Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Cubs experience a new blessing for former Ray Ben Zobrist

CHICAGO — Ben Zobrist grew up in southern Illinois rooting for the Cardinals because his dad and his grandfather did, taking no pity on the friends and family who bled Cubbie blue.

"The one dig was always the fact that they hadn't won that championship. 1908 — I'm sure that probably came out of my mouth at some point," Zobrist said. "So it's really funny now to come full circle, and I'm helping them do that."

Zobrist has been a huge help since signing on this season with the Cubs as a free agent, providing his typical defensive versatility, patient offensive approach and veteran leadership. And he got off to a hot start in the World Series, going 5-for-8 in the Games 1 and 2, then adding a hit Friday.

Zobrist is 35 now and has grown in many ways since coming up first with the Devil Rays in 2006 and to stay during the magical 2008 season, then traded for financial reasons after the 2014 season.

Take measure by listening to his former and current teammates and old and new again manager Joe Maddon rave about how great of a role model he is. "An example of the kind of guy you want on your team," said ex-Rays and now Indians outfielder Brandon Guyer.

Count the zeroes in the $56,000,000, four-year contract he signed with the Cubs, a pretty nice reward for a pastor's son who came up with so little he had to be told by a teammate on his first big-league road trip about tipping the hotel bellman.

Consider that when his successful singer wife, Julianna, wanted to navigate complex music copyright rules so her customized version of Bennie and the Jets could be used as a postseason walkup song, they got word through an intermediary to Elton John, who approved it the next day.

"It's definitely more than I ever expected," Zobrist said. "When I left Tampa Bay I felt like if my career ended at that point I'd be okay. I had an incredible time, and I've had a lot of success. For some reason, the Lord keeps my body going and keeps me productive, and I've been able to do some things the last couple years to help some teams."

Traded by the Rays to the A's (with Yunel Escobar for John Jaso and prospects Daniel Robertson and Boog Powell), Zobrist was traded again in July 2015 to the Royals. He helped them to last year's Series championship, earning a ring he's, typically modestly, only worn a couple times.

When he decided last December to sign with the Cubs, spurning the Giants and Mets, it was to add another ring, and, despite the history, has it in his sights.

"This is the moment I believed could happen," Zobrist said.

The Cubs experience has been everything Zobrist could hope for, enhanced by buying a house in the Wrigleyville neighborhood within a mile of the stadium, close enough that his family could walk.

And that before a September game, Zobrist rode his bicycle — in uniform — to the stadium, fans rolling down car windows to wish him well.

"It was a fun experience, for sure," Zobrist said. "I love baseball history, and Wrigley Field is as good as it gets when it comes to that. …It kind of makes it feel like old school baseball all over again. I love that feel."

Given he grew up in Eureka, Ill., a town of about 5,000 midway between St. Louis and Chicago, played at small colleges, worked his way through the Astros and Rays minor-league systems, was sent back to the minors several times, and had to become the model for the modern-day now common super-utility player to stick in the majors, it's hard not to marvel at how far he has come.

"It's not something you'd think would happen, so in one sense you're surprised," said Ben's father, Tom. "But also you're not, but I know how hard of a worker Ben is. He's got a great body, he has great talent, he's a great thinker. Those were things infused in him. I think it's just an example of how anything can happen if it's meant to be."

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