Last night, Ben Zobrist returned to the Chicago Cubs after an interrupted 2019 campaign. Personal reasons shelved him for nearly 4 months and in a triumphant return to action last night, he looked like a step ahead of his competition. At 38 years old, he has defied age throughout his consistent career, and now he has the new challenge of having to rev up an engine that had been out of competition for nearly an entire season.
During my playing days, I knew there would be a time when I would be the old guy in baseball. An age that in other industries would be the first step to hitting your stride, not the last. Downhill comes quickly in major league baseball. Quicker than you realize. Soon you are entering that period when you have less years in front of you than behind. And then it ends.
I always thought it would be the usual reasons that my career would disintegrate. The ones that always creep up as a player enters their early 30s. Injuries, skill decline, technology, analytics, youth. As a young player in the big leagues, you see it in real-time by watching the veterans. I recall when Shawon Dunston had back surgery and the impact it had on his speed and health. Or when Kevin Tapani was trying to recover from the effects of having a great splitter, which had contributed to his being on the injured list. Age is unfriendly, especially when you are on a team that is not in contention. Note to self.
Then it happened to me, after a game in San Francisco against Giants, my bat speed publicly came into question, I knew this was possible, but never knew what it would look like to the outside world. Has my bat slowed down? I feel fine.
Baseball is a game that constantly measures and compares. The decline of a player’s skills are inevitable, it is the “when” that an organization wants to understand, and for the player, he wants to be in denial for as long as possible, hoping results are still in his favor.
This has been always true of Zobrist’s game, the situational guru, the fundamentally sound producer that combines excellent mechanics, with good decision-making and balanced high level skills. He embodies Joe Maddon’s philosophy to a tee.
Yet skills often live in the world of the measurable. Bat speed, pop time, home to first, velocity, spin rate…. A change in these quantities can be easy to note, but Zobrist is a qualitative player that takes layers of stats to unpack. If you can unpack his value at all.
In describing his game last night, he was critical of his timing, knowing that the last thing to return from such a long hiatus is timing. The stride, the hands, the triggers, everything that comes naturally to hitting a baseball, has to be synchronized again in the big league world, Wrigley Field is a tough place to be back in spring training with the stakes that exists for the Cubs at this juncture.
He still found other ways to have a positive impact, as he always has. A decoy on a would be base stealer to create double play, running first the third on a ball hit in front of him, laying down an immaculate bunt for a hit, playing solid defense. He clearly kept his core instincts sharp and now, he can work towards re-mastering the rhythm of big league games that come at him every single day.
There was criticism of Zobrist early in the season because his power game seemed to have escaped him. He had no homeruns, one extra base hit before he played in his last game (May 5th) before last night. Yesterday, we saw what a player can bring without hitting the ball over the fence or even out of the infield.
His return also reminded me of another lesson from my career. Your life off the field matters significantly to everything you are as a player. Your ability to focus, to have peace, to feel supported, to endure. So much of it connects to the relationships around you. In my case, the decline of my father’s health over a three year period during my career brought it all into focus like no slump could ever do.
Learning that he had a major stroke was the moment I realized that it is not just the measurable skills that age us, it is life coming at us like the nasty down and away slider that it can be. Bliss is a big part of enjoying major league life. The candy store of tasting the rainbow of big league life gets a sobering gut-check when your father checks into the hospital. Where did my childhood go?
It is the invincibility that we associate with a kids’ game, the innocence, the fun, the big money and big stage. You play as long as you can, for as long as you are productive and healthy, independent of the rest of the world. Nothing can hurt you in that bubble. But the world has other ideas, humbling us with the great reminder that the world continues to revolve, long before you realize that you lost a step from home to first.
Then, when you stop to get off the big league ride, it is disorienting. Your family has changed, moved, aged, died, got married during that stellar 15 year career. They learned to live in your absence, learned to not depend on you, learned to not distract you from the self-centered focus that is required to be a major leaguer, often at their own expense.
In an interview with long-time Washington Redskins’ head coach, Joe Gibbs, he was honest about all the time he missed in his childrens’ lives. Then he described the moment when he decided to make a career shift. I will slightly paraphrase but he said…“I bent over to kiss my son good night……and there was this….beard.”
It is not unlike coming home from a long cruise. We spend so much time adjusting to the open water and navigating potential seasickness on the party ship that we forget that we must adjust again when we return to land. Imagine doing this after being in big league oceans from nearly two decades.
A career is short in the grand scheme. Even shorter when we take away the “just learning as a rookie” or “battling age on the back end,” stages. The sweet spot is sweet and as the late Ken Caminiti once said to me in spring training “this is the greatest game in the world…..when you are playing well.”
Maintaining that production feels like it is in our hands, like the bat itself. An extra session in the cage, a workout, a massage therapist, a dietary change will do the trick. Sometimes this is true, yet other times, it is just life that refuses to be measured by wins above replacement. Then it stops you in the middle of your hitting streak like a brick wall.
Ben Zobrist’s return was inspiring, playing the game in the most complete fashion, a style that can get lost in the Launch Era. He also serves as a subtle reminder of what is at stake in these games. Not just the post-season or the wild card, a batting title, or a empty leadoff slot. It is the quiet sacrifice of your inner circle, the heart and soul of a player, and a player knows deep down that no amount of bat speed or spin rate can replace it.
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