Sunday, April 22, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Zobrists mix talent with devotion to find success

PORT CHARLOTTE — The Singer and the Swinger sat on the floor of the family room of their spring training rental home a couple weeks ago, phones in hand opened to their calendars, a Rays pocket schedule unfolded, four pages of notes scribbled about upcoming events, engagements, family visits and availability to work around.

Most days, it's pretty awesome — a word they both use often — being Julianna and Ben Zobrist, the Rays' two-career couple. She sings Christian pop music, with a second CD dropping next month and an expanding concert schedule. He swings a potent bat, while splitting time between two positions, as a key member of the Tampa Bay lineup. Together, they rock.

But some days, like this one, when they're trying to plot out a season's worth of travel, adhering to their self-imposed rule of not going more than six days without seeing each other, accommodating their 3-year-old son Zion and 6-month-old daughter Kruse or arranging for them to be watched, adjusting to the inevitable changes, it can be a little hectic. After a few hours, they had a plan: 56 tickets on 37 flights — all on Southwest, because there's no change-fee penalties — for another season of their real-life reality show.

"It's pretty amazing," Ben said. "It's a blast. If you would have asked us when we first got married what are you going to be doing in five-six years, we would not have placed ourselves where we are."

"It's hard to even believe," Julianna said. "There are so many people that dream about doing what we do. And how awesome is it that we have the opportunity to do it? It makes us both not only appreciate it, but want to be excellent with how we do it."

•••

One measure of success can be in the length of the journey.

Ben, 30, grew up the son of a preacher playing ball in the central Illinois town of Eureka — most famous as the place where Ronald Reagan went to college. He wasn't drafted out of high school, played at two small colleges (Olivet, Ill., Nazarene and Dallas Baptist) and was a sixth-round pick by the Astros. He was in his third season in the low minors before coming to the Rays in July 2006 as the lesser piece (to Mitch Talbot) in the Aubrey Huff trade.

Since then he has became an indispensable, mold-breaking All-Star and MVP candidate, switching seamlessly between second base and rightfield while hitting in the middle of the order, earning a long-term contract worth at least $18 million over four years and up to $30 million over six.

Julianna, 27, grew up the daughter of a preacher, dancing and writing poetry in the eastern Iowa university town of Iowa City, singing in her father's Parkview church with a plan to study music at Nashville's Belmont University and see where it took her.

Since then, she has become an accomplished singer and songwriter, with one CD, The Tree, out and another, Crazy Fearless, coming April 10 (go to thezobrists.com to hear some songs), a unique slot among contemporary Christian artists influenced by myriad musicians and performances before a crowd of 10,000 as an opening act at AtlantaFest and at an awards show in L.A.

What could be next?

"Your guess is as good as ours," Ben said.

•••

They came together through a long-term, long-distance courtship, started with an email when Ben was a 20-year-old in college and Jules, as he calls her, was a 17-year-old high school junior, and culminated with their first real date only 2½ years later.

They had a push, one of Ben's friends married to one of Julianna's older sisters, encouraging him to email her. Months and then years passed with little progress, but a series of serendipitous meetings and connections — that both are convinced was divine intervention — finally brought them together, a few days after her 19th birthday.

And they've been a couple ever since, he the voice of maturity and reason, and she, especially with the funky, occasionally — his word — shocking wardrobe and colorful hair styles, not.

"He's an old soul," Julianna said, "and I'm like a junior high boy, immature to the nth degree."

The first time Julianna saw Ben play baseball, when he and one of her brothers happened to end up in the same summer collegiate league (in one of those coincidences), she was much more interested in how he filled out his uniform than how he played. "He looked really good," she said. "He got a solid 10 on that one."

The first time Ben heard Jules sing, really sing, not just goofing around with their friends, was a Christmas show at Parkview as she belted out Mary Sweet Mary, and he was quite impressed with what he heard and saw. "Of course I was," he said.

•••

They attend as many of each other's events as they can and at times will talk shop at night comparing notes — she'll ask why something happened as it did in a game, he'll wonder why something sounded as it did during her show.

But their favorite professional moments are when their careers intertwine.

Julianna has sung the anthem before a handful of his games (Note to Rays: and is eager to do more), but her voice can be heard several times each night, as Ben uses her songs for his walkup music, with plans this year for a cut off the new CD, Behind Me.

"Ben is my biggest fan, for sure," she said. "And it's so awesome."

Ben is usually in the front row at Julianna's concerts, as much so he can have an up-close view as for the moral support it provides her. "I like to see him because a lot of the songs are about him," she said. "And I like to point at him."

Occasionally, they'll share a stage. Ben does speaking engagements, sharing stories of mixing his devout Christianity with pro sports, life, even having a wife who is a singer, and sometimes Jules is also booked to provide the entertainment. "We team up," he said. (Both appeared in a short film, Snake, that a friend shot this winter, and Ben last week did a cameo in a faith-based feature-length film called Ring The Bell.)

Julianna didn't play any sports growing up, but at least ventured onto the Trop turf for the wives' softball game. Ben will go on stage with Julianna, but to talk, never, ever to sing.

He suggests she needs some background dancers with her four-piece band. She blurts out, "He can do a mad Backstreet Boys dance." He shows off a couple moves.

The Singer and the Swinger, so happy together.

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]

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