TAMPA, Fla. -- James Shields offered the familiar smile Rays fans have grown accustomed to any time the big-hearted right-hander wasn't pitching.
The question was a simple one: "What's it going to be like playing for another team?"
"Twelve years -- I've been a part of the Rays organization for 12 years," Shields said. "It's going to be weird."
Shields and Wade Davis were part of the blockbuster deal Tampa Bay made with Kansas City in December, in which the Rays acquired four prospects, including Wil Myers, the Royals' top prospect.
Shields, who joined the organization after being selected in the 16th round of the 2000 First-Year Player Draft, can now look back and reflect on his journey -- a trip through the years with the only club he has known in his professional baseball life.
Shields again smiled at the mention of the days when he and his wife dined on Ramen noodles almost daily to get by during his time in the Minor Leagues. While he can buy all the noodles he wants based on the $10.25 million he will make in 2013, he has kept the common touch. Just take a look at the pickup truck Shields still drives despite all the zeroes on the end of his paycheck. He shared photos from inside the hood of his truck, where a family of squirrels recently nested.
"They chewed up wires and everything, made a mess," Shields said.
If anybody can appreciate how quickly fortunes can change, Shields is the guy. Much of that perspective came in the aftermath of the 2002 season he missed while recovering from surgery to his right shoulder. Subsequent seasons saw Shields experience problems associated with that surgery, bringing doubts about his future. Fortunately for Shields and Tampa Bay, those problems disappeared once he joined the Devil Rays in 2006 and evolved into an iron horse on the mound, logging 200-plus innings in each of his final six seasons with the team.
"Back in those days [after the surgery], I thought I was finished," Shields said. "But I managed to come back. I think a lot of that has to do with perseverance and hard work, like my offseason workouts."
Shields "wore the green" along the way, which means he had donned the green uniform of the Devil Rays and had been a part of the group that executed the franchise's turnaround from cellar dwellers to perennial playoff contenders. With swelled chest, Shields talked about the 2008 season and waxed eloquently about how special that season had been for him and his teammates when they led Tampa Bay to its first postseason appearance and into the World Series. Shields started the first game of that playoff run and came away with a win in Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the White Sox. He also beat the Phillies in Game 2 of the World Series, the only game the Rays won.
"Coming from where I was [in 2002] when I didn't know if I'd ever pitch again to pitching in the postseason, that meant a lot to me," Shields said.
Shields experienced a rough go in 2010 when he ended the regular season by going 0-3 with a 7.00 ERA in five September starts and 0-1 with a 10.80 ERA in an October start. In Shields' lingo, he "had to wear it," and he frequently quoted his father during that stretch as he remained cordial to reporters after difficult starts.
According to Shields, if he complained to his father about what was being written or said about him in the media, his father would tell him: "If you don't like it, pitch better."
Shields took that advice to heart. He got back to work in the offseason and showed up for Spring Training in Port Charlotte, Fla., ready to change his fortunes. Shields felt embarrassed about the way his 2010 season ended, and he didn't like the fact that he had not thrown a complete game since 2008. So he told manager Joe Maddon he wanted to change that. And Shields did, throwing 11 complete games in 2011 en route to a third-place finish in the AL Cy Young Award balloting.
"That is one of my better memories," Shields said.
Shields' final snapshot of being a Ray came at the end of the 2012 season and brought bittersweet feelings. Making his last start of the year on Oct. 2 against the Orioles at Tropicana Field, Shields set a club record with 15 strikeouts in a complete-game two-hitter that he lost 1-0. He earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first pitcher in the live-ball era (since 1918) to take the loss while striking out 15-plus with no walks and two hits or less.
"When I left the mound after pitching the ninth, I had kind of a feeling it would be my last game with the Rays," Shields said. "The fans were standing and giving me a nice ovation, and all the guys in the dugout were standing and giving me high fives. That was a nice moment."
In addition to his on-field memories, Shields and his wife, Ryane, were active in the community. Particularly dear to both was their work with the Heart Gallery.
The Heart Gallery was started as a grass roots community effort to help children in foster care find adoptive homes and to raise awareness. It created a physical gallery displaying portraits of foster children taken by professional photographers and also created a website where the photographs are displayed.
Each year after getting involved with The Heart Gallery, the Shieldses provided a "Heart Gallery Night at the Rays" where the gallery was on display. Many children were able to attend and participate in pregame events. The couple also came up with the "Big Game James Clubhouse" -- Suite 42 at Tropicana Field -- for foster kids served by The Heart Gallery and Eckerd Youth Alternatives.
The hope for creating the Big Game James Club was to create normalcy and a sense of stability and belonging for foster children. Eckerd Youth Alternative, which is the group that services foster-care kids, divided the kids into groups so that every homestand each of the different groups could take turns attending the games.
"I'm going to miss being with the Rays," Shields said. "I have a lot of great memories, and not being with them is going to be different. But now I have to look forward to being a Kansas City Royal and doing whatever I can to help my new team be successful."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.