Shields taking on leadership role with Royals
New KC ace reached out to teammates and offered advice during camp
"If you don't know a guy, you can't lead." -- Ned Yost, Royals manager
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- James Shields was wearing a yellow fluorescent vest, a blue cap and waving a red flag. He was taking charge -- at the gate of the Royals players' parking lot at the training complex.
"Hi, I'm James Shields. Welcome," he'd greet drivers he didn't already know. Big smile. Handshake. Chit-chat. Then, a wave of the red flag. Go that way.
Shields, the pitcher counted on to change the direction of the Kansas City team, and rotation buddy Jeremy Guthrie, were pulling a prank with a purpose. Dressed like parking lot attendants, they were reminding the Minor League kids to respect the Major League players by leaving the prime parking spots for them. Plus, it was a hoot.
"Spring Training's very monotonous and this was a fun thing that me and Guthrie decided to do, and everyone had a blast with it. As long as we can make everyone laugh coming into this clubhouse and keep these guys loose, it's going to be good," Shields said.
There was another motive.
"I kind of feel like I'm the new guy around here," Shields said. "So it was nice to meet all the guys in the Minor League camp."
This is the kind of leadership that Shields has demonstrated as he makes his transition from the Tampa Bay Rays to Kansas City. With a ready smile, sincere dark eyes and an easy manner, he's quickly and quietly made his presence felt in the Royals home.
"If you watch him, he's always talking to somebody different," Yost said. "He's got his little core groups. You watch him in the outfield and he's talking to young guys, and he'll slide over and talk to this guy and he'll slide over and talk to that guy. And it's no more than getting to know them and talking to them. But that's important. We don't do enough of that."
This is something that just comes naturally to the 31-year-old Shields, the son of a building contractor, who grew up in Southern California.
"I don't consciously do that, it's just part of my personality. I just like to go around and try to get to know guys," he said.
Will Smith, 23, an aspiring starting pitcher, was one of the players who bumped into Shields on the field during batting practice.
"He's more than willing to help you out and talk to you and, as a young guy, you appreciate that, because he knows what it takes to compete in the big leagues for a whole year and get people out," Smith said. "I enjoy talking to him. He'll come up to you first, too. The first week of Spring Training, I was in the weight room and he just came up to me and talked about my housing and stuff like that, helped me with this and that. He's a good guy, a good teammate, I like him. Everybody gravitates to him."
Rising reliever Donnie Joseph, 25, also has felt the Shields influence.
"The one thing that he and I talked about, and what I really enjoyed and kind of learned, was the mentality he has facing hitters and the mentality he has going into each game," Joseph said. "He has unbelievable stuff, but he's definitely one of those guys who takes his talent and makes it better by the way he approaches the game and his preparation. It's definitely something I look up to and try to follow, because he's had success and I want to have that success in the big leagues."
Yes, Shields was brought in to pitch and win baseball games, which is the best way to win friends and influence people. He did a lot of winning for the Rays, and more, as infielder Elliot Johnson, who came in the same trade, observed for years with Tampa Bay.
Johnson pointed out that Shields was a lower-tier Draft choice, going in the 16th round, and there's no hint of superiority or arrogance in him.
"He's always been really down to earth, always been open to talk to anyone and everybody. And it just comes from him being a guy that everybody knows and everybody respects, because his level of play is so high," Johnson said.
"He just wants to make sure that everybody's comfortable with him, because when we get on the field, he really kind of directs traffic out there. He'll tell me, 'Hey, man, one step this way,' or 'Hey, make sure you're in the hole for this guy.' Because he's got a plan on how he wants to attack it.
"If there isn't really any relationship or any rapport that he has with the players, then they're really not going to want to do it a whole lot. Obviously, everybody respects him for how good of a player he is, but you respect him as a person, too."
Shields has done things that no Royals players have experienced since 1985, when Kansas City celebrated the World Series championship. They haven't had a postseason game since. Shields has been through playoff pressure three times, and in the 2008 World Series.
"The bottom line is we have 25 guys that play 162 games a year. If you don't get to know guys you're not going to be able to jell with them on the field. You're not going to create that good chemistry on the field, and baseball players almost have to have kind of that sixth sense, where if you really know how somebody is as a person, you know what kind of movements they're going to have," Shields said.
"So if I look at a second baseman like with a little head nod or something during the game, he knows exactly what I'm talking about. You have to have that good chemistry. You have to create that during Spring Training. You can't create that during the season, because it's almost too late. And I feel like if everyone's on the same page and everyone's accountable for their actions, you're going to have a successful season."
Yost sees Shields building what he calls a comfort level with his fellow players. A player new to an organization, Yost said, always has to break down walls in order to get teammates to respond.
As a coach with great Atlanta Braves teams, Yost watched veteran pitchers Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux take leadership roles, but Shields travels his own course.
"He's investing in them, he's getting to know them so that they can develop a trust or bond, so that he can help them get better. Pretty amazing. I've never really seen a player [do it that way]," Yost said. "Glavine and Maddux always did that, but they did it in a different manner. They did it, but most of their time was spent in the video room with a young pitcher. Tommy would take the lefties and Maddux would take the young righties and they'd talk about things. He does it on a grander and more expanded way."
Shields credits his cousin Aaron Rowand, a Major League outfielder for 11 years (White Sox, Phillies, Giants), with passing along some worthwhile lessons.
"He's definitely that way," Shields said. "He didn't have the greatest talent in the world. He had talent, but he out-worked everybody and he really taught me a lot about the game of baseball and how to approach it, how to create a good team chemistry. He had two World Series rings and he had a lot of experience."
The earliest lessons came from Shields' parents, Jack and Cindy, with amplifications added by two older brothers, Jason and Jeremy, back in Valencia, Calif.
"Growing up, I've always been that type of person to communicate," Shields said. "I'm all about communications, I think it's very important in the game."
Even when you're telling a guy where to park.
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.