By Pete Williams
It was a Thursday morning last December about the time when a different member of the Tampa Bay Rays seemed to depart each day.
Matt Garza. Gone. Carlos Pena. Gone. Jason Bartlett. Gone. Carl Crawford. Gone. Entire Rays bullpen. Gone.
Still dark outside at 6:15 a.m, there were only a dozen people in the gym, including a tall bearded guy in his late 20s hammering through a workout. I worked on a cable machine, chopping and lifting, catching a glance at ESPN between sets. The volume was down, but it was easy to follow the familiar commentary. The Rays run was likely over. No way could they compete with the Red Sox and Yankees, though they still had Evan Longoria and David Price, along with some up-and-coming pitchers. Maybe B.J. Upton could finally put it together and the Rays could compete for third place in 2011.
I looked around the gym, which like the prospects for the 2011 Rays had gone downhill. Other glitzier facilities had opened. Paint was peeling, equipment rusting. Dumbbells were chipped and there were waterspots on the ceiling. A few years earlier, the gym was a hot spot, a meat market with steroid freaks and figure models prancing around. One cheesy meathead looked like a dead ringer for Ben Stiller’s character in “Dodgeball.”
Now White Goodman and the rest of the gang had departed to new Globo Gyms, leaving a few loyal members of this North Pinellas “Average Joe’s,” including the tall guy who could train wherever he wanted.
“Excuse me,” James Shields said to me. “Do you mind if I work in?”
I stepped aside. Shields had become a regular at Average Joe’s following the worst season of his career, leading American League pitchers in hits, earned runs, and home runs allowed, a dubious triple crown. His nickname – “Big Game James” – seemed anything but appropriate.
Shields pushed through a set and stepped aside, catching a glimpse of another Rays player exodus story on the bank of TVs. (There are no flatscreens at Average Joe’s).
Over the next two months, I watched Shields push himself harder than anyone in the gym, which is saying something. I know he was there shortly after 6 a.m. on every Tuesday and Thursday, when I train, and perhaps on other days. He enlisted the help of a trainer named Chad Inovejas, who clearly understands baseball-specific — and pitcher specific – training.
I’ve written Core Performance books with Mark Verstegen, who along with his staff in Phoenix have trained a who’s who of baseball talent, including Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria, Dustin Pedroia, Curt Schilling, and Jacoby Ellsbury. I wondered why Shields just didn’t head to Arizona like everyone else.
Maybe he wanted to stay close to home. Maybe as a longtime Ray (and one of the last remaining Devil Rays), he preferred the underdog setting of Average Joe’s.
I never asked. I don’t cover baseball as much as I once did, but figured I’d leave the shop talk to interviews in the Tropicana Field clubhouse. The funny thing is, everyone else left Shields alone too. He’s easily recognizable, even if he didn’t wear Rays workout shorts many days.
Can you imagine this happening in Boston? I’m guessing Tim Wakefield couldn’t even work out at a gym in Boston. Heck, former Red Sox reliever Mike Timlin trained at Average Joe’s when he lived in the Tampa Bay area.
We have so many current and former pros living here that it’s an everyday experience to see guys at concerts, church, Chipotle, or waiting to work in a set at the gym. Everyone mostly leaves them alone, especially when they’re working harder than anyone else in the room.
By mid-February, Shields had lost the beard and presumably a few pounds. He’s been the best pitcher in the American League not named Justin Verlander. He’s thrown 11 complete games, more than twice that of any other pitcher. He’s thrown a career-high 249 innings and carried the Rays through a tumultuous season.
He seems to have gotten better as the season has progressed, which speaks volumes about his conditioning. Last night, he pitched the Rays into a tie with the Red Sox for a wild-card berth with two games to play. He is, by any measuring stick, the team’s MVP, Big Game James, indeed.
This morning, a few of us were on the floor stretching, talking about last night’s game. The name James Shields came up and we talked about his season, which many baseball commentators have deemed unlikely or surprising.
Not to those of us who watched him all winter at Average Joe’s.