Everybody in? The Cubs certainly are when it comes to Ben Zobrist’s return Sunday
Inside the clubhouse, you’d have a very hard time finding someone who isn’t excited about the prospect of seeing the veteran, who left the club in early May to deal with marital issues.
There seems to be very little division among the Cubs about Ben Zobrist’s impending return to the team, which, from the outside, might be the oddest thing about one of the oddest sports stories in recent memory.
You’d think there would be someone who, in the grip of human nature, might be unmoored by a teammate returning almost four months after walking away from the game.
But not when the teammate is Zobrist, a dual-threat good hitter/good guy.
Inside the clubhouse, you’d have a very hard time finding someone who isn’t excited about the prospect of seeing the veteran, who left the club in early May to deal with marital issues. Nobody gets four months to deal with a divorce. Zobrist did. He’s expected to be added to the active roster Sunday for the Cubs’ game against the Brewers at Wrigley Field.
“I don’t think anything about Zobrist is disruptive,’’ said left-hander Jon Lester, laughing. “I think we all understand what’s going on. Family takes priority over this. We all know where Zo stands on all that stuff. I wouldn’t imagine it’s a problem for anybody. I hope it’s not a problem for anybody. You add a person like that in the clubhouse, it’s only going to help.’’
The switch-hitting Zobrist “probably’’ will be used at second base and as a left-handed bat in the last month of the regular season, manager Joe Maddon said Saturday. He’ll definitely be used as an illustration.
“Just a professional at-bat — that’s the one thing he always brings, meaning he doesn’t normally expand his strike zone,’’ Maddon said. “One thing we’re getting a little bit better at more recently is not doing that.
“But he’s always been the guy who sets that example when he leads off the game, and I’ve always loved that. When you watch him hit and he’s kind of locked in, he will shut down on a bad pitch. You can see it from the side. The ball’s over here, and you see him [thinking], ‘Uh-uh, I’m not swinging.’ That’s really nice to watch. He sees so well.’’
We spend a lot of time in sports trying to define leadership, to melt it down to its base elements, whatever they are, and then pin it on players we think are leaders. Whatever it is, however it’s defined, Zobrist seems to have it. Teammates follow him.
“Not everybody leads the same way,’’ Lester said. “Some guys are vocal, some guys are rah-rah guys, some guys are kind of quiet and do their own thing, and if you approach them, they have a lot of good knowledge. I think that last description kind of fits Zo.
“Anytime you add somebody that’s done it, that’s won, it’s good. Obviously, when we added him [in 2016], he had won in Kansas City and we won here. When you add that presence, it only helps the other guys — even guys who have been through it and might be struggling or whatever. The more guys you can have around like that, the better.’’
The up-and-down Cubs are currently in a boom cycle. They’ve won four of their last five games, including a rare road sweep last week (against the Mets). No one can say with certainty what Zobrist’s impact will be as the Cubs make their playoff push. And no one knows how much rust the 38-year-old Zobrist will bring with him when he arrives. He hit .189 in 12 minor-league tune-up games. Last week, his stint in the minors done, the Cubs sent pitchers to his home in Nashville, Tennessee, to allow him to continue to work on his hitting. It’s the baseball version of working remotely.
“It’s just going to be good to see him, to have him here,’’ first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “Baseball-wise, he’s a great at-bat. I don’t care if he takes five years off, he’ll come back and be able to work a plate and an at-bat. It will be nice to have his personality and spirit.’’
Zobrist hit .305 last season, the highest average of his career. In 26 games with the Cubs this season, he hit .241 with one extra-base hit. Then he left, and a week later, he and his wife separately filed for divorce.
Now he’s back.
“Believe me, we’ve missed him a lot this year,’’ Maddon said. “It’s been pretty obvious.’’
Zobrist will meet with his teammates Sunday, and although it might get emotional for a veteran and his teammates, it probably won’t faze a club that has been through the Addison Russell and Joe Ricketts controversies this season. What’s a four-month absence compared with those messes? Nothing.