Zobrist’s return to Cubs is no guarantee
Teammates know he’ll work to make it happen
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
The Cubs have felt the absence of Ben Zobrist during his sabbatical from the team over the last few months.