LARGO — Thursday was "Take Zobrist to School" day for Braeden Johnson, a fourth-grader at Frontier Elementary School.
Braeden, 9, was a major league winner of a contest held by MetroPCS, a wireless phone company, and the Tampa Bay Rays. It was the first time in the five-year history of the contest that a boy's name was drawn, officials said.
Braeden really lucked out, not only because he won the honor of bringing a Rays player to school, but because second baseman-rightfielder Ben "Zorilla" Zobrist, a switch-hitter with a batting average over .300, has been his favorite player all along.
"I love how he dives for balls," Braeden said.
He also digs Carl Crawford's speed, Jason Bartlett's fielding and Matt Garza's facial hair.
Braeden is a straight-A student, a member of the Student Council and other clubs, and enjoys making morning announcements at school.
But nothing beats baseball, which he plays in the Greater Largo Little League.
His family holds season tickets to the Rays and his mother, Alisha Johnson, admits stuffing the contest box every time they went to a game. "I guess I entered 300 to 500 times," she said.
Officials said about 3,000 entries were received in all.
Mom's efforts paid off for Braeden, who gave interviews to the media while waiting outside the school for Zobrist to arrive.
When the two met, Braeden showed Zobrist his Rays jersey with "Zorilla" on the back — the nickname said to be given to the player by Rays manager Joe Maddon.
"Sahweeeet," Zobrist said. "Will you take me inside and show me your school?"
Behind black metal gates, the schoolchildren had gathered outside their classrooms chanting "Let's go Rays, let's go!"
Then, just as the pair were about to make their grand entrance amid a sea of rolling television cameras and screaming fans, information specialist Cheryl Guldenschuh stepped in.
"You have to sign in first in the office," she said.
Not one to defy school rules, Zobrist cheerfully complied and then the two resumed the procession to deafening applause.
In Pat Taylor's classroom, Zobrist presented Braeden and his 22 classmates with Rays' paraphernalia, including butter-soft batting gloves, stuffed Zorilla dolls (black gorillas wearing Rays jerseys), posters and other goodies.
As he sat at the front of the room, press-conference style, Zobrist fielded questions from the youngsters.
The kids learned the 29-year-old had been playing baseball for 22 years, hit 27 home runs last season and that his first coach was his dad.
When he was a kid, Zobrist said he idolized baseball player Ozzie Smith.
His favorite sport back then?
Reach Terri Bryce Reeves at firstname.lastname@example.org