The champagne spattered from a green bottle, and Ben Zobrist held his thumb over the spout like a garden hose, devising a line of mist that darted through the Royals’ clubhouse. The target: His 6-year-old son.
Zion Zobrist wore ski goggles, just like his father, while his younger sister, 4-year-old Kruse, ducked behind her mom and then behind the plastic wrap in fear.
As teammates sipped the celebratory beverage long after a decisive American League Division Series victory Wednesday against Houston, Ben Zobrist took a moment to acknowledge the accomplishment in his own way. With his family.
“It’s a huge blessing,” Zobrist said. “You don’t get a chance to go to the playoffs very often, but to be able to win in the playoffs and experience that with the people you love the most in the world is really fun.”
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It’s part of the balancing act of the professional athlete, of course, in which the job — and its requisite travel schedule — often takes precedence over family, friends and a social life. But the postseason offers a bit of an exception, and the Zobrists have taken full advantage.
The Royals permit families to travel with the team on its charter planes to and from playoff games, and allow them to partake in the series-clinching parties. After the ALDS Game 5 win, the Kauffman Stadium field and locker room overflowed. Lorenzo Cain’s 1-year-old son, Cameron, who was born last October, crawled around the infield, pacifier in tow. Terrance Gore’s niece, 4-year-old Claire, wandered through the clubhouse, donning a shirt that said, “My uncle runs faster than yours.”
Ben Zobrist captured his family’s celebration on Snapchat.
“This team has made it easy for families to be a part of it with the way they treat them, the way they take care of people and make things available to them,” Zobrist said. “It’s been great being here. But that’s certainly a big challenge for any major league player — trying to keep your family together.”
Zobrist and his wife, Christian music artist Julianna, who sang the national anthem before Game 1 of the ALDS, have adopted a special set of guidelines to make it work. Julianna calls it the “six-day rule,” in which she and Ben never spend more than six days apart. They’ve broken it only a handful of times over the past 10 years, she says.
This has required some creativity and sacrifice. On most occasions, Julianna, Zion and Kruse travel to at least one city during every road trip. Julianna home-schools Zion during the trips, with hotel rooms across the country serving as makeshift classrooms.
“We have to be creative,” said Julianna, who is pregnant with the couple’s third child, due in three weeks. “For us, it’s what’s more beneficial at the end of the day — for the kids to be able to be with their dad, even for a short amount of time on the road, or keep them on a schedule, which might be more simple logistically. At the end of the day, we felt like in the long-term for us, this is just what made sense — to spend time with their dad.”
It adds up to an unfamiliar situation for many families of Major League Baseball players, but Julianna and Ben — whose lives on the road is well-documented on Julianna’s Instagram account — haven’t ever known it any other way. After they married, Ben was traveling in the Astros’ minor-league system. Ben and Julianna drove from city to city in a Chevy Malibu.
Before they had two kids, it was an 88-key keyboard occupying the back seat, so Julianna could work toward her aspirations of becoming a touring musician.
Those dreams changed when Zobrist was called up to the big leagues in 2006. And Zobrist’s six-year, $30-million contract, which expires after this season, made the decision easier.
“My biggest aspiration now is to be able to make music but while keeping our family together,” Julianna said. “I’ve had to say no to a lot of things — touring, shows around the country, record deals. It’s not worth it in the end for my family or my relationship with my family to suffer because I want a career.”
Julianna is gradually releasing songs from her third album. Her newest single, “The Dawn,” is Ben’s walk-up song as he comes to the plate. The next single, “Alive,” is set to be released on Nov. 7. In other words, she still finds time to write music, and she occasionally plays live shows — so long as she doesn’t need to break the six-day rule to do it.
That has been more challenging in 2015. After spending the first nine years of his career with the Tampa Bay Rays, Zobrist was traded to the Oakland A’s in January. Julianna, Zion and Kruse moved to downtown San Francisco. They didn’t stay long, obviously — the Royals traded for Zobrist in late July, and the family uprooted again.
They have adapted well to the latest move, Julianna says, and Zobrist has adapted well to a new clubhouse, too. He calls the move to the Royals a “perfect fit,” and the team certainly isn’t complaining, either. The switch-hitting Zobrist, 34, batted .284 with seven home runs to close out the regular season after the trade — first filling in for the injured Alex Gordon in the outfield and then for the injured Omar Infante at second base.
Hitting in the No. 2 spot in the lineup during the playoffs, Zobrist had the game-winning base hit in Game 2 of the ALDS.
“Zobrist has been a key addition — on-base guy, setting up runs for our big guys, our 3, 4, 5 guys, 6 guys, with (Mike Moustakas) hitting sixth,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “With Omar going down, he’s filled in at second base great. And his offense has been key from both sides of the plate for us.”
Zobrist’s combination of versatility in the field and production at the plate will likely lead to a sizable contingent of suitors this winter. And that could equal yet another move for the family, which makes its offseason home in Nashville.
At 34, Zobrist might be looking at his final multi-year contract. His family awaits a life after baseball — when perhaps the roles could reverse.
“Once baseball is totally over and done in however many years, I would want to dive more into my songwriting and performing more,” Julianna said. “Ben always says, ‘I’m going to carry your bags one day.’ ”