A recap of what the Rays lost yesterday.
What Ben Zobrist did best was fit in.
When Zobrist joined the Rays he was a tall, lanky kid with a goofy haircut. He had impressive minor-league statistics (though he was always older than the competition) and the Rays liked him enough to move B.J. Upton off shortstop in deference. Yet Zobrist was nobody’s idea of a top prospect and he looked overmatched against big-league pitching. The lowest point came early in 2007, when he lost his job to Brendan Harris, a career .209/.275/.345 hitter with a bad glove.
Zobrist fractured his thumb during the following spring, the result of laying out for a ball. By then the Rays had acquired a new shortstop and had no real openings on the roster. Zobrist’s time in St. Petersburg appeared near its end, except he wouldn’t have any of it. He’d worked hard, retooling his swing, strengthening his body, and improving his hairstyle.
A few months later, with that new shortstop on the mend, Zobrist claimed a roster spot for himself and hit one of the season’s most dramatic home runs. Less than a year after that, he’d become the starting second baseman after Akinori Iwamura suffered a knee injury. Zobrist would make the All-Star team that year and finished top-10 in MVP voting despite an otherwise disappointing season for the Rays.
From that point on, Zobrist became Zobrist. He played wherever, whenever. If the Rays had a hole in the lineup, Zobrist would fit in. He’d take over in center field during one of B.J. Upton’s hustle-related sabbaticals, and he’d return to shortstop too many times to count. He ended his Rays career having played every position except catcher and pitcher. Despite the varying physical demands of the positions, Zobrist never missed time. Additionally, he never lacked focus. Even with his gentle nature, you couldn’t help but become convinced that he was one of the game’s toughest players, physically and mentally.
Zobrist’s on-the-field contributions were the closest he came to standing out. Off the field, he never made a bad headline. You never concerned yourself that he might get arrested for domestic violence, or because of a late-night bar fight; likewise, you never had to worry that Zobrist would post incriminating nonsense on social media, or fail a drug test—all sins of his organizational mates over the years. No, Zobrist had a clean record. He was a religious man who had the audacity to share a Twitter account with his wife and use her gospel songs as his walk-up music.
There’s reason to believe the Rays will have a chance for as long as they employ Evan Longoria. But for as long as they employed Ben Zobrist, they had a comfort unlike that of which any other player can provide. Nick Franklin is not the new Ben Zobrist; nobody is or ever will be. Zobrist is an original whose name and achievements shouldn’t be cheapened through comparison to every switch-hitting infielder in the Rays system. He is incomparable and, in many ways, irreplaceable.
So here’s thanking Zobrist for his service in St. Pete, here’s wishing him luck in Oakland, and here’s hoping he’ll receive a massive payday in 10 month’s time.