets down or ever lets your teammates down.”
Shields’ will to win is evident all the time.
“He’s the most important guy in the clubhouse,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “He’s won at this level and he gets everyone involved. You see it everyday.”
“Leader” may be the most overworked term in sports, but it has been barely whispered inside Kauffman Stadium for decades.
But it was a term that popped up throughout the written scouting reports on Shields delivered to Moore last fall.
“We knew that was the type of player he was,” Moore said. “And here’s the thing about James: It’s always unique when you have your best player also be your most competitive player. You don’t see that very often.
“I think back to the Royals when I was growing up and I think about George Brett. He was the same way – he was the best player and he was the most competitive player on the team. That demands your attention if you’re a teammate.”
And that is the type of player Moore coveted for his clubhouse, though Shields insists nothing he does is contrived.
“I don’t consciously try to be a leader,” Shields said. “But I guess it’s part of my personality to do the things I do. It just happens.”
Several Royals teammates have commented already this spring that they were surprised at how active Shields has been in the clubhouse. He visits with everyone, engages with them, and wants to get to know them.
“But that’s who James is,” said Johnson, long-time teammate of Shield’s in Tampa Bay. “He’s a down to earth guy. Players respect him for his talent but they also respect him for who he is. He knows that winning starts with being great teammates.”
Royals manager Ned Yost said he saw similar leadership qualities from guys like Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine when he was a coach with Atlanta in the 1990s.
“Guys like that and guys like James invest in their team and their teammates,” Yost said. “They know that’s what it takes to win. And winning is the only thing that matters to them.”
And now Royals fans are investing in the team again, and a trade once maligned may wind up turning around a franchise.