Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon

news

MLB News

For Zobrist, Cubs had X-factor

Chance to help team win championship, reunion with Maddon too good to pass up
MLB.com @TracyRingolsby

MESA, Ariz. -- Cubs second baseman Ben Zobrist had to battle emotions last December.

Zobrist was born and went to high school in Eureka, Ill., a small town about 120 miles southwest of Chicago and about 180 miles northeast of St. Louis, in the part of Central Illinois where that Cubs-Cardinals rivalry creates heated debates.

MESA, Ariz. -- Cubs second baseman Ben Zobrist had to battle emotions last December.

Zobrist was born and went to high school in Eureka, Ill., a small town about 120 miles southwest of Chicago and about 180 miles northeast of St. Louis, in the part of Central Illinois where that Cubs-Cardinals rivalry creates heated debates.

And Zobrist was coming off an October in which he was a key part of the Royals' first World Series championship since 1985 -- a time when his family actually lived in the Kansas City area (though his memories are minimal; he was 4).

Spring Training: Tickets | Schedule | More

Despite all that, there he was, agreeing to a four-year deal with the Cubs, of all teams.

"I have family and friends who are strong Cardinal fans, and they are having a tough time since I signed," said Zobrist. "They want to root for me, but rooting for the Cubs is next to a sin. Now they have to suck it up.

"One of my best friends, James Miller, managed to find the only Cubs hat that is all red,'' Zobrist said with a grin. "My uncles Neal and Matt were both pretty shook up. My dad is a pastor. He has counseled them."

As for the Royals? Well, their success actually played a part in Zobrist's decision.

Acquired from the A's on July 25 last season, Zobrist, a utility player by trade, stepped into the everyday second-base job for a Royals team that won the AL pennant for the second year in a row and eventually disposed of the National League champion Mets in five games in the Fall Classic.

The Royals had interest in re-signing Zobrist. He had interest in staying with the team.

Zobrist, however, said he couldn't resist the lure of the Cubs -- a team that hasn't won a World Series since 1908, having come up short in its past seven World Series appearances, the most recent of which was in 1945.

"The Royals were at the top of my list," Zobrist said. "I knew the atmosphere there. I fit in well. It was a great clubhouse, great guys."

But …

"This place," Zobrist said in reference to the Cubs, "is the only place that appealed to me more. If we hadn't won [last October], it would have been more of an [issue]. With the Cubs, I have an opportunity to try to win another one."

And of course, with the Cubs, there is the Joe Maddon factor. Originally drafted and signed by the Astros, Zobrist was dealt to the Rays with Mitch Talbot for veteran Aubrey Huff in July 2006, making his big league debut on Aug. 1 that season as the starting shortstop in a game against the Tigers. Zobrist has spent minimal time in the Minors since, having adapted to a utility role that Maddon designed for him, and he has started big league games at every position except pitcher and catcher.

The Cubs signed Zobrist to be their primary second baseman, although with Maddon, Zobrist knows he will need to break in a glove for more positions.

"I have no doubt I'll move around a bit," he said. "Joe isn't afraid to shake things up in the course of a game."

And Maddon is particularly comfortable with relying on Zobrist to play multiple positions.

"He is going to play second base, but I wouldn't hesitate to put him [in another position]," said Maddon. "When he first got to the Rays, he was a shortstop, and we talked about him moving to the other side [of the infield]. He handled it. We put him in the outfield, no problem.

"Everything he does is technically correct. I'm not afraid to use him anywhere. You won't see him at third or first unless it is absolutely necessary, but I am not afraid to put him there."

The respect is mutual. Zobrist knows his big league career was enhanced because of the versatility he developed in the nine years he spent playing for Maddon with the Rays.

Now Zobrist gets a chance to repay Maddon. He will try to help Maddon get a World Series ring, like the one Zobrist earned with the Royals last year. The Rays advanced to the postseason four times with Zobrist on the roster and Maddon in the dugout. They won the AL pennant in 2008, only to lose to the Phillies in five games in the World Series.

"To try and win a championship with him is special," said Zobrist.

The Cubs took a step in that direction last year, claiming an NL Wild Card, beating the Pirates in the NL Wild Card Game and the NL Central champion Cardinals in the NL Division Series before being swept by the Mets in four games in the NL Championship Series.

"These guys are proud and ready to take the next step," said Zobrist.

And they are looking for Zobrist to help lead them down that postseason path.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com.

Chicago Cubs, Ben Zobrist