One Ray morphing to become an octopus

Zobrist expands glove collection, workload chasing utility role.

By Marc Topkin, Times Staff Writer
Published March 6, 2008

ST. PETERSBURG - The making of a super utility man starts early in the day.

At 8:30 the other morning, Ben Zobrist was in centerfield working on turning to catch fly balls. At 8:20 the next day, he was standing at first base being tutored on the proper footwork. Before breakfast this morning, he will be back in the outfield.

The making of a super utility man takes a while.

In the first six days of exhibitions, Zobrist has already played four positions for the Rays - second base, shortstop, third base and, Wednesday, his first appearance at first base - with plans for his outfield debut today, and a centerfield start Friday. But the process will be ongoing daily throughout the month. "He's got a busy spring," infield coach Tom Foley said.

The making of a super utility man is important.

With a 12-man pitching staff and only four players on the bench, having one guy who can do a lot of things "really matters," manager Joe Maddon said. He relishes the options such flexibility can provide for in-game moves and compares it to the significance of having a "really good sixth man" in basketball. And it's even more important for the Rays because - with Rocco Baldelli's availability uncertain - they need someone to fill-in in centerfield and don't have room for a sixth outfielder. "I think a winning team has this kind of guy," Maddon said.

The making of a super utility man isn't an accident.

Zobrist wasn't a random choice for this assignment. His speed, athleticism, strong fundamentals and work ethic all made him an appealing candidate, and he met Maddon's biggest criterion of being able to play shortstop.

"If he can do that, he can probably play all the other infield positions, and if he can do that, he can probably play centerfield, which means then, of course, he can play on the corners," Maddon said.

The making of a super utility man is a challenge - especially to the guy being made.

"It's hard work," said centerfielder B.J. Upton, who went through the positional boot camp last spring. "It's not fun sometimes, but you've got to make it fun to fight through it."

Zobrist's prep work actually started in January. He got a call from Maddon telling him what was planned, then made a call to his Easton glove company rep, ordering three new ones - outfield, first base and a longer version of his current infield glove for third base - to go with the two he had.

Zobrist has been primarily a shortstop (he was the Rays' opening day starter last year), with little experience elsewhere. He played outfield his freshman year in high school, second base for a year as a college junior, one game at first base his senior year, and a couple of games at third base in Double-A ball.

But he's working tirelessly at all assignments, learning the responsibilities of each position and getting comfortable with the techniques, such as the footwork at first base ("Awkward," he said of Wednesday's experience. "I had no idea where I was supposed to be half the time") and tracking balls in the outfield.

"It's fun, and it's challenging," Zobrist said.

"Whatever I have to do to be able to be out on the field, I'm willing to do it."

The making of a super utility man can be rewarding.

As strictly a shortstop, Zobrist, wouldn't make the team with Jason Bartlett aboard. But with the versatility of playing seven positions (and being a switch-hitter), Zobrist appears the odds-on favorite for a spot.

"Zoey's looked good," Maddon said. "He's working his butt off. Zoey wants to be on this team, and I've really been paying attention to that. He's going about it right. He's done a nice job."

Or, more precisely, jobs.