ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Ben Zobrist has been once, but in that pinch-yourself moment at Tuesdays All-Star game, when hes on the field with baseballs best as the national anthem is played, hell think of the long, hard path he took to such gratifying success.
Now in his eighth season in the Tampa Bay Rays organization, Zobrist came to the franchise with the Durham Bulls, playing parts of three seasons in Durham from 2006-08 before he became an everyday major leaguer. He remembers his Bulls days vividly, back to his debut, seven years ago this week.
We played Columbus that first night, and I got in the game late for a pinch-hit, got a hit and an RBI, a little jam job over the second basemans head, said Zobrist, 32. It was just a good feeling, a good start.
Zobrist was dealt to Tampa Bay after hitting at least .300 at four different levels of the Houston Astros minor-league system. He loved the novelty at playing for Durham, having seen Bull Durham many times.
Immediately, I was like Wheres the stadium? Ive got to find the bull. I remember we went down the road to the old field, where they filmed it, walked around there just for fun, said Zobrist, who remembers his regular fans, including a pair of young boys who seemed to never miss a game.
He can remember before the Diamond View II building was in left field in 2008, when teammate Joel Guzman crushed a home run up into the fourth level of the scaffolding as the building was being constructed.
I think its an amazing setting for a Triple-A park, said Zobrist, who still gets mail from Bulls fans. I can remember going back, when we played that exhibition game, which was a cool thing to see some of those fans again.
He spent only 18 games in Durham in 2006 and was up in the big leagues, though he hit only .224 as a rookie. He spent 2007 between the Rays and Bulls, again hitting just .155 in the majors. He found himself as a big leaguer in 2008, finishing the year with the Rays and hitting 12 home runs in 227 at-bats.
I remember him being a professional and a good guy, Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo said. Not only was he a good player, but he played the game the right way. He was easy to teach, thats really what I remember most.
(Being called up, sent down is) tough but you know theyre not going to come here and complain. They come here and play hard. There are 24 other guys who would like to take that job, and good guys know that. Bad guys come here and complain and the other guys dont want to hear it. Ben came here and kept working hard until he got another chance, and he did.
He also showed promising versatility in 2008 after playing exclusively at shortstop in his first two stints with the Rays, he was everywhere, playing at shortstop, third, second, all three outfield spots and even as a designated hitter.
Zobrist was an All-Star once before, in 2009, his first full season with the Rays, and still arguably his best year statistically. His career highs for batting average (.297), home runs (27) and RBIs (91) remain from that season, though he tied the RBI mark in 2011.
Zobrists All-Star contributions in the 2009 game werent anything huge he struck out as a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning, then played two innings at second base, catching the final out in the American Leagues 4-3 win on a pop fly.
That selection came from his own manager, Joe Maddon, but his second All-Star nod came as a surprise he said he was completely puzzled when summoned to Maddons office to learn the news. Other players, including Rays teammate Evan Longoria, have superior numbers at the plate Zobrist is hitting .266, his lowest average since 2010, and he has just six home runs, on course for his lowest total in any full season in the majors.
That aside, Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland has cited his versatility both at multiple positions in the field but also as a switch-hitter at the plate in making him an All-Star.
I love the selection from the perspective that a complete game matters, Maddon said last week. Its not just about batting average. Ben personifies the complete baseball player and has done so year in and year out. Its great to see him recognized for it.
Few players have put in more time and hard work to establish themselves as regular major leaguers. Zobrist was 23 when the Astros drafted him after his senior year at Olivet Nazarene, a small school in Illinois where he transferred after three years at Dallas Baptist. From there, he logged 364 games in the minors, more than any other AL All-Star who attended a four-year college.
The first year he played for me, he was a line-drive hitter, Montoyo said. The second year he started hitting balls out of the ballpark. It was a big difference. Then he kept it going in the big leagues. You could see a big difference in him in the two years, how he got bigger and stronger.
He changed his swing. He worked hard in the offseason and it paid off. Its paid off so far, hes going to be in the big league All-Star game.
This selection has been a validation for Zobrist, who has been a quietly consistent player for the Rays, at the plate and in the field. Three times in the past four seasons, hes had at least 20 home runs and 20 doubles the only other American League second baseman that has done that is the Yankees Robinson Cano.
His positional flexibility is harder to appreciate with statistics, and the All-Star nod has meant something to Zobrist, who has played mostly at second and in right field this season, with another seven games at shortstop, and a combined three errors in 90 games.
It really helps me see the value I can bring to a club like that off the bench, Zobrist said. For any manager, for Jim Leyland to pick me to be that utility guy for the team Thats the thing this has brought to light. Maybe my numbers arent as good as some guys in the league, but he sees the value of that. It really gives me a good feeling that he believes in my versatility.
Zobrist said theres a message, too, for younger players to not limit themselves to the position theyre most comfortable playing. By learning multiple positions and showing they can field them reliably, they create a skill that can help them land a spot on any team even the most talented team in baseball for one special night.
Its good for young players to realize that, Zobrist said. Dont say Im not playing that position. Youre giving yourself more opportunities.
Staff writer Wade Rupard contributed to this report.