Ben Zobrist didn't know if he'd ever be here again.
Wearing a black "Level 5" T-shirt and talking to Chicago media in the bowels of Wrigley Field Sunday morning, the 14-year MLB veteran admitted he wasn't sure if he'd ever return to the game he loves and the career he's built for himself.
The T-shirt was apropos — it's a Maddonism reflecting the highest level a player can get to, where all they want to do is win and all they care about is the team. Zobrist has demonstrated that concept consistently throughout his career, including his four years with the Cubs.
"Wrigley Field is a special place," Zobrist said. "Any time you get a chance to be here, I don't take it for granted. I'm excited to be back."
It's been a long road for the 38-year-old, who left the Cubs on May 8 to handle his family situation.
Zobrist expressed gratitude to the Cubs for giving him the time and space to be with his family.
He also said he would've understood if the club told him they needed to move on without him and would not have a roster spot waiting. Yet they welcomed the 2016 World Series MVP back with open arms, which included rehab stints with four separate levels of the minor leagues and sending pitchers to Zobrist's house in Nashville so he could continue seeing live pitching leading up to Sunday's return to Chicago.
Zobrist said he feels great physically, but admitted he's not exactly where he wants to be with the timing of his swing, though he pointed out that "changes daily whether you've been playing for five months by now or not."
Before coming back, Zobrist told Theo Epstein when he's at the field, he is 100 percent focused on baseball and this team. And then when he leaves the ballpark, he's going to be focused on his kids and family.
He assured Cubs fans the same thing in his press conference Sunday while also stating it was a "very easy" decision to walk away from the game back in May.
"I'm a 100 percent focus type of person and I knew that at that moment, there was no way I could be here and be focused while I was here," Zobrist said. "So I didn't want to give half effort while I was here and think about where my head and heart really were. So I knew that for at least a period of time, I needed to fully put myself back in Nashville, at home with my family, doing everything I could to keep my family together.
"And that was my focus. That's where my heart was at the time and that's where my heart remains. I'm here now because my heart feels like while I'm here at the field, I can put 100 percent into it and I can really get after it with my teammates. I'm looking forward to that push right here down the stretch."
What went into Zobrist's decision-making process as he was trying to determine whether to return this season?
"It was a lot of prayer, just trying to decide, is this a time where I can go back?" he said. "How is this going to affect the family? How is it going to affect the team? I didn't want to step back into a scenario if it wasn't going to make sense. Throughout the time I was away, I would check in every week or two with Theo just to let him know where I was at and see where they were at as far as whether or not it was something that was needed.
"You don't want to insert yourself when it's not necessary. At the end of the day, it was probably about mid-July that I decided I had to make a decision of whether I'm gonna go out on the field and really push to get on a baseball field and see where my skill level is. I really didn't do much baseball-wise from May until mid-July. I was doing a lot of just workout stuff just to stay in shape.
"But that was when I got back out onto the field and really felt like I wasn't very far behind baseball skill-wise. And that's when I knew, OK if I'm not very far, if I do the proper rehab stuff, I could potentially be ready to help the club in September if that's what they want. That's kinda the plan that we set out for, not really knowing the whole time whether or not this is happening for sure. Just wait and see how it goes."
So why return at all? Why not remain with his family and continue working through the situation?
It would've been understandable. He's 38, owns two World Series rings, has made enough money in this game to support his family and could've retired as is.
But Zobrist said he hasn't made any decision one way or the other about retirement yet.
"I don't think I have anything I need to prove personally with my career or to anybody else," he said. "My priorities have always been the same; they've been very consistent in my whole career. My faith is important, my family is important and my career comes after those two things. I took time away that I needed to take personally for my family and I feel good about that. I don't regret any of that.
"I'm just grateful that I get this opportunity now to return and try to finish the season on a good note with this club, do the best that I can to help the ballclub. At the end of the day, I'm grateful for all the support and all the prayers. People have been patient. They don't owe me anything and I don't feel like I owe the game anything at this point.
"I'm just glad to be here. I'm excited to come back and do what I can to get this team where I believe it can be."