Tampa Bay Rays' Ben Zobrist has taken a surprising path to today's All-Star Game

EUREKA, ILL.

The three-hour trip from Ben Zobrist's hometown to St. Louis is rather mundane. From the white two-story house out in the country, by the church on the corner where his father has been pastor the past 21 years, through both of the stoplights and past the high school field with his retired No. 12 on the dugout, and then onto a series of two- and then four-lane highways that cut swaths through the blurring farmland of southern Illinois. But the journey that took Zobrist from Eureka, Ill., to tonight's All-Star Game is pretty remarkable. Certainly talent is part of it. As is the hard work and dedication he's known for among the Rays and their fans. But it takes more than that to become the second-biggest name — albeit a distant second to Ronald Reagan — to come out of Eureka. Like the $50 in leftover birthday money, the Cracker Barrel lunch with the tearful mom and understanding dad, the chance meeting with a swinging guy.

And, to be sure the way Ben tells it, at least a fair amount of divine intervention.

"I just felt like everything fell into place so much, that this is what I was supposed to do," Zobrist said. "This is what I was made to do."

Change of plans

Zobrist wasn't planning on playing baseball past high school.

Sure, he'd been doing so since he was 8, loved it so much he and some buddies built a Wiffle Ball field behind the house with lights, a fence, spray-painted foul lines.

But when he graduated in the top 10 of his Eureka High class, with nary a sniff from a pro scout or college recruiter, the game looked to be over. His plan, as he told everyone including the local paper, was to go to bible college and become a youth minister. His father, Tom, is the pastor of the Liberty Bible Church, older sister Jess works at a ministry camp, and Ben figured that was his calling, too.

"Baseball was not even a thought in my mind," Zobrist said. "When I was done with my last high school game, I was driving around town just thinking I'm done with baseball the rest of my life."

But …

There was a tryout camp in Peoria each summer to showcase seniors for college recruiters. He was encouraged by his high school coach to attend, but the family was going to Indiana for a youth ministry convention, and his father didn't think it was worth the $50 fee.

Ben wanted to go and had some money left from his 19th birthday.

"I made him pay it," Tom said. "And it was the best $50 he ever spent. I'd have to say that: He got a full ride out of it, and he's playing professional baseball now."

Ben showed he could play in Peoria, and an offer came from Olivet Nazarene, a nearby NAIA school. They sat down to make a family decision, and over lunch at the Cracker Barrel, his mom, Cindi, made her feelings clear, crying that this would keep him "from what he was really supposed to be doing" at Calvary Bible College.

Tom asked Ben what he thought God wanted him to do.

"I feel like I just need to play baseball a little big longer; I don't think I'm done yet," Ben replied. "I'm willing to do whatever you think I should do. If you want me to go to Calvary, I'll go. I'll submit to you."

That was all Tom needed to hear, impressed enough by Ben's maturity to let him make his own decision.

Ben took the offer, though it came with a catch: He had to pitch. He didn't really like it, and by the end of the season, after the team ran through five other shortstops, Ben got his chance and prospered.

The next year he played short and was the closer, and he started to think that maybe he could play professionally. He moved to second as a junior at Olivet, then wanted to try the Division I level. He transferred to Dallas Baptist and went back to shortstop as a senior.

His sense was right: The Astros drafted him in the sixth round. Two-and-a-half seasons in the low minors later, he got a huge break — as tough as it seemed at the time — in being traded with Mitch Talbot as the Rays dumped Aubrey Huff.

Changing his game

Zobrist wasn't planning on becoming a power hitter.

After struggling through parts of the 2006 and 2007 seasons with the Rays, he was doubting whether he could be a legit big-leaguer. He had moved to Nashville with his wife, Julianna, to help her career as a singer and was giving lessons and working out at the Showtime Sports Academy.

But …

One day, Jamie Cevallos walked in the front door. After spending years developing what he felt was a new way to teach hitting, Cevallos — the self-titled swing mechanic — was looking for some students and, on the way back from a meeting at Middle Tennessee State, saw the Showtime facility and pulled in.

He introduced himself to the boss, who told him there's a pro player hitting in the back, why don't you go talk to him.

And from that chance meeting, Zobrist turned into the Zorilla.

The change was obvious to Rays officials during last season, when Zobrist, who they already thought worked the best at-bats on the team, did two things differently: sticking to one stance and driving the ball rather than slapping singles. Plus, he got bigger and stronger.

"He added the power component," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "He became a lot more physical."

Cevallos can go on and on in technical terms, such as The Cushion (see theswingmechanic.com for some of it), but in relatively simple terms, he changed the way Zobrist uses his front knee and how his bat gets through the zone. "Most of his improvement has been before the swing event occurs," Cevallos said. "The end of the stride sets him up to use his bigger muscles in his swing."

Driven to be first

Zobrist wasn't planning on spending Monday in the spotlight.

Growing up in a small town of about 5,000, second oldest of five PKs (pastor's kids) with all that that entails, Zobrist figured you do what you're supposed to: You go to school and you go to work. Pro sports wasn't something you even considered.

But …

His drive and competitiveness, for sports and beyond, was unlike the other kids, and it would serve him well in baseball.

He was a bit ornery as a kid, Cindi said, even occasionally fiery. Warmup laps for his youth football team became all-out sprints. Tests weren't just about getting the answers right but getting them done first. So, apparently, was eating lunch, as the Zobrists got a call from Davenport Elementary School officials — the only time they did — because Ben was caught running to the bathroom and pushing other kids away from the sink so he could wash his hands and be first in line.

He played soccer, football, basketball and baseball, ran cross country and track (a 5:01 mile as a seventh-grader) and set a Eureka High record with a 5-foot-3 high jump the first time he ever tried it.

When Ben was 8 or so, Tom caught him in his room doing what had quietly become a nightly ritual: doing 100 situps before he went to bed. "I'm like, 'What is wrong with him?' " Tom said. "But he wanted to be first and be the best at everything he did."

Sitting at what turned out to be one of the most crowded tables during the All-Star media session at a hotel in St. Louis, the city where the family came to watch games and be Cardinals fans, retelling his story, it appeared that he had.

Maintaining his image

Zobrist wasn't planning on being a role model.

But …

Being a big-leaguer has made him a big deal in Eureka, where died-in-red Cardinals fans and others are wearing Zobrist jerseys and Rays caps.

He has his way of living his life, opting to not drink, smoke or do drugs. He doesn't curse, at least aloud, admitting when he's frustrated with himself, "I do in my head sometimes — we call them Christian cuss words."

He's 28 now, with a son and his wife's singing career taking off after the release of her first CD (The Tree). He helps organize Bible studies among the Rays but doesn't judge or proselytize, refraining from forcing his beliefs on anyone, though willing to get involved if asked.

The baseball life — what with the money, the hours, the clubhouse humor, the various opportunities — can be difficult. "It's a challenge wherever you are," Zobrist said. "But, yes, the baseball culture kind of affords us all the kind of things that if you got too involved with them you'd probably start heading down a path you don't want to go."

But bottom line, life couldn't have turned out better.

"Truly," he said. "I've been blessed."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

. 8 tonight . Busch Stadium, St. Louis . TV: Ch. 13

Tampa Bay Rays' Ben Zobrist has taken a surprising path to today's All-Star Game 07/13/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 14, 2009 8:14am]

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