Big Game James toes the rubber one last time

Rays legend honored to throw out first pitch on Opening Day

March 30th, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG -- James Shields took the mound on Opening Day eight times during his 13-year career, including four times with the Rays. But all that experience provided little comfort Wednesday as Shields began thinking about throwing out the first pitch on Thursday afternoon at Tropicana Field.

To be fair, this one wasn’t quite like the others.

For one, Shields trotted toward the mound seven minutes before Rays starter Shane McClanahan’s scheduled first pitch before a sold-out crowd. He was wearing a throwback Devil Rays jersey over his shirt, with his name and No. 33 on the back, not a full uniform. And Shields -- who said Wednesday that he hadn’t practiced or even thrown a baseball in at least four years -- threw the pitch from the rubber to his brother, who crouched in front of Fred Repke, the scout who signed him as Tampa Bay’s 16th-round pick in the 2000 MLB Draft.

This was a different kind of honor for Shields, one he greatly appreciated and one that seemed fitting as the Rays began celebrating their 25th anniversary season. With his parents, brother, wife, children and others watching, Shields -- the most influential pitcher in franchise history -- threw out the ceremonial pitch and symbolically retired as a Ray.

“It’s just a good honor, a cool honor. I’m stoked to be here. Especially Opening Day; that’s a special moment,” Shields said. “The Rays are my family. … Everyone’s always treated me with respect. I raised my kids here and the whole deal, so it’s a big deal for me.”

Shields was drafted by Tampa Bay, debuted for the then-Devil Rays in 2006 and led the resurgent Rays’ rotation from 2008 until he was traded after the ’12 season. He went on to pitch for the Royals, Padres and White Sox from 2013-18, but he will forever be linked to the Rays as their all-time leader in wins (87), starts (217), complete games (19), shutouts (eight), innings (1,454 2/3) and strikeouts (1,250).

Nicknamed “Big Game James,” a nod to James Worthy, Shields was the franchise’s first pitcher to win a postseason game and a World Series game, having earned those decisions in the 2008 playoffs. He left a lasting impact on generations of Rays pitchers through his legendary work ethic, leadership and practice of a phrase he passed along from his father, Jack: “If you don’t like it, pitch better.”

“We talk about Evan Longoria, as we should. We talk about Joe Maddon, as we should. James Shields was one of the guys that was actually part of the real transition of maybe not having much success and then being a big part of turning this organization around,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “I know his imprint on this organization has been pretty special.”

After visiting the Rays’ clubhouse before their workout on Wednesday, Shields said the trip to the Trop evoked “some chills” and “a ton of memories,” including some calls by late radio broadcaster Dave Wills. Shields was a key part of Tampa Bay’s worst-to-first turnaround in 2008, started 33 games for the 2010 AL East championship club and finished third in the AL Cy Young Award voting (thanks to a remarkable 11 complete games and four shutouts) when the club returned to the postseason in ’11.

The fact that the Rays have enough history to merit remembering this year is a thrill to Shields, especially considering the state of the franchise when he came aboard. But the right-hander was just as excited to talk about the current state of the club, including the ways it mirrors some of his best days with the team.

“We had a lot of special moments here. It was just an amazing thing. And the tradition that the Rays have continued since I’ve been here is just spectacular to watch. It’s a winning formula,” Shields said. “Cashy’s done a great job with the guys. It’s pitching and timely hitting, and that’s what it’s always been. That wins ballgames, and they’re constantly going to the playoffs, which is amazing to watch. Just super proud of them.”