Zobrist's leadership comes 'chrome'-free
Eight-year Tampa Bay veteran lacks flash but is essential part of Rays
ST. PETERSBURG -- Ben Zobrist lacks chrome.
That assessment has been issued by Rays manager Joe Maddon on countless occasions since Zobrist began his ascension toward becoming one of the team's best and most revered players. Turns out, lacking chrome is the ultimate baseball compliment. Translated: Zobrist will never be called a hot dog. He just gets the job done, year in and year out.
Accordingly, Zobrist's lack of chrome is accompanied by a lack of recognition. He remains one of the best kept secrets in the Major Leagues, save for one select group.
"If you ask any manager in the league, they'd be like, 'This is a guy I want on my team,'" Maddon said.
Maddon allowed that underrating Zobrist's talents was understandable if one saw him play only on occasion.
"To be with him daily, you get to see it all and all the little things that he does, and beyond that, all the team things that he does," Maddon said. "This guy is all about winning. That's it. That's it. He doesn't care about his batting average. He does only in the sense that if he's not hitting well, that means he's not helping the team."
During his eight seasons with Tampa Bay, Zobrist has played every position except for pitcher and catcher. He draws the line at any discussion about playing catcher but has allowed on occasion that he might be persuaded to get behind the plate in exchange for a turn on the mound. In addition to his versatility, Zobrist can put up quality offensive numbers and has evolved into a team leader.
Zobrist's Christian faith is a major part of who he is, and no doubt that faith has helped him through many of the tough times familiar to a Major Leaguer. He is happy to share his faith with teammates seeking a deeper understanding of his religion, but he is not one to force his beliefs on others. Zobrist is well-respected for the player he is -- and the person he is every day.
"He's awesome," rookie Wil Myers said. "Especially for me, he's the guy I hang out with more than anyone here. He's more of a quiet leader than Evan [Longoria] is in the clubhouse. I think he just has everyone's respect here. I think he's a great guy. We have a lot of the same beliefs and backgrounds, so he's one of the guys I try to hang around a lot and get to know better."
Matt Joyce notes that Zobrist is "definitely one of those guys who leads by example."
"[Ben is] somebody you really rely on and somebody you almost come to expect to be out there every day and give you everything he has," Joyce said. "He's obviously a leader off the field as well as on. As far as his beliefs and his morals and his values, I think they go a long way with providing some guidance to the younger guys. He's a great teammate."
Zobrist addressed the idea of his being a leader, though clearly he does not enjoy talking about himself.
"I think the more you kind of move up the grid as far as age compared to guys younger than you, or experienced-wise if you have more experience, it's kind of an unsaid thing," Zobrist said. "If you want to help guys, you try and kind of teach them some of the things you've learned about the game, about this environment, about your business here, things that have worked and things that haven't worked.
"I think just sharing your experiences and trying to guide younger guys and help them try to avoid some of the mistakes that you've made can be helpful. They're going to have their own pathway, but I think that's just part of if you want to be a leader and one of the veteran guys that's helpful."
Zobrist acknowledged that some veteran players would prefer to not say anything and that not everybody would want to be a leader. Ultimately, he simply wants to be available.
"I want to be a guy if somebody does want to talk, I'm willing to share what I've learned," Zobrist said. "And I haven't learned everything. And I'm still learning every day. But I certainly can try and help avoid some of the struggles that I've had in the game here and also some of the things that have worked. Try and help them see the things that have worked for me."
Zobrist came to the Rays in 2006 (then the Devil Rays) in the deal that sent Aubrey Huff to the Astros. After a brief period in the Tampa Bay farm system, he arrived to the Major Leagues in time to play 52 games at shortstop and earn the nod as the starter heading into the '07 season.
Then the struggles began. Zobrist got sent to Triple-A Durham after hitting just .148 in April. Though he did return to the Majors that season, he hit just .155 over 31 games.
Zobrist, 32, remembered not exactly being all ears around veteran players when he was younger.
"I think there were probably more guys when I first got into the league who wanted to say things to me and did say things to me, but I wasn't paying attention, because you kind of think you have it all figured out," Zobrist said. "You realize later on that you should have been paying more attention to some of those things."
Fortunately for Zobrist and Tampa Bay, his fortunes began to turn around the next season, which coincided with the arrival of two veterans to the newly minted Rays -- Eric Hinske and Cliff Floyd.
"Both of them were part-time players," Zobrist said. "They went out of their way that year to help me to prepare to get in the game and be ready. And another [veteran] guy who comes to mind is Gabe Kapler. He was with us for a few years. He had spent a lot of time in the league. And he was definitely one of those guys willing to share his expertise about the things that worked and didn't work."
Even though Zobrist played in just 62 games in 2008, he hit 12 home runs. He had never been much of a power threat prior to that season, but a switch seemed to flip, and the power continued. Playing time followed.
"I gained a lot of confidence after 2008, but it wasn't a cocky confidence," Zobrist said. "It wasn't like, 'I'm going to do that better next year'; it was more resigned to the fact that I don't know what kind of opportunities I'm going to get in 2009, after 2008.
"Certainly I felt like I was going to be on the big league club. But I knew that the way the game works, it's a 'What have you done for me lately?' game. So I knew that every at-bat, every start, every time I got a chance to be on the field, it was important for me to stay focused and really be at my best."
Zobrist has never forgotten what failure felt like. If another player were to ask him advice about playing in the Major Leagues, Zobrist's No. 1 suggestion would be to strive to stay in a present state of mind.
"When you're struggling, you get out of sync very easily," Zobrist said. "Your rhythm isn't there; your patience isn't there. You feel uncomfortable. You feel out of place. When you feel that way, you feel out of place. You're in your own head, and everything else is flying by so quickly that you can't decide even one thing to do, let alone being able to do more than one thing.
"Everybody gets there at times where the game is moving so quickly you can't catch up or you can't grab a hold of the one thing you can control. But when you're in the zone, I think it's more of a feeling like you can control anything you want to control in the game and decide to make that play this way, that way, however you want to do it. You feel like you have a lot more control."
Zobrist has gained more control and wisdom over the years. And he now passes that knowledge on to those seeking it. Just don't go to Zobrist seeking chrome.
"He's all about team and he's really unique, and I don't even know where we would be without him," Maddon said.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.