This is not the sounding of a five-alarm fire. It’s not a fit of pique or exasperation. Hopefully, it’s not a moment of blatant insensitivity.
But Thursday marks one month since Cubs veteran Ben Zobrist last played in a game, and, well, I have a question. It’s not asked lightly. There’s no playbook for how to deal with the circumstances surrounding Zobrist, who has been on an unusually long personal leave of absence as he and wife Julianna go through divorce proceedings.
Again, though, that question:
Is Zobrist on this team or isn’t he?
The Cubs continue to place no timetable on the return of a player they’re just plain better with than without. There have been no answers, no indications, about whether or not Zobrist definitely plans to return — merely a matter of time — or if he is contemplating, perhaps even leaning toward, retirement.
A month into his leave, it seems fair and reasonable to expect some manner of clarification.
Last week, manager Joe Maddon acknowledged the possibility that Zobrist, 38 and in the final year of a four-year contract, was gone for good.
“I have to think that way, absolutely,” he told the Sun-Times’ Gordon Wittenmyer. “I hope that’s not the case. But he’s at the point now where, if he [chooses] to come back, it’s going to take a while to get back up to speed, too. We have to mentally be prepared that we will not have him.”
On May 26, which happened to be Zobrist’s birthday, the Cubs were thumped 10-2 by the Reds at Wrigley Field. Kyle Schwarber went 0 for 5 with three strikeouts from the leadoff spot, where Zobrist might — probably would — have been batting against right-hander Tanner Roark under normal circumstances.
It was just one in a recent stretch of tough days at the office for a team that was hitting a collective .284 with runners in scoring position when Zobrist took his leave, and cratered to .163 over the ensuing 25 games.
Zobrist’s physical gifts have diminished, but he’s still greater than the sum of his parts when it comes to setting a winning tone. He does that with his disciplined approach at the plate and with his professionalism in the clubhouse. It’s hard to quantify how much the Cubs miss the Eureka native, but it doesn’t take a “eureka!” moment to see that they do.
“He’s one of our guys, one of our best buds, on and off the field,” teammate Anthony Rizzo said. “He brings a tremendous professional approach every day. As younger players, you look at Ben and [see] a constant professional.”
The Cubs aren’t paying Zobrist while he’s on the restricted list, so his absence isn’t hurting the team in that way. They also brought in respected veteran outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, no small factor. But Zobrist isn’t Tommy La Stella, who was a pinch-hitting specialist in 2016 when the Cubs bent over backward to give him time and space to get his head right after a demotion to the minor leagues. Zobrist, the 2016 World Series MVP, has been there and done it all. He matters more.
Will he be part of a 2019 drive to the postseason? Even if the answer is no, it would be nice to have more than a clue. A month into Zobrist’s leave, no news is neither good news nor bad news — but it sure is awkward.
I’M JUST SAYIN’
A staff member at Taft tells me that students in the high school’s boys basketball program have written personal letters to alum Howard Moore, the Wisconsin assistant and former UIC head coach, after a May 25 automobile crash that killed Moore’s wife and nine-year-old daughter. In the wake of such tragedy, that’s a beautiful thing.
Wisconsin issued a statement this week requesting donations to Moore’s foundation in lieu of flowers or cards. The Moore Foundation was, according to the school, “established to mentor, educate and develop the skills of young people in the Madison and Chicago communities, fostering a culture of non-violence, growth and achievement.”
• No Kevin Durant. An under-the-weather Steph Curry. Gimpy Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala. DeMarcus Cousins, back after a long layoff, without his sea legs. But still the Warriors rallied to take down the Raptors on the road in Game 2 of the NBA Finals.
It made me wonder: How many rotation players could the Warriors be without and still beat the Bulls in a seven-game series?
• In 2006, journalist Rich O’Malley and I were having a beer in St. Louis. O’Malley was a freelancer for Sporting News magazine, and I was his editor. He’d been tasked with finding stories “at the intersection of sports and technology,” he recalls in his new book ‘‘One Lucky Fan,’’ but he had this persistent way of pitching sports travel stories instead.
“At one point,” O’Malley writes, “Steve said something like, ‘Did you ever think of writing a book about all your crazy trips?’
“I had — kinda. But at that moment, once someone else acknowledged that the idea had any merit whatsoever, the seed was truly planted.”
How delightful that — 13 years later! — O’Malley has produced just such a tome. And it chronicles one of the most fun, ambitious endeavors one could conjure in the sports realm.
It took a heck of a long time and “countless” vacation days — for 20 years, he had an office job as an editor at the New York Daily News — but O’Malley managed to take in at least one home game for each of the 123 teams that make up the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB.
Wrigley Field joins Pittsburgh’s PNC Park and Boston’s Fenway Park in O’Malley’s top three ballparks. But his favorite venue in any of the four leagues? He’s sorry to say it’s Lambeau Field, home of the Packers. OK, he’s not sorry. Don’t hold it against him.