ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Ben Zobrist received a fine surprise from his bosses Saturday at Tropicana Field, one that left him shocked and grateful. The Tampa Bay Rays infielder/outfielder arrived for another day of work without a thought that he could be named to the All-Star Game.
Here is how oblivious he appeared to the possibility: He had forgotten that rosters were to be announced Saturday evening.
But soon enough, Zobrist was called into an office with Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman, the Rays’ executive vice president of baseball operations. This was before Tampa Bay’s 3-0 victory over the Chicago White Sox, and Zobrist thought he had been summoned to discuss team business.
Eventually, Maddon slid an envelope across a table. The news: American League manager Jim Leyland had selected Zobrist to be a reserve in the All-Star Game, to be played July 16 at Citi Field in New York.
The player’s reaction: Not relief, elation or excitement. Try confusion.
“No thought at all,” Zobrist said of considering the potential. “Not one thought.”
There is some humor in this selection. Remember, Leyland is the manager of the team that (likely) plunked Zobrist on purpose last Sunday following the Miguel Cabrera/Fernando Rodney tiff that added spice to the Rays’ final series with the Detroit Tigers in the regular season.
Zobrist, level as always, saw the intrigue in Leyland’s pick as well. Six days ago, Zobrist stood in the Rays clubhouse and said it was a badge of honor to be the Rays player (likely) targeted to be beaned in the Tigers’ retaliation for Rodney brushing back Cabrera the night before.
So perhaps Leyland recognized Zobrist’s worth long before the All-Star surprise.
“I find a lot of humor in the selection, based on that,” Zobrist said, smiling. “I can’t wait to talk to Mr. Leyland and thank him for a couple different things.”
Maddon complimented Zobrist’s selection, which will mark his second All-Star Game appearance (the first was 2009), as a sign that the complete game matters. Zobrist has shown his versatility in seven-plus seasons with Tampa Bay, displaying his grasp of multiple infield and outfield positions, as well as switch-hitting prowess. A full player was given a fitting reward.
“It’s about his complete game,” Maddon said. “And it’s also reflective of what we try to do here. I think, in general, it sends out the right message among young baseball players: play the complete game, play it right. … There’s a lot of factors that were rewarded in that moment today, and a lot of it has been based on his body of work over the last several years.”
Zobrist is a personification of that message. Most times, he does not command the attention reserved for Evan Longoria, a three-time All-Star. But Zobrist has pushed himself to be a respected player in his own right, someone who understands the chance presented to him as a jack-of-all-trades option for Maddon.
Sure, there are others on the Rays’ roster with more dazzling numbers. He has hit .264, which ranks as a tie for fifth on the team. He has five home runs, which ranks as a tie for seventh. He has 44 RBI, which ranks second.
Still, numbers only tell part of his value. He is there on offense and defense. He is available when needed, wherever necessary, no hesitation required: to switch hit, to play multiple positions, to be a strong base runner, to be effective in key moments, to be a solid teammate.
He is … here, there, everywhere. That is the Zobrist the Rays have come to enjoy. That is the player who made himself a “surprise” All-Star, though little about what Zobrist offers the Rays is a surprise at all.
“In some other organizations, I probably would have been pigeonholed into doing one thing and stuck there,” Zobrist told FOX Sports Florida later Saturday night. “But they have given me the opportunity to move around and switch hit and do a lot of different things to help the team win. That’s something I really try to work on. If there’s any particular part of my game that I feel is lacking, I try to work on that.”
That means focusing attention on parts of his game that many others may overlook: becoming a stronger fielder, a better base runner, a more improved all-around presence prepared to answer the call when required.
“It’s going to be huge for Leyland to be able to just have that guy on his bench readily available and stick him anywhere,” Rays left-hander Matt Moore told FOX Sports Florida.
“It’s not, ‘Here’s a power-hitting first baseman,’ where you’re just kind of stuck with what you’ve got. He can do a lot of different things. I’m not surprised one bit by Leyland’s decision to get him on the team. I think it’s a bright spot.”
For the Rays, Zobrist has been a bright spot for some time. On Saturday, he was recognized for his work.
Sometimes, unexpected rewards are the sweetest kind.