Vahe Gregorian

Before he was a Royal, Ben Zobrist’s baseball career hinged on a $50 tryout camp

Ben Zobrist’s parents, Tom and Cindi, have memorabila commemorating their son’s arrival in Kansas City in the living room of their home in Eureka, Ill.
Ben Zobrist’s parents, Tom and Cindi, have memorabila commemorating their son’s arrival in Kansas City in the living room of their home in Eureka, Ill.

Shortly after the Royals made the July 28 trade that would put Ben Zobrist in one of their jerseys, his mother, Cindi, scoured through tubs of keepsakes for a throwback version:

A weathered Royals T-shirt fit for a toddler, circa 1985, inscribed with “BEN 1” on the back.

She finally unearthed it just in time to make it part of the postseason Royals-themed decorating scheme in the family living room.

The Star's Vahe Gregorian visited Eureka, Ill., home of Royals second baseman Ben Zobrist, and saw his first Royals jersey (from 1985), the backyard where Ben built a Whiffle ball field and the place he played high school baseball.

“This is what he wore to the Royals games,” his father, Tom, said, happily holding what proved to be a harbinger.

“No way,” Ben Zobrist said when they told him they’d found it.

Now, it’s just part of something that almost seemed meant to be, tethering together the family’s few years in Kansas City when Tom was studying at Calvary Bible College.

“We’ve always loved Kansas City,” said Cindi Zobrist, who like her husband grew up in Morton, Ill. “We came from a small town, but for a big city, it didn’t feel like a big city.

“Those were some of our most special times. As a family, we had nothing, but we made a lot of memories.”

Kansas City is “only” six hours away, says Tom, whose truck knows its own way there by now, after all the drives he made to see daughter Serena and son-in-law Mike Grimm during the 10 years they lived there, and as a board member now of his alma mater.

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But even as the second of their five children has become a vital part of the Royals’ cause entering Game 6 of the American League Championship Series against Toronto on Friday at Kauffman Stadium, they appreciate the preciousness of the moment.

For one thing, there’s no way to tell now how many more games he’ll play in his current Royals’ getup since he’ll be a free agent after the season. He’ll likely be able to command a steep contract.

“We’re hoping for the Royals,” Cindi Zobrist said, “but we don’t know.”

For another, as pre-ordained as it might seem to them now, there was nothing at all assured about his professional baseball career.

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After Zobrist played his last baseball game for Eureka High, after all, he spent the night driving around lamenting the end of an athletics career in which basketball had been his strongest game.

He had nary a scholarship offer and was entirely off the radar of any major-league teams.

Baseball, Cindi Zobrist said, “was in the past.”

Which was fine.

Ben was set to attend Calvary himself, and as each of his siblings has for at least a time, follow in the work of his father.

Tom Zobrist has been pastor of the Liberty Bible Church in Eureka since 1988, nurturing those to whom he ministers and the operation from a storefront location to its own site to a soon-to-be shimmering expansion project now that will include 500-seat capacity.

Their son’s direction wasn’t going to change, either, when the Zobrists got a call suggesting Ben attend a tryout camp in nearby Brimfield.

It would cost $50, after all.

“Fifty dollars was a lot of money,” Cindi said. “It still is.”

Never mind that Ben was intrigued, if only for the chance to spend more time playing with his friends.

“ ‘I’m not paying for that,’ ” said his father, who grew up a Cardinals fan.

But he was OK with Ben using $50 of birthday money he’d gotten from his grandparents.

“ ‘Go ahead; it’s your money,’ ” Tom Zobrist remembered saying, smiling at the recollection it would be money misspent.

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Next thing you know, though, college recruiters were calling.

Ben and his family were confronted with a new range of decisions as he considered nearby Olivet Nazarene of the NAIA to play baseball.

Cindi remembers crying about it over lunch with him at a local Cracker Barrel, fretting that doing so would be stepping away from God’s plan and fearing “other influences” at a larger school.

But Tom told him that at age 19, he needed to decide for himself and asked what he thought God wanted for him.

“ ‘Well, I feel like I’m not done with baseball yet,’ ” he remembered Ben saying. “ ‘But I’m willing to do what you want me to do.’ ”

That, Tom said, “told me a lot about his maturity. And he made that decision to go there, and it worked out pretty well.”

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Zobrist would later transfer to Dallas Baptist and be picked in the sixth round of the 2004 draft by the Houston Astros, a completely implausible development to the family even when coaches were telling them it was likely to happen.

Looking back now, it all played out as it should, even the part when they were saddened Ben was traded to Tampa Bay.

“I always tell people keep pushing forward and God will close doors and open doors as you move along,” said Tom Zobrist, noting they had friends pursue scholarships by having videos made or hiring companies to help make connections. “We did absolutely nothing, and it just came.”

As it happened, it didn’t have to contradict their hopes for what he’d stand for, either.

The night before Ben left home to join the Astros’ affiliate in Troy, N.Y., he told his father, “I’m going to be a missionary in the big leagues.”

And so he has, whether by organizing Bible studies with teammates or vigorously supporting the career of his wife, Julianna, a Christian singer, or just in how he carries himself.

“It’s not this blustery, dominating in-your-face kind of thing,” his father said. “It can be very gentle and quiet: the way you live your life, the way you treat your family, the way you treat other people …

“He lives his life and lets his actions speak.”

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As a child, sometimes Zobrist’s actions spoke more rashly.

The same competitive zeal that compelled him to do pushups and situps by the hundreds, and run a 5:01 mile in 7th grade, and to meticulously mow and paint an elaborate, lighted Wiffle ball field behind their house sometimes overflowed.

(Playing Wiffle ball, incidentally, was a foundation for his versatility, which later expanded to being able to play multiple positions. Although he wouldn’t apply it in baseball until later, Zobrist’s father is certain that his aptitude for switch-hitting began with batting left-handed in the back yard. Zobrist also once converted extra points left- and right-footed in a junior football game).

When Ben was 7, his parents got a call from school that Ben had shoved kids away from a bathroom sink so he could wash his hands first … so he could then run to be first in line for lunch.

Everything was a competition, at least until his parents made it clear that he needed to learn to “give way” at times and let the last be first.

“The Bible says the man that can’t control his anger is like a city broken down without walls,” Tom Zobrist said. “There’s nothing good that comes from unharnessed anger.”

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Now, part of what distinguishes Zobrist is his equilibrium — at least if you don’t count his trademark habit of bouncing around at second base waiting for the pitch this postseason.

“He’s really engaged when he’s doing that; he’s doubly focused,” said his father, adding, “I don’t think he could stop.”

And because he found himself and his true path in the game, now they’re glad he didn’t stop playing baseball ... and hope he stays in a Royals jersey.