Players come and go on Major League teams. When you cover a team, you click with some, others you don’t. Then there are the special ones. Ben Zobrist has been one of those during my time covering the Rays.
Zo came to the Rays in a 2006 trade and looked like a punch-and-Judy hitter, which seemed odd given the fact he had good size. So the offense didn’t look so great at that point, but he was a solid shortstop. Joe Maddon would later pay him a great compliment by saying he did not have any chrome. In other words, he wasn’t a flashy shortstop, he just made all the plays.
He began 2007 as the team’s starting shortstop and lost the job early that season due to his lack of offense. I don’t think I’ve ever felt worse for a player than when I flew home from that Baltimore series on a Southwest morning flight to Tampa and Zobrist was on the flight. He’d been sent down and did not accompany the team to its next destination. He looked bewildered about the move at the luggage carousel at Tampa International Airport amid the gawkers wondering who the guy was with the bags marked “Tampa Bay Devil Rays.”
Somehow Zobrist managed to re-invent himself. By the end of the 2008 season, he had returned to the Major Leagues with a new look. Punch-and-Judy had given way to a hitter who took a hack that fit his size. Each year after that he seemed to get better, becoming an All-Star who played multiple positions.
Throughout all of it, Zobrist remained the same well-grounded individual he’d always been. Devoutly religious, he never made that an issue as some do when they try and force their religion on others. But other players sought him for his wisdom.
Some snapshots I’ll remember.
One Sunday morning on a getaway day, I was walking around the team hotel and heard the piano playing. The music sounded really good, too. Finally I spotted a figure wearing a suit and sitting at a grand piano. Of course, Zobrist was the man tickling the ivories.
And I happened to be out to dinner in Toronto last season with Roger Mooney, who covers the Rays for The Tampa Tribune. Roger’s father had just died and he would leave for the funeral the following morning. Zobrist knew about Roger’s father and happened to be dining in the same restaurant, accompanied by David DeJesus and Matt Joyce. When we went to pay our check, our waiter told us they had already paid for us.
As much as Zobrist is a really good baseball player, he’s a much better person. He respects people, he’s a family man, and while baseball means a lot to him, he understands there’s more to life than hitting a ball.
Trading him to Oakland made perfect sense. The Rays are an efficient machine that needs to stay true to its model to continue to be successful, even though sentimentality is often a casualty of that pursuit. So don’t fault the Rays, the deal appears to be a good one. But never forget Ben Zobrist. He’s one of the special ones.