In the Santa Clarita Valley, a sprawling swath of Southern California suburbia, they still talk about the best high school baseball game they ever saw. It happened nearly 13 years ago, but Jim Ozella, the baseball coach at Hart High School, still keeps the scorebook numbers just a few clicks away on his computer.
By RUSTIN DODD
The Kansas City Star
There was a first-round draft pick on the mound and a future NFL quarterback playing shortstop. But the teachers and coaches at Hart mostly remember the 18-year-old pitcher everybody knew as Jamie.
He not only helped win a state championship as a junior but also impressed his art teacher with his drawing skills during morning classes. He was the type of kid, Ozella says, who just wanted to win.
On that day in Santa Clarita, the Hart Indians were playing Centennial-Corona and star left-hander Mike Stodolka in the state quarterfinals. Ozella called on Jamie Shields in the middle innings. He had battled back issues for most of the season and pitched Hart to a playoff victory the previous night. But the ball needed to be in Shields hand again.
It was a big-game situation, Ozella says now.
Pitch after pitch, inning after inning, the two prep phenoms went toe to toe. At one point, with the score tied 4-4, Shields escaped a bases-loaded jam with a 3-2 slider. He finished two for five at the plate and allowed one hit in four innings. Stodolka exited after eight. Centennial beat Hart in the 11th inning when Matt Moore, now of the Miami Dolphins, misplayed a ball in short left field.
Shields was heartbroken. But life and baseball would go on. A few weeks later, in early June, the Royals selected Stodolka with the No. 4 overall pick, a potential ace on his way to the big leagues.
Shields waited until the 16th round, when Tampa Bay drafted him 466th overall.
From that point on, he was mostly known as James.
If youre a baseball fan in Kansas City, you probably know the story of Mike Stodolka. Like so many other young starters, the potential never surfaced. He scuffled in the minors. Decided to become a hitter. And that was that.
If youre a baseball fan in Kansas City, you may just be learning about James Shields.
Last Sunday night, the Royals shook up the major leagues by acquiring Shields who turns 31 on Thursday and right-handed pitcher Wade Davis, 27, from the Tampa Bay Rays in a seven-player blockbuster deal. The two arms came at a premium price.
The Royals handed over consensus minor-league player of the year Wil Myers, 22, a power-hitting outfielder; top pitching prospect Jake Odorizzi, 22; former top pitching prospect Mike Montgomery, 23; and minor-league third baseman Patrick Leonard, 20. Tampa Bay will also send a player to be determined in the deal.
The gambit comes with risk, of course. The Royals exchanged the promise of prospects for the instant gratification of a 30-something frontline starter.
Shields is just part of the Royals remade starting rotation. They also acquired right-hander Ervin Santana from the Angels and re-signed right-hander Jeremy Guthrie to a three-year deal this offseason.
But so much of the burden will fall on Shields, a veteran with one turnaround story a worst-to-first run in Tampa Bay on his resume.
Sometimes its as easy as getting one player thats been through it, Royals manager Ned Yost says.
Those who know Shields say he embodies the intangibles leadership, integrity, passion that the Royals covet.
A lot of the motivation, says Davis, a longtime teammate in Tampa Bay, comes from him and what he brings to the table.
When James Shields was a senior in high school, a math teacher at Hart High School named David Montgomery took his 10-year-old son, Michael, to meet Shields for a personal hitting lesson.
Montgomery had taught Shields ninth-grade algebra, and as far back as he could remember, the kid seemed determined to make baseball his life. Shields had older brothers who played, and his cousin, Aaron Rowand, was about to make his major-league debut as a Chicago White Sox outfielder.
In the afternoons, fellow Hart students would often see Shields heading to the football field for long-toss, using the yard lines to mark the distance. At night, Shields would head to his part-time job at the local batting cage.
All the Little League teams would go see him, David Montgomery says.
One day after some tutelage from Shields, Michael hit his first home run.
In Santa Clarita, the Shields stories are now legend. Heres another one: In 2002, when Shields underwent major shoulder surgery as a Rays minor-leaguer, he needed an equalizer to make up for the lost velocity. So Shields went into the backyard with his brother, messing around with change-up grips until he found the right one.
By 2007, his breakout season with the Rays, the change-up had become his signature.
That is his pitch; thats his baby, says former Royals pitcher Brian Anderson, who was an assistant pitching coach for Tampa Bay in 2008 and 2009.
Everybody knows it, but theres nothing they can do about it.
When Anderson arrived in Tampa Bay in 2008, the Rays had suffered through 10 straight seasons of at least 90 losses, including 96 the year before. For years, the most hopeless franchise in baseball had played in a depressing warehouse of a stadium called Tropicana Field. But Shields, still just 26, was emerging as the leader of a young pitching staff.
