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Tampa Bay Rays' Ben Zobrist maintains low-key personality after breakout season

PORT CHARLOTTE — Playing seven positions and slugging 27 homers en route to an All-Star Game appearance and team MVP award turned out be nothing compared to the multi-tasking, flexibility and hard work Ben Zobrist needed to get through his offseason.

"No doubt about it," he said.

Much more taxing was spending the winter changing diapers, reading bedtime stories and providing a major hand to wife Julianna in caring for their just-turned 1-year-old son, Zion.

"If you've not been having to do whole lot of work with a baby, and then you go home and you have to do a lot of work with the baby, all of a sudden you're like, 'Whoa, this is a lot of work,' " Zobrist said. "It made me appreciate my wife that much more. It's a lot of work."

For Zobrist, it couldn't have been a better way to follow up his tremendous breakthrough season. While others went for adventure, such as Evan Longoria vacationing on the beaches of Rio, Zobrist preferred — no surprise — a lower profile approach keyed to his usual foundation of family and faith.

Highlights? His speech at their Nashville church men's group breakfast. Gigs to further Julianna's Christian music career (with a full CD coming out soon). Wiffle ball games in the back yard.

What, you expected him to be rapping (Benny Zo-Zo in the house!), road-tripping to Vegas and flashing bling?

"Like a gold chain with an 18 on it? Something like that?" manager Joe Maddon practically laughed at the idea. "He won't even put his name on his glove — he puts a little 18 on the inside where you can't see it."

Zobrist's unexpected 2009 emergence drew attention to what has become a remarkable feel-good story, and even residual skepticism if he's too good to be true.

"Just spend a week — just spend a day with him. Spend like an hour with him," Maddon said. "I mean this guy, he is all of that. He is sincerely this humble, honest, religious rock. He's all of those things.

"So for the people that don't know and think some of this may be an act, it is not. This is truly who he is. He is a wonderful young man and he's going to do a lot of great things with his life beyond playing baseball."

That question begets another: whether a 28-year-old who before last season had only a career .222 major-league average, .649 OPS, 15 homers and 57 RBIs can come anywhere near repeating his .297-.948-27-91 season.

"This year I have to prove that I can do it again," Zobrist said. "For those people that doubt that or say, 'Well, it was a good year, it was a career year or something, he's never going to do that again' — they have every right to have that opinion. But where I'm coming from, I believe and know I can do that on a regular basis."

His teammates certainly believe he can. "He became kind of the heartbeat of the team if you will," Longoria said. "We looked to Zo to do something spectacular every night and he continued to do it. He never disappointed. So I'm really looking forward to what he does this year."

Zobrist said he worked just as hard this winter as in the past — and is prepared to play either second base or rightfield with no preference — though he resisted his typical tinkering with his swing to instead just maintain what worked so well.

That doesn't mean there aren't some things he needs to improve on.

For one, diaper changing.

"It's getting better," he said. "I kept from having to, I guess, clean up too much toward the end of the offseason. (But) it's not as quick as it could be. It needs to be more efficient."

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

fast facts

Mark of Z

Ben Zobrist ranked among the AL's most productive hitters in terms of OPS (on-base plus slugging percentages). The 2009 OPS leaders:

Player, team OPS OBP SLG

Joe Mauer, Twins 1.031 .444 .587

Kevin Youkilis, Red Sox .961 .413 .548

Ben Zobrist, Rays .948 .405 .543

Mark Teixeira, Yanks .948 .383 .565

Miguel Cabrera, Tigers .948 .396 .547

Source: Tampa Bay Rays

Tampa Bay Rays' Ben Zobrist maintains low-key personality after breakout season 02/23/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 24, 2010 7:24am]
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