You want to know how Ben Zobrist soared from being a preacher’s kid in Eureka, Illinois, to Major League Baseball All-Star and prototype of the modern-day utility stud?

One word: Grit.

“If you know Ben, you know he loves a challenge,” Tom Zobrist says of his son, who signed with the Cubs last winter and is one of the primary reasons they have reached the World Series for the first time since 1945.

Bob Gold was the baseball coach at Eureka High School when Ben was a freshman.

“Ben was a little guy, maybe 5-foot-3, 110 pounds,” Gold says. “Even though he was a little twerp, I threw him in the outfield and he ran down every fly ball. He was a winner. I was building a program and looking for guys with grit. That’s what I was after, and he helped turn the program around.”

Sound familiar?

The Cubs have been searching for a World Series championship since 1908. Their infamous shortfalls are stuff of baseball legend. From time to time, they’ve had championship-caliber talent, but always seemed to lack the intangibles when it came to getting over the final hurdle.

Current Cubs management has built a talent base perhaps better than any in the game today. But all that talent got swept out of the National League Championship Series last year by the Mets. More was needed.

More grit.

Zobrist last year joined the Royals in midseason and proved to be the missing piece for a team that had reached the World Series in 2014 but lost. In 2015, with Zobrist putting up Hall of Fame numbers in clutch situations from the seventh-inning onward — .409 batting average, 1.050 OPS — the Royals won their first championship in 30 years.

He’s just what the Cubs wanted. He can play seven positions, avoiding only the pitcher’s mound and the catcher’s crouch in his career. He can bat productively anywhere in the lineup. He’s a switch-hitter, with solid power from the left side. He’s a proven winner, having helped the Rays to their only World Series appearance in 2008, then the Royals to a title last year.

“And he’s one of the best teammates you’ve ever had in your life,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon says.

But at the core of it all is grit and determination.

Here’s how those traits worked to make Zobrist the player he is.

Backyard games
Wiffle ball was a big deal with the Zobrist family. Tom loved how a pitcher could make the ball do all types of crazy things. A natural right-hander, he also enjoyed how the game enabled him to try hitting from the left side.

Ben, whose favorite player as a kid was the Cardinals’ switch-hitting shortstop wizard, Ozzie Smith, decided to try it, too.

They played serious Wiffle ball on a serious field behind the Zobrist house. Ben put together a neighborhood league, complete with night games, and Tom would sometimes have to impose curfews after midnight, for the neighbors’ sake.
Ben was always serious about baseball, but he really didn’t get serious about switch-hitting until the summer after his junior year in high school. His buddy Jake Eigsti had a field set up on the family farm outside Eureka. The two of them took a wooden bat and a baseball out there after an American Legion game one day and pitched to each other.

“I turned around left-handed, to pretend I was Ken Griffey, Jr.,” Zobrist says. “Jake pitched, and I smoked a few. He’s like, ‘Dude, you can hit left-handed!’ And I thought, well, maybe a little bit. That was the first time I ever tried it with a heavier bat.”

Next spring, he asked Gold if it would be OK to try it in a game. Gold was apprehensive, but he noticed Zobrist every night after practice, taking left-handed swings in the batting cage. The kid was serious, and he looked good. Gold finally green-lighted the experiment.

Switch-hitters are valued at all levels, but especially in the major leagues. Managers like to pitch left-handed pitchers against lefty batters, righty vs. righty, and they’ll switch up with relief pitchers during the game, sometimes in order to neutralize a hot bat from one side or the other. A good switch-hitter helps negate the effect of the pitching changes.

When Zobrist reached the major leagues, the ability to switch-hit helped save his career.

His rise to pro ball had been quick and dramatic. Undrafted out of high school, he played baseball at Olivet Nazarene only because a scout saw him at a tryout camp in Brimfield, for which Zobrist used birthday money from his grandparents to pay the entry fee. He transferred to rising NCAA Division I power Dallas Baptist, and got drafted by the Astros in 2004. Two years later, the Astros traded him to the Rays, who promoted him to the bigs almost immediately.

He made a good first impression and arrived at spring training in 2007 penciled in as the starting shortstop. Then came adversity. Zobrist was a decent hitter, but nothing special. He batted just .155 in 31 games and was sent back to the minors. Also, though Zobrist was a good shortstop, he lacked the range and arm that clubs want there in The Show.

But Maddon was managing the Rays and liked Zobrist. One thing in particular was too important for Maddon to let slide.

“He’s a switch-hitter,” Maddon says. “When you get a guy like that, a guy who’s talented and can hit from both sides of the plate, you try to find a spot.”

