CHICAGO -- Growing up in Eureka, Ill., Ben Zobrist was a Cardinals fan, and Ozzie Smith was his favorite player. His father, Tom, who is still the pastor at Liberty Bible Church in the downstate Illinois town, is well aware that a large part of his congregation is loyal to the Cards. Will Tom change the tone of his sermons now that Ben plays for the Cubs?
"I have to walk a fine line there," Tom Zobrist said, chuckling.
"There's a few converts down there besides us," said Ben's mother, Cindi.
The Zobrists were in Chicago this past weekend, all wearing new No. 18 jerseys, to see the 34-year-old Ben take part in his first Cubs Convention after signing a four-year, $56 million contract in December. He's happy about playing at Wrigley Field -- but even more excited about being reunited with manager Joe Maddon. The two have grown up together; Zobrist's first year in the Major Leagues in 2006 also was Maddon's first as Tampa Bay's big league manager.
"He took a liking to me because he saw my work ethic and saw that I'm just a baseball player -- there's not much flash to me," Zobrist said of Maddon, who gave the super utility player the nickname "Zorilla."
"I'm a manager's player, in a way, because he can use me in a lot of different ways and I'm willing to do that," Zobrist said. "It's really worked well both ways. I've been blessed by the way he's used me, and I know that he, as a manager, appreciated how I played for him. He knows the kind of person I am. He's a good evaluator anyways, both of baseball ability and also character. I've always appreciated his belief in me."
Zobrist did not appear in more than 62 games in any of his first three seasons in Tampa Bay, but he definitely helped get the team to the World Series in 2008, batting .321 in September. In '09, Zobrist found his groove. He batted .297, played every position except pitcher and catcher, was an All-Star and finished eighth in the American League Most Valuable Player Award voting.
Not bad for someone who, at 14 years old, was 5 feet tall, weighed 98 pounds and never thought he had a chance at playing in the big leagues. Zobrist was seriously considering Bible college before enrolling at Olivet Nazarene University, where he played baseball and got noticed.
Zobrist gives Maddon a lot of credit for his success.
"I wouldn't have even created this [super utility] position for myself," Zobrist said. "[Maddon] saw it as a viable position, and he said, 'You can do this.'"
Zobrist did sometimes wonder what the "crazy professor" was doing.
"Even though he's unpredictable to a certain degree as a manager, I know about that, and I'm OK with that," Zobrist said. "I've seen the genius work. I've seen the ability to take a situation, have no fear and him make that decision, and everybody's like, 'Why did you make that decision?' And it works out. I believe in him as a manager. I know he knows what he's doing even in the crazy times when we're wondering why he's making a certain call."
Cubs fans saw that first-hand last year, as Kris Bryant was shifted from third to the outfield, catching prospect Kyle Schwarber found himself starting in left and the starting pitcher batted eighth. The plan is for Zobrist to primarily man second base for the Cubs this season, but he's smart enough to know that Maddon will call upon his versatility whenever the need arises.
"Joe has a way of putting you in a situation where you might not be comfortable at first, and he's not afraid to put you in that situation even though you might feel like, 'I don't know if I want to do that,'" Zobrist said. "But later on when you see the benefit to yourself and your team, you understand his leadership ability. [The Cubs] saw it last year. He proved himself as a manager last year to everybody."
Maddon did just that, leading the young Cubs to a 97-win season and their first trip to the postseason since 2008. Zobrist joins newcomers John Lackey and Jason Heyward this year with the mission of helping the Cubs take that next step.
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"My job as a veteran guy, knowing him, is to help them get over that hump -- get past that Championship Series, get back to the World Series where we were in 2008, and this time win it," Zobrist said. "That's my goal for him as I think about what I want to help Joe do."
The reunion almost didn't happen. The Cubs told Zobrist they couldn't sign him until they made another move. They'd discussed dealing Starlin Castro to the Yankees at the Trade Deadline, but those discussions weren't revived until the first day of the Winter Meetings. Both the Castro trade and Zobrist signing were announced within minutes of each other.
"We didn't even know the trade was happening until [the Cubs] called and said, 'We're not going to do this trade unless we're going to get you,'" Zobrist said. "We knew they wanted me here. I wanted to be here. It was just a matter of, 'Now that all the pieces are going to fit, now we can do this.' The timing had to be perfect, and it was. Probably within two days I was going to sign elsewhere."
Zobrist remembers the first time he saw Wrigley Field, arriving on the team bus with the Rays for an Interleague series in 2014.
"I said, 'This is the way baseball is supposed to be,'" Zobrist said. "I'm so excited to try to win a championship here."
His parents could see how excited he was.
"One of the first things he said was, 'I love this place,' after the first game there," Tom said. "He's said a couple times, 'I can't believe I get to play there.'"
"He loves the history," Cindi said. "He's always been an old-school kind of guy."
There will be plenty of family support at Wrigley this summer. Ben's parents plan on making the 2 1/2-hour drive from Eureka often. Zobrist's wife, Julianna, an accomplished musician with a new album "Shatterproof" due this year, is from Iowa City. Hopefully, she'll sing the national anthem before a game. Ben's parents are excited about seeing their grandkids.
What about when the Cubs play the Cardinals? The town of Eureka has its diehard supporters. Tom isn't sure whether he'll give Ben's team a plug during his sermons.
"We haven't experienced that yet," Tom said, smiling.