Ben Zobrist: Gone from Durham, but MLB All-Star still a Bull

CorrespondentJuly 14, 2013 

  • MLB Home Run Derby

    When: Monday, 8 p.m.

    Where: Citi Field in New York

    TV: ESPN

    MLB All-Star game

    When: Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.

    Where: Citi Field in New York

    TV: Fox

  • Optional…if you have room

    2013 All-Star Rosters AMERICAN LEAGUE

    STARTERS

    Catcher: Joe Mauer, Minnesota

    First Base: Chris Davis, Baltimore

    Second Base: Robinson Cano, New York

    Third Base: Miguel Cabrera, Detroit

    Shortstop: J.J. Hardy, Baltimore

    Outfield: Mike Trout, Los Angeles; Adam Jones, Baltimore; Jose Bautista, Toronto

    Designated Hitter: David Ortiz, Boston

    RESERVES

    Catcher: Jason Castro, Houston; Salvador Perez, Kansas City

    Infielders: Prince Fielder, 1b, Detroit; Jason Kipnis, 2b, Cleveland; Manny Machado, 3b, Baltimore; Dustin Pedroia, 2b, Boston; Jhonny Peralta, ss, Detroit; Ben Zobrist, 2b, Tampa Bay

    Outfielders: Nelson Cruz, Texas; Alex Gordon, Kansas City; Torii Hunter, Detroit

    Designated Hitter: Edwin Encarnacion, Toronto

    PITCHERS

    x-Clay Buchholz, Boston; Brett Cecil, Toronto; y-Bartolo Colon, Oakland; x-Jesse Crain, Chicago; x-Yu Darvish, Texas; f-Steve Delabar, Toronto; Felix Hernandez, Seattle; Hisashi Iwakuma, Seattle; Justin Masterson, Cleveland; y-Matt Moore, Tampa Bay; Joe Nathan, Texas; y-Glen Perkins, Minnesota; Mariano Rivera, New York; Chris Sale, Chicago; Max Scherzer, Detroit; Justin Verlander, Detroit

    NATIONAL LEAGUE

    STARTERS

    Catcher: Yadier Molina, St. Louis

    First Base: Joey Votto, Cincinnati

    Second Base: Brandon Phillips, Cincinnati

    Third Base: David Wright, New York

    Shortstop: Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado

    Outfield: Carlos Beltran, St. Louis; Carlos Gonzalez, Colorado; Bryce Harper, Washington

    RESERVES

    Catcher: Buster Posey, San Francisco

    Infielders: Pedro Alvarez, 3b, Pittsburgh; Everth Cabrera, ss, San Diego; Matt Carpenter, 2b, St. Louis; Allen Craig, 1b, St. Louis; f-Freddie Freeman, 1b, Atlanta; Paul Goldschmidt, 1b, Arizona; Marco Scutaro, 2b, San Francisco; Jean Segura, ss, Milwaukee

    Outfielders: Domonic Brown, Philadelphia; Michael Cuddyer, Colorado; Carlos Gomez, Milwaukee; Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh

    PITCHERS

    Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco; Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati; Patrick Corbin, Arizona; Jose Fernandez, Miami; Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh; Matt Harvey, New York; Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles; Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta; Cliff Lee, Philadelphia; Jeff Locke, Pittsburgh; Adam Wainwright, St. Louis; Travis Wood, Chicago; Jordan Zimmermann, Washington.

    (x-injured, will not play; y-injury replacement; f-final player fan vote)

— Ben Zobrist has been once, but in that pinch-yourself moment at Tuesday’s All-Star game, when he’s on the field with baseball’s best as the national anthem is played, he’ll 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 baseman’s 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 ‘Where’s the stadium? I’ve 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 it’s 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, that’s really what I remember most.

“(Being called up, sent down is) tough but you know they’re 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 don’t 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.

Zobrist’s All-Star contributions in the 2009 game weren’t 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 League’s 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 Maddon’s 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. “It’s not just about batting average. Ben personifies the complete baseball player and has done so year in and year out. It’s 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. It’s paid off so far, he’s 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, he’s 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 … That’s the thing this has brought to light. Maybe my numbers aren’t 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 there’s a message, too, for younger players to not limit themselves to the position they’re 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.

“It’s good for young players to realize that,” Zobrist said. “Don’t say ‘I’m not playing that position.’ You’re giving yourself more opportunities.”

Staff writer Wade Rupard contributed to this report.

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