By Mark Darnall and Bruce Darnall
The summer of 2001, after his first year at Olivet Nazarene University near Kankakee, Illinois, Ben Zobrist had the opportunity to play summer baseball in Central America (Mexico and Nicaragua) with Athletes in Action. The competition was intense against some very good players, and the experience uniquely combined playing baseball and ministry to the people in the towns where they played.
Although Ben Zobrist’s experience with AIA was similar to most other college players who play baseball for AIA, his career did not end with college ball. Ben has become a star utility player for the American League Tampa Bay Rays.
From Small Town Illinois
Ben grew up in the small town of Eureka, Illinois, and as the son of a pastor he became a Christian at an early age. Growing up, and especially during high school, Ben’s Christian faith grew. “I did the things to help me grow in my relationship with the Lord—reading, prayer, camps, conferences and attending Sunday school and church,” he says. He participated in the high school FCA huddle group, even attending an FCA camp.
With a 3.98 GPA, Zobrist wanted to go to college. Despite playing varsity baseball all four years of high school, and having a great senior year, there were no baseball offers. So he decided to go to Calvary Bible College in Kansas City, Missouri, his father’s alma mater. However, his plans changed.
“I was scared, not knowing what was ahead”
“My senior year I realized I was going away from home and was going to make my own choices,” says Zobrist. “So I was scared, not knowing what was ahead, and I started worrying about the future. I hit my knees in prayer and said, ‘Okay, Lord, whatever You want me to do and for whatever reason You are allowing this fear into my life, I want You to take it away. My life is Yours and I am not trying to be in charge.
“As for sports, You can have that too,’” he added. “I gave everything over to Him. If God wants me to do something else with my life, then that is where I want to be.”
It is not surprising what happened next
So, it is not surprising what happened next. After graduation, with plans to go to Calvary Bible College, his high school baseball coach called and told him of a tryout where some scouts and college coaches would be attending.
“I was not sure,” Ben confesses, “whether I should go or not, but because I did not want to quit playing baseball, I went to see what could happen. Each player would take a few ground balls, a few fly balls, throw some, hit some and pitch some, and that was it.”
Unbeknownst to Ben, there was a college coach there looking for prospects. Ben continues, “Coach Elliott Johnson of Olivet Nazarene University contacted me and said, ‘We are looking for solid Christian players to build our baseball program at Olivet.’”
“The day I got back I got a call”
The following week, Ben attended a church conference and the theme was “Keeping the door of your life open to what God may want you to do, regardless of what it is.” “The day I got back I got a call from Coach Johnson offering a full-ride scholarship,” Ben says. “At that point it was God saying, ‘let’s go work on baseball at this Christian school.’”
Zobrist played baseball at Olivet Nazarene for three years and the summer of his freshman year participated in the AIA summer baseball program. At Olivet, Ben focused on his walk with the Lord and baseball. He spent many hours alone in the batting cage, either hitting off a batting tee or bribing his best friend and teammate, Jason Miller, to pitch to him.
His senior year Ben transferred to Dallas Baptist University in Texas because “I wanted to know really how good I was.” He was able to test his skills against some Big 12 schools such as Texas A & M and Baylor. Ben was drafted in the MLB 6th round of the 2004 June draft by the Houston Astros. Ben went back to Dallas Baptist the fall semester and graduated in December.
“I felt confident he had his focus right”
The night before Ben left for his first assignment in New York, his father went to his room to pray with him. Rev. Zobrist says, “I told him, ‘Here is what is important to me. I don’t care what you do for a living as long as you live for God.’ When Ben left, I felt confident he had his focus right. He was not worried about success in baseball but his service to the Lord.”
The 2006 season was one that saw a quick climb in Zobrist’s career starting in Double A ball in Corpus Christi in the Texas League where he was doing well and made the Texas League All-Star Team. Then in the middle of July, Ben was traded from the Astros organization to the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays organization. The Rays sent him to Triple A at Durham, N.C. The parent team called him up August 1. He spent the rest of that season with the Rays. His first RBI came on a squeeze bunt on August 2 against Detroit. The first homerun Ben hit was against Boston on August 6. He finished the season batting .224 average, and headed for the Arizona Fall League.
But in 2007 after starting with the Rays, he was not playing well, and was sent down to the Triple A Durham team.
“I wondered why God allowed this to happen”
“I wondered why God allowed this to happen and I started to have lots of doubts,” Zobrist says. “Where is baseball going to fit into all of this? I did not have much peace.
“But God allows things to happen the way He wants,” Zobrist noted. “And we need to accept it joyfully and to love Him through things that don’t happen the way we would like in life. The Bible says: ’For all things work together for good with those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.’(Romans 8:28) Being sent up and down in both 2007 and 2008 was a great lesson for me. I had a prideful and wrong attitude of success.”
The last part of the 2008 season became very exciting as the Rays won the American League Championship before falling to the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series.
“The World Series…Wow!”
“God was saying to me, “Keep working, keep glorifying Me; wherever you are, don’t grow weary in doing good for in due time, you will reap,’” Ben says. He ended up on the playoff roster and starting two games in the World Series. “I am learning to enjoy the experience God put me in at the moment and glorifying Him in that. The World Series…Wow!”
One could talk a lot about Ben’s major league exploits, especially the beginning of this 2009 season with a couple of grand slams and some other timely hits and his ability to play three infield positions and three outfield positions.
Former teammate Brian Shouse comments, “Ben is the kind of player you would want on your team…he plays hard, he wants to learn and improve, and he has a great attitude.
“Ben is a devoted family man who is absolutely tickled to be a husband and father,” Shouse adds. “He is a very active Christian and he looks for ways he can help and encourage others in life. He loves the Lord and he has found peace and joy in his life through his faith in Jesus.”
Another former teammate Gabe Gross adds, “Ben, the teammate we called Zorilla for his monster homeruns, has had to work hard his whole career. He has come up with some very timely hits for our team, and often the big hits have been homeruns.” The first thought that comes to Gross about Ben as a person is “uncompromising.”
“He lives it; that is who he is.”
“Ben’s faith, his belief in Christ as his Savior covers every aspect of his life,” Gross adds. “He lives it; that is who he is.”
Two things are more important in Ben’s life than baseball. They are his Christian faith and his family. His dad, Rev. Zobrist commented, “Ben is very good about staying in touch; and as busy as a professional ball player is, he will take the time to call his grandparents, us, and his brothers and sisters. Family is important to him.”
Zobrist says, “Julianna has been a wonderful, supportive and loving wife, having to ‘roll with the punches’ with all the travel and away time. She is a professional singer of Christian music. We support each other with the things we love doing individually.”
About his son, Ben says, “When it comes to Zion, God has truly blessed us with a most precious gift.” The Zobrist’s have a second child on the way.
As Ben continues to find success in the Major Leagues, he says, “When I dream of Major League baseball, I don’t dream of fame, fortune or popularity; but for me, if God allows me to [continue to] play, I will have a different perspective—to direct people back to the Lord.”