‘Kid’s got moxie’
The Rays traded for established shortstop Jason Bartlett in the off-season, but Maddon followed up with a phone call to Zobrist.

“He said, ‘We want you to bring about six different gloves to spring training,’” Zobrist recalls. “He said, ‘You can be a great utility player for us, and you’re gonna keep evolving as a player, and this is going to give you an opportunity to get more at-bats.’”

At that point, given what had transpired, Zobrist was willing to do anything to make the team. Heck, yes, he would learn to play every position on the field, and play it well.

It helped that Zobrist is a natural athlete. He had been a star in the field and on the mound for his junior high team, which reached the IESA state tournament in the late 1990s. He wanted to pitch when he got to high school, but Gold feared Zobrist was so small as a freshman that if he pitched varsity games, “he might get himself killed.”

But by his sophomore year, Zobrist was mowing down opposing batters one night at Tremont. Gold says the Tremont coach came up to him and said, “That kid’s got moxie.”

As a senior, Zobrist posted an 11-0 record as a pitcher. He played great shortstop when not pitching, and there was the switch-hitting prowess.
He remained a starting pitcher his freshman season at Olivet Nazarene, but it drove him crazy to play only every four or five days. He worked his way into the everyday lineup at second base as a sophomore, and his pitching role changed to closer. He started the game at second base, then step to the mound and save the game in the final inning.
“It’s funny,” Gold says, “to see him as this versatile major-leaguer playing everything except pitcher and catcher and realize he was a starting pitcher through high school and his first year in college.”

Redefining utility
So Zobrist, now 6-3 and 210 pounds, arrived at spring training in 2008, loaded with gloves. He played wherever Maddon told him to play. Outfield came naturally and second base, too. Third base is a reaction position, quite manageable for a good athlete. First base was a challenge.

“When the ball was hit, my first reaction as a shortstop was always go in the direction of the ball,” Zobrist says. “You can’t do that at first base. You go too far in that direction and it’s hard to scurry back and be ready to pick the throw.”

But he thrived on the challenge. And he still hasn’t quit drilling. Ask his Cubs teammates, and the first thing they cite is Zobrist’s work ethic. He’s relentless.

One other thing Zobrist did on his own over the winter of 2007-08: He was determined to shake off his label as a punch-and-judy hitter. If he was going to stick in the major leagues, he would have to hit more consistently and hit for power.

Zobrist sought the counsel of Dan Heefner, his hitting coach at Dallas Baptist and now the head coach there. They worked with his swing, adjusted his stance from the left side and drilled endlessly.

“He came back that spring,” Maddon says, “and all of a sudden the ball started going into the seats. So the power showed up, and that made it even more interesting to have him become this multiple position player.”

Utility players, they’re called. They’ve been around baseball forever. Traditionally, though, the utility role was filled by an older player trying to hang on to the end of his career, or a scrappy kid trying to get noticed. That might have been Zobrist, except that he played so well Maddon couldn’t keep him out of the Rays lineup.

In 2009, Zobrist broke out big-time. He hit .297, with 27 homers, 91 RBI and a .948 OPS. His WAR factor — wins against replacement — was plus-8.6, ranked second in the American League. And he was selected to the All-Star team, even though he wasn’t on the ballot.
Zobrist was on the vanguard of a new generation of players who redefined “utility.” No longer would these positions go to the last position player on the roster. They played every day, just not at the same position all the time.

The veteran
Zobrist is 35 years old now, a leader on the field and in the clubhouse. He made the All-Star Game for the third time this season, his first as a National Leaguer.

“He was our best player for the first month and a half of the season,” Cubs veteran catcher David Ross says. “He was humongous, on fire, driving in runs, protecting (Anthony) Rizzo when nobody wanted to pitch to Rizz early on. Zo is a proven winner. He understands winning baseball outside of just the performance. He works hard, has a great routine and he sets a great example for all these young guys.”

All of that is why the Cubs coveted him as a free agent and signed him to a four-year contract worth $56 million.

They needed the grit of a guy who taught himself to switch-hit, an ability that prompted Maddon to value him as a rookie and give him another chance. They needed the grit of a guy who learned to play seven positions well and was willing to play wherever it most helped the team. They needed the grit of a guy who provided the previously missing spark for a World Series champion last year.

They needed Ben Zobrist.

The other day, Zobrist was asked what might have happened had Maddon not asked him to bring all those gloves to camp back in 2008.

“I’d be out of baseball,” Zobrist said, without hesitation. “Doing something else. Probably sitting on the couch watching these games.”
No, he probably wouldn’t be watching these games, because without him, the Cubs likely wouldn’t be here.
— Kirk Wessler is Journal Star sports editor. Contact him at kwessler@pjstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @KirkWessler.