Sunday, December 17, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays' Zobrist still surprised to be an All-Star

NEW YORK — Truth be told, Ben Zobrist isn't exactly sure how he got here, either, sitting behind a table on a steamy Monday afternoon in the open-air rotunda at Citi Field, taking questions as an American League All-Star, and for the second time.

"It wasn't something I expected," Zobrist said. "When I was a kid, it wasn't something I was pursuing. It was more of just like, I love playing the game and I like to try and get better at whatever I'm doing.

"And just trying to get better got me to a point where I was able to do well at certain levels. God gave me opportunities, and teams gave me opportunities to play summer ball and get drafted by the Astros. From there it was trying to apply whatever was there. I never knew what the ceiling was, that I could possibly be an All-Star someday. I was just hoping to make it to the big leagues like every minor-leaguer when you get drafted.

"But actually getting a chance to make it, and then have some success at this level, that's more than I expected. And then certainly to be sitting in one of these chairs is just way, way out of the world for me."

Zobrist, 32, made it this time because AL manager Jim Leyland so valued his versatility and late-inning value in an All-Star Game that means something (homefield advantage in the World Series, anyway), he was willing to snub Evan Longoria and make Zobrist the surprising choice as the Rays' first representative, with pitcher Matt Moore added later.

When Zobrist saw Leyland in the clubhouse Monday afternoon to thank him, Leyland told him not to, that it was well deserved. "I know he thinks it's going to help the team win," Zobrist said.

That is fitting logic, because Zobrist's desire to win, and his selflessness in committing to do so, evidenced by his willingness to change and alternate positions, are the primary reasons Rays officials cite for his rise.

From an undrafted high schooler out of small-town Illinois to a small-college player to a Double-A minor-leaguer acquired from Houston in the July 2006 Aubrey Huff salary dump to where he is now, playing in All-Star Games and World Baseball Classics, making $5.5 million this year (and with options for $7 million and $7.5 million pending) and ranking behind only Detroit's Miguel Cabrera and New York's Robinson Cano since the start of the 2009 season on baseball-reference.com's Wins Above Replacement scale.

"I think it happens because of who Ben is," Rays farm director Mitch Lukevics said. "Ben stands out with his character and his work ethic and his will to succeed. We have a lot of fine men, and Ben Zobrist is at the top of the list."

Manager Joe Maddon said he was first struck when the Rays sent Zobrist back to the minors during the 2007-08 seasons and all Zobrist would talk about was wanting to come back and be part of their success.

When he returned to stay later in 2008 with an improved swing from both sides of the plate to go with his positional versatility, Maddon sensed they had something special.

"It was the combination of this reborn hitter with all these defensive skills and baserunning ability and on top of that all this great attitude," Maddon said. "That's primarily how it began, and he kind of created himself. … He embraced it like I've never had anybody before. He gets it. And that's how he became this guy."

Actually, executive vice president Andrew Friedman admitted they didn't project Zobrist to quite be that guy.

"When we acquired Ben we felt that we were getting a versatile defensive player with a broad offensive skill set and a terrific approach at the plate," Friedman said. "I don't think we or the industry could have expected the type of impact he has had on both sides of the ball, and especially as a plus defender in both the infield and the outfield.

"That's a testament to the type of person Ben is. It's one thing to have the ability to play everywhere that he does, and it's another to be willing to go out and be as flexible as he is all for the sake of the team. Ben always puts the team first, and with that he exemplifies what we look for in a player."

Zobrist said that's just the way he is, carrying forth the basic lesson his father Tom, the pastor at Liberty Bible Church in Eureka, Ill., instilled early, to not do anything half-heartedly.

"I've always wanted to win at whatever I was doing; I've always had that real competitive nature," Zobrist said. "I think everybody here at this level, you have to have that to be successful. … But I think maybe some of us wear that on our sleeves a little bit more than others."

Zobrist carries his zest off the field as well. He is the No. 1 fan of his wife, Julianna, a Christian alternative singer working on her third album, delivering faith-based speeches as part of her live shows, and a devoted father to 4-year-old Zion and almost 2-year-old Kruse, all of whom will join him, and his parents, in today's All-Star parade.

"He's totally altruistic when it comes to everything I think," Maddon said. "He survived all the craziness of the last two decades and still was able to uphold what everybody wanted their kid to grow up to be like."

And a two-time All-Star at that.

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]

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