Big Game James
By Steve Hunt
Like many big leaguers, James Shields was exposed to baseball at a young age. After all, he had two older brothers who played the game, and his father had also spent much of his youth on a diamond.
Those early days in baseball are ones the 30-year-old Tampa Bay starter remembers well.
“There was a ton of friendly competition, almost too much,” Shields said. “Growing up, my mom and dad didn’t want us to play video games too much, just get outside. The only thing we had was baseball, and I had two older brothers.”
Besides his time spent playing baseball, he also watched lots of Dodger games, both on TV and also occasionally in person at Dodger Stadium. He especially liked seeing Roger Clemens pitch but also saw video of Dodger greats like Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax.
However, it was those trips to Dodger Stadium that rank as some of the most memorable experiences of his childhood.
“Never went to an Angel game when I was younger,” Shields said. “Didn’t really get a chance to get on that side of the town, but we went to a couple of Dodger games growing up.”
Growing up, many big-league pitchers played other positions, and Shields was no different. Even though he dabbled at other spots on the diamond, he had a pretty good idea early on that being on the mound was where he wanted to be more than anywhere else.
“For the most part I’ve always been a pitcher,” Shields said. “I threw pretty hard when I was younger. They threw me out on the mound. I didn’t really care about pitching when I was younger. I just went out there and threw fastballs. But when I was in high school, I didn’t realize I was a decent pitcher until my sophomore year. I always just played the game. I caught, played shortstop, played first.”
Playing for Hart High School in Newhall, California, he pitched at Angels Stadium on several occasions during the playoffs, and he’s started five games there as a Rays starter.
Shields has yet to take the mound at Dodger Stadium, though. The Rays played a short series there during interleague play in 2007, but Shields had pitched the day before the series started in Arizona and never got a chance to toe the rubber in the same ballpark he had visited as a fan.
“I’ve never played there (Dodger Stadium) and never pitched there,” Shields said. “That would be amazing. My high school, we played our championship game in Anaheim at Edison Field. They called it Edison Field back then. It was pretty special because we got to use the visiting clubhouse, locker room and that whole deal. Yeah, it’d be real special to me (to pitch at Dodger Stadium one day) just because I grew up a Dodger fan.”
One thing Shields has done is win a World Series game, the only pitcher in Rays history to do so. That landmark achievement came in the 2008 Fall Classic when he was the winning pitcher in a 4-2 win over the Phillies in Game Two.
“To be able to get a win in the World Series, that’s every kid’s dream growing up,” he said. “I only got a chance to pitch one time, but just that experience of being in the World Series is the best feeling. It’s where every player wants to be.”
Shields’ performances in crucial games have even earned him the nickname Big Game James, a label he remembers first hearing in the minors.
“A kid in the minor leagues, Chris Flynn, he loved James Worthy,” Shields said. “He went to NC (University of North Carolina) and he was a Laker fan, so next thing you know he started calling me Big Game James (Worthy’s nickname … I think it’s cool. I think it’s cool as long as you’re not giving yourself the nickname.”
With baseball still booming in Tampa Bay, it’s only a matter of time till Big Game James returns to the bright lights of the MLB Playoffs.