Zo­brist’s re­turn to Cubs is no guar­an­tee

Team­mates know he’ll work to make it hap­pen

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - CHICAGO SPORTS -

MIL­WAU­KEE — A friend of Ben Zo­brist’s told me last week that if he re­turns to the Cubs, he prob­a­bly will walk up to the plate to the same song he has used for years: his wife Ju­lianna’s ver­sion of “Benny and the Jets.”

Con­sid­er­ing the Zo­brists are go­ing through a di­vorce and Ben went on the re­stricted list nearly three months ago to tend to the cou­ple’s three chil­dren, it seemed like an odd choice.

“You don’t know Ben,” the friend replied.

The truth is we don’t know what’s go­ing on in­side Ben Zo­brist’s head. We didn’t know when he abruptly left the Cubs in early May with­out say­ing a word in pub­lic or on so­cial me­dia, and we don’t know now even af­ter he told the team he’s ready to at­tempt a come­back for the fi­nal month of the sea­son — and hope­fully Oc­to­ber.

The Cubs said Zo­brist will speak with the me­dia be­fore he at­tempts his come­back, which team Pres­i­dent Theo Ep­stein said should be­gin next week­end with one of their mi­nor-league af­fil­i­ates. Un­til then we only can spec­u­late about why he felt the need to give up base­ball — and mil­lions of dol­lars — for his fam­ily and why he be­lieves now is the right time to re­turn.

Sev­eral Cubs play­ers said they have not spo­ken with Zo­brist re­cently in or­der to give him “space.” Ev­ery­one has been re­spect­ful of the sit­u­a­tion, which

speaks to his stand­ing in the club­house.

Man­ager Joe Mad­don said Zo­brist’s de­ci­sion sug­gests he’s men­tally and phys­i­cally ready to re­turn, be­cause he would not do so if there were any con­cerns.

“Zo is not go­ing to beat around the bush,” Mad­don said Sat­ur­day be­fore the Cubs faced the Brewers at Miller Park. “He’s not go­ing to give you a smoke­screen. He’s go­ing to tell you ex­actly what’s go­ing on. If he feels up to it right now, I be­lieve him. And as he gets ready, we look for­ward to hav­ing him back.”

Ev­ery­one is look­ing for­ward to Zo­brist’s re­turn, es­pe­cially his team­mates, who know him much bet­ter than the fans and me­dia. Out­fielder Ja­son Hey­ward said he couldn’t re­ally quan­tify how much the Cubs have missed Zo­brist, though it’s ob­vi­ous his ab­sence has been felt.

“It’s Ben Zo­brist,” Hey­ward said. “His story is one of the most unique sto­ries prob­a­bly ever. And he works hard every sin­gle day, gives you ev­ery­thing he has. He’s done what he’s done. His re­sume speaks for it­self.

“He’s al­ways been one of those peo­ple that if you feel like Zo is do­ing it, it’s prob­a­bly a good idea for us to do.”

The funny thing about Zo­brist is he might be as im­por­tant in the club­house as he is on the field. The team was on a roll when he played his last game May 6. It has been in­con­sis­tent ever since.

“Ob­vi­ously the base­ball stuff is great,” Kris Bryant said. “Zo plays all over. He gives you a great at-bat, he’s pro­fes­sional, a vet­eran. He was such a pres­ence in this club­house and al­ways smil­ing.

“I just re­ally ap­pre­ci­ated my time play­ing with him. I hope he comes back su­per soon. We need him, and ob­vi­ously down the stretch here he’d be a great ad­di­tion to our team.”

Will re­turn­ing to the ma­jors late in the sea­son be like rid­ing a bike af­ter 14 years in the ma­jors, or will it be more dif­fi­cult than any of us can imag­ine?

“It might be tough,” Bryant said. “But he’s been do­ing it so long, he knows what it takes to get ready. I think he’ll be ready to go. I don’t know what he’s been do­ing in terms of con­di­tion­ing, but I have no doubt when he comes back he’s go­ing to help us.”

How will the Cubs use him? Mad­don said bat­ting Zo­brist lead­off is “pos­si­ble” but added it’s too early to say.

“The thing is he’s not com­ing back from an in­jury, ei­ther, which I think is per­ti­nent,” Mad­don said. “He’s just been out for a bit. He’s still been work­ing out. I think the fact that he’s not re­hab­bing an in­jury is a pos­i­tive.”

Ep­stein said Fri­day that it will take about a month of play­ing in the mi­nors for Zo­brist to be base­ball-ready. He must be on the ros­ter by Aug. 31 to be el­i­gi­ble for the post­sea­son — if the Cubs make it. Ep­stein was care­ful to call it a come­back “at­tempt,” as there are no guar­an­tees Zo­brist will make it back to the Cubs. He’s un­likely to re­turn if he doesn’t feel he’s able to per­form up to his stan­dards, and at age 38, there is al­ways the ques­tion of whether a player is done.

That’s the part of the story that’s easy to over­look while hop­ing for a happy end­ing.

Spring train­ing gets play­ers ready for a six- or seven-month grind, and even some of the best hit­ters tra­di­tion­ally strug­gle at the out­set of the sea­son and heat up soon af­ter the cal­en­dar flips to May.

Zo­brist won’t have the lux­ury of eas­ing into things be­cause he’ll be in­serted into what’s ex­pected to be a pen­nant race in Septem­ber. He has a ca­reer av­er­age of .249 in March/April, his worst month sta­tis­ti­cally, and was hit­ting only .241 with one dou­ble and no home runs in 83 at-bats be­fore leav­ing the team.

This is no gimme putt, even for a vet­eran hit­ter such as Zo­brist.

“Base­ball is dif­fi­cult, so yeah, to come back is go­ing to be hard,” Hey­ward said. “It’s not go­ing to be easy. Ei­ther way, I know he’s go­ing to work to do it. I know he’s not go­ing to half­way any­thing.

“That’s him. That’s who he is. I know if he says he’s do­ing it, he’s go­ing to do it.”

Paul Sullivan On the Cubs

JOHN J. KIM/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

The Cubs have felt the ab­sence of Ben Zo­brist dur­ing his sab­bat­i­cal from the team over the last few months.

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