tampabay.com

Rays' Zobrist picking up tips as he adjusts

Rays are impressed, select him as starting shortstop.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published February 25, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - Ben Zobrist had to adjust to a lot of things during his whirlwind journey in July from Double A to the major leagues.

The game was faster, the strategy more sophisticated, the pitching decidedly tougher.

And then there was the tipping.

"When my wife and I first got there, somebody would grab our bag and just start taking it to our hotel room. They're walking next to you with your bag, and you're like, 'I can do that.' But it's something that's just kind of expected. So I was like, I've got to keep some $5 bills on me or something," Zobrist said.

"I didn't know anything like that. In the minors, you felt pretty good when you got your $20 a day in meal money. It was just a culture shock as far as stuff off the field goes."

Zobrist, 25, is still getting used to that part of the game.

He might be the only starting major-league player, for example, who rented a 16-foot Budget moving truck, packed his furniture into it, hitched his 2004 Malibu to the back, drove 13 hours straight from Nashville to St. Petersburg with his wife, Julianna, and they unloaded it all themselves into a new apartment.

But the Devil Rays have been thrilled with the way he handled the rest of the adjustment. Enough, based on what they saw in two months last season and a strong Arizona Fall League showing, to anoint him their starting shortstop.

"He's a baseball player, and I mean that obviously as a big compliment," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "He plays the game the right way. He's not extremely flashy, but we think he's an above-average shortstop defensively. And we expect him to be able to make the adjustments offensively to have a very good year."

Zobrist showed signs of that after a 1-for-17 start by hitting .241 over his final 44 big-league games. He hit an impressive .366 in the fall league (though against minor-leaguers), and more importantly re-established his tremendous strike zone discipline, reaching base in all 28 games and posting a .469 on-base percentage. Plus, he convinced himself he belongs in the big leagues.

"I feel a lot more comfortable," Zobrist said. "My confidence shot way up. Now coming into this year, I know what I have to do, and I know how I'm going to do it. Now I just have to go out and do it."

Zobrist was relatively unheard of and unheralded when the Rays acquired him and pitching prospect Mitch Talbot from Houston in the trade for Aubrey Huff. The rapid progression from the Astros' Double-A Corpus Christi team to the Rays' Triple-A Durham team to the Tampa Bay lineup in a 20-day span was overwhelming in many ways.

The reality check came Aug. 15, his first big-league payday. They had been living paycheck to paycheck, with Ben taking home about $600 every two weeks as Julianna worked to further her Christian rock singing career. They were elated that the promotion to Triple A meant a raise to about $1,000 ("It was like our Christmas," Zobrist said), especially because the day he was to get his first check in Durham they were down to $32 in their checking account and debating whether they could afford to buy gas.

Better, he got a ticket to the majors. And two weeks later, a check for about $14,000.

"We were looking at this check like, 'Is this for real? Is it a play check or something?' " Zobrist said.

With a raise to nearly $400,000 this season (about $19,000 take-home pay every two weeks), Zobrist, who grew up modestly, the son of a minister in Eureka, Ill., is slowly getting used to having money. For the first time, he didn't have to work during the offseason "to make ends meet," though the kids he gave baseball lessons to and supervised birthday parties for at the Showtime Sports Academy for $25 an hour might have missed him.

But he said he will never get used to spending it, at least not on himself. Julianna may force him to buy a second suit to go with the one he got off a sale rack at JCPenney, but she laughs aloud at the suggestion of him styling with trendy clothes or accessorizing in heavy bling.

"He's never going to have Louis Vuitton luggage or anything like that," she said. "He's just never going to feel good about spending a lot of money."

For now, having that wad of $5 bills in his pocket is enough.