Hed posted a 3.85 ERA in 2007, and then followed that with a 14-8 record and 3.56 ERA in 2008 as the Rays won 97 games and the American League pennant. The Rays called him Big Game James.
We developed a chemistry from 07 to 08, Shields says.
Anderson remembers one day, when Shields showed up to the clubhouse with a stack of NFL jerseys for his teammates, personalized for every players favorite team. A small gesture, Anderson says, but something Shields did just because.
Davis, who debuted with Tampa Bay in 2009, remembers yearly meetings with Shields during spring training. Shields would verbalize everything the Rays pitching staff needed to do that season. And his work ethic rubbed off on Tampa Bays young corps of arms. Those Tampa Bay staffs were always close-knit, Anderson says, and thats mostly because of Shields.
If there was a fight, Shields was the type of guy who wouldnt back down. If a Tampa Bay pitcher needed to hear something, Shields was generally the guy who would deliver the message.
We wanted to look back and say we were one of the big reasons that we won games, Davis says.
Earlier this week, David Montgomery picked up a phone and got word that his former student had been traded to the Royals. In most cases, it would have piqued his interest. But this was no normal trade.
Montgomerys son, drafted by the Royals in 2008 and now one of their best prospects, had just been traded for his former student. As David Montgomery digested the deal, though, it felt right. If a team would give up James Shields for a package that included his son, he could feel a little pride in that.
Hes every bit as advertised a person, he says of Shields. Hell just show up and give it his all.
In the last five years, only four major-league pitchers have thrown more innings than James Shields 1,115. Only five have thrown more complete games than his 17. And only 10 have struck out more batters. In the last three seasons, Shields has had a better ERA (3.76) than Zack Greinke (3.83) and his $147 million deal from the Los Angeles Dodgers.
In baseball terms, Shields is a rare commodity an innings-eater with swing-and-miss stuff; a rotation anchor with a competitive drive that may exceed his talent level.
Weve known that weve matched up with Tampa for over a year now, Royals general manager Dayton Moore says.
To make the deal work, Moore says, the Royals asked for Davis. And on late Sunday night, the Royals had officially landed two-fifths of their starting rotation for four prospects. The instant reaction to the deal was divisive, bordering on vitriolic. Were Shields and Davis really worth the price? Shields, who is under contract for roughly $10 million in 2013 with a $13.5 million team option for 2014, says he hasnt paid much attention.
Im not much of a computer guy anyway, Shields says
Still, there are concerns. Shields, now on the wrong side of 30, has averaged more than 226 innings during his last three seasons, a notable amount of stress on his joints and ligaments. Royals officials say they see the innings as a sign of durability.
Other numbers suggest that Shields may be a few notches below ace level. In the last five years, among pitchers who have thrown at least 750 innings, Shields ERA (3.79) ranks 30th in the majors. And then theres the home-road splits. In seven seasons, Shields ERA at home (3.33) has been more than a run better than on the road (4.54). Why? Shields isnt quite sure.
There really is no reason, Shields says.
Maybe. And the home-road issue may also be little overblown, according to a study done by a stats-centric website, FanGraphs.com. For most of his career, Shields has been a fly-ball pitcher who occasionally gave up a lot of home runs. That combination often turned sour when Shields visited the smallish ballparks (Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, Camden Yards) in the American League East.
Now, Shields comes to the American League Central an environment more suited to his talents. If Shields benefitted from pitching home games at Tropicana Field, he can probably expect the same at Kauffman Stadium, a spacious park with deep power alleys.
I go game to game, Shields says. I dont really worry about whether its a road game or a home game. I just go out there to win.
On Wednesday morning in Kansas City, James Shields strolled into Kauffman Stadium for his first public appearance as a Royal. He wore a dark blue suit and a light blue shirt, a scruffy beard on his cheeks and an air of confidence on his face.
I guess I got this.
The bottom line, Shields says, is this team really reminds me of that transformation (in Tampa Bay). The Royals are right on the brink of really becoming successful.
Shields sees a rotation that pushes each other to be better. Moore envisions Shields battling for the Cy Young while pitching in front of one of the leagues best defenses. And Yost sees his young core of position players, arriving at the ballpark with a different vibe, knowing that they have a chance.
The culture has to be created now, Moore says. You cant just wait, Well we got two or three years left of this window, and then hope an opportunity like this comes along or hope everybody stays healthy.
I just think its important that we begin to start trying to win every single year.
But if theres a number that will define this trade, and Shields tenure in Kansas City, it will mostly certainly be found in the win column. Here, of course, we can stop and point out that the Royals havent played a postseason game in 27 years, a lifetime for so many of their young fans.
But if they do, if the fever breaks, if the time finally comes, all history be damned, the Royals now have a pitcher to send to the mound.
Thats the kind of culture, Shields says, Ive always been accustomed to and I want to create here.
To reach Rustin Dodd, call 816-234-4937 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/rustindodd.