James Loney, the Tampa Bay Rays’ Quiet Hero
By Mike Millican
Tampa Bay Rays first baseman James Loney is a player that can impress nightly with his defense, his offense, or both. His spectacular fielding makes everyone wonder whether he has a secret ball magnet that he places in his glove while his clutch hitting seems to appear whenever needed. At these times, he seems to possess magic, but he lacks a magician’s showmanship. Instead, James Loney is a player who doesn’t seek the spotlight, who is so quiet and humble that when he is interviewed post game it’s as if he is speaking in a church while the sermon is still going on.
Born in Houston, Texas on May 7, 1984, Loney played for his Elkins High School team in Missouri City, Texas. In his final season there, 2002, he went 9-1 as a pitcher, with a 1.80 ERA and 106 strike outs in 54 innings pitched. Beyond those impressive stats, he also batted .509! That combination almost sounds Ruthian. Although he committed to play baseball for Baylor University, Loney ultimately decided to turn pro when he was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first round (19th pick) of the 2002 MLB Draft.
The laid back atmosphere of Southern California and the Dodgers was the perfect spot for the quiet, laconic prospect from Texas. His above-average performance in the Dodgers minor leagues earned him a starting spot at first base to make his MLB debut on April 4, 2006 while replacing injured Nomar Garciaparra. Loney showcased his potential that night versus the Atlanta Braves by hitting a single off Atlanta Braves starter John Smoltz in his first at-bat. Loney returned to the minor leagues at the end of April, but he returned to the big leagues to say that August. Between 2006 and his official rookie season in 2007, Loney hit to a .321/.372/.543 line with 19 home runs and 85 RBI in 486 plate appearances. Loney never quite lived up to that standard the rest of his career–his 15 home runs in just 375 plate appearances in 2007 remain his career-high. Maybe the pressure mounted on Loney after his great start, but before long, he remained calm, settled in, and become the Dodgers’ regular first baseman, a title he would hold for nearly five years.
In 2012, with Loney mired in a career-worst season, the Dodgers included him in the blockbuster deal with the Boston Red Sox that brought Adrian Gonzalez and ex-Ray Carl Crawford to Los Angeles. As was Crawford before him, Loney was unprepared for the pressure of the Boston Tea Party and batted only .230 with two home runs in his 30 games with the Red Sox. The timing could not have been worse for Loney as he was a free agent following the season. Even amid his struggles, however, the Rays saw something in him, signing him to a one-year, $2 million contract.
As it turned out, the flexible, low-key managing style of Joe Maddon made Tampa Bay the perfect fit for James Loney. He finished 2013 with a .299/.348/.430 line with 33 doubles, 13 home runs, and 75 RBI. His batting average and OPS (.778) were his highest since 2007, and the Rays hoped that it would not mark the end of his tenure with the team. Fortunately for them, Loney was patient during the 2013 offseason and the two finally came to terms on December 13, 2013 by cementing a three-year deal worth $21 million. Loney has come back to earth to an extent in 2014, but his .285/.342/.379 line with a strong glove inspires confidence that he will continues to provide stability at the first base position for years to come.
James Loney’s steady, injury free play will be a necessary piece in the Rays’ uncertain rolling wheel to the playoffs. His quiet, tall Texan demeanor almost suggests a resurrection of the classic western TV character “Paladin” starring in the new “Have Bat and Glove, Will Travel” show. To complete that transformation, James Loney would have to speak a little louder and also quote Shakespeare which might be possible, but not likely. All that matters to the Rays, though, is that Loney stays within himself and continues putting up the numbers that will take their team as far as it can go.