PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- When James Loney arrived in Tampa Bay last spring, he quickly developed a reputation as a solid, steady performer on the field and a quiet one in the clubhouse. It got to the point where Rays manager Joe Maddon had to remind reporters that even though Loney displays an unusually calm nature, there's still a competitive fire burning in him.
But somewhere along the way, between his re-emergence in 2013 and returning to the Rays on a three-year contract this offseason, Loney found his comfort zone. It obviously wouldn't be fair to say it happened in a single moment, but one in particular stands out.
It was after the Rays' walk-off win over the Giants on Aug. 3. Tampa Bay was holding its standard postgame celebration in Tropicana Field's home clubhouse, with loud music blaring and sophomoric hijinks aplenty, when the usually reserved Loney added a new element -- his saxophone.
"I just felt like it was time," Loney said with a smile Tuesday, "time to bust it out."
Loney began playing the sax in third grade, quit in high school then picked it back up recently. He also dabbled in the drums and played some piano growing up. But he stuck with the saxophone, and as it turned out, his saxophone stuck with the Rays the last few months of the season.
"When he popped out the saxophone last year, I think that took us to another level," Maddon said. "The one thing that we're most happy about having James back [this season] is the fact that we've got a sax in our postgame celebration."
Maddon was exaggerating, of course. The Rays are more than happy to bring back Loney's consistent, line-drive swing and his Gold Glove-caliber defense at first base. They're thrilled to have some continuity at first to go along with the rest of their returning infielders. And Loney's happy to be back, eager to improve and more comfortable inside the clubhouse.
"The guys here, all the guys they're bringing back, the front office and staff -- everybody's great," Loney said. "I felt it toward the end, right before I signed, I just had this feeling that this is where I should be."
Maddon said it was obvious Loney is no longer "feeling his way through" his surroundings. That may have been the case last year, when Loney came to Tampa Bay trying to re-establish his value on a one-year, $2 million deal and went on to hit .299/.348/.430 with 13 homers and 75 RBIs.
But this year, Maddon said, it was obvious from the moment Loney walked into the clubhouse that he was more at ease. Loney agreed with Maddon's assessment.
"I think that's always good. You kind of know everybody, have stories to talk about, jokes to tell and different things like that," he said. "You're not trying to kind of break the ice."
That happened last year, but it's been more of a gradual process for Loney throughout his eight years in the Majors. He said Tuesday he's learned how to open up, be himself and do what he wants to do rather than worry about what's expected of him. Fortunately for Loney, Maddon encourages that kind of attitude in the Rays' clubhouse.
"A lot of times in baseball, and maybe in other careers and stuff, people think they have to be a certain way or act a certain way or dress a certain way or something like that. Here, the environment is very easy for people that may not have always felt like that," Loney said. "It makes it real easy. Just do what you've got to do, say what you want to say and be who you are."
That applies to Loney's work on the field as well. Some clubs might not see the value in a first baseman who's never hit more than 15 home runs in a season and was coming off a down year in 2012. But at his best, Loney is a durable presence -- he's averaged 157 games played per season since 2008 -- and a high-average hitter with outstanding defense.
"He makes every position on the infield better. Him being there, those guys relax in a good way -- there's no rush, there's no hurry," Maddon said. "I think the confidence that he draws from the other guys is really significant."
The Rays recognized that last winter, and Loney performed well enough to enter the free-agent market with plenty of options.
The 29-year-old knew he would be in line for a multi-year deal, and he said earlier this offseason he received similar offers from the Brewers, Pirates, Astros and Rays. Loney wasn't especially confident early on that he'd be able to come back to Tampa Bay, and Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg admitted last week the club had to stretch its payroll into record-high territory for Loney and closer Grant Balfour.
But the two sides found a fit, a three-year, $21 million deal -- the largest contract ever awarded to a free agent under the team's current ownership.
"It was definitely something I was grateful for," Loney said, "and something I was excited about."
Loney rarely shows that excitement on the field or around the media, however. His relatively modest power and low-key demeanor might lead some to say he lacks sex appeal. But he's got something else to offer, according to his manager.
"He's got great sax appeal," Maddon said.