The Zobrist Condundrum

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Over the last few weeks there has been an awakening surrounding Ben Zobrist. With his 10 RBI day a few weekends ago and his sudden hot streak, Zobrist once again has the Rays Community all aflutter. After being mired in a yearlong slump in 2010 and sleepwalking through the first few weeks of 2011, we watched the mighty Zorilla destroy the Twins and set the team record for most RBIs in a day, hit over .500 for nearly a week, save kittens from redwood trees, kill fastballs by the hundreds, and consume American League pitchers with fireballs from his eyes and bolts of lightning from his arse.

But for all the statistical acclaim and the occasional Zorilla doll, it seems Rays fans don’t know what to think about Ben Zobrist. He seems to be more than the marginal utility player he was during the closing days of Devil Rays futility, yet his all-star appearance of 2009 seems like a distant memory. Is he a super-versatile slugger or was that Hobbsian season a Gilkey-esque mirage? What about 2010? Where are we in the Zobrist narrative and what is left?

It’s almost as if Rays fans don’t yet know what to expect from Zobrist. Could be an all-star this year? Is he a cornerstone for the franchise or will he be replaced by Sean Rodriguez within a year or two?

There is nothing bad about Ben Zobrist. He has all the ingredients for a hero. He is a clean-cut All-American-looking guy from the Midwest, he went to a Christian college, he gets on base, he has a beautiful semi-celebrity wife, and he has one of baseball’s last truly original unique nicknames. He is the kind of guy parents want their kid to be. Those factors alone should secure him a certain level of fame and notoriety. However that is not the case.

Behind Evan Longoria and possibly David Price, Zobrist should be the face of the Rays. Instead he is stranded in a second tier popularity status with the likes of far less achieved Rays such as Matt Joyce or Jeff Neiman where the highlight is a glorified show-and-tell at a local elementary school.

It’s not as if Zobrist’s abilities are only discovered on paper or upon deep analytical spreadsheets. Even the most common fan knows that a player who walks, hits the ball hard, and plays numerous positions well is a valuable commodity. But for Ben Zobrist value doesn’t equal acclaim.

Maybe his lack of fame is directly due to his inherent valuableness. Perhaps by playing multiple positions Rays fans don’t know where to look. They know to look at third for Longo, to the mound for Price, and in center for BJ Upton. But for Zobrist, they have to consult their scorecards to find where he is playing. One day he might be in right field, another day at second, maybe at third, or possibly even at first. He is the Rays version of classic vagabond Waldo.

For all that he has done for the team over the past few seasons, I’ve only met one person who claimed Zorilla is their favorite Rays player. Only one Zobrist Zealot. I’ve rarely seen Zobrist jerseys around the Trop and no group has adopted him as their patron saint. It’s as if one of the Rays most valuable players was invisible.

By comparison, new Rays left fielder and Twitter meme muse Sam Fuld has a fraction of the time in Rays service but built an army of Fuld Fanatics. Even with a four year head start, within a few hours of creating “The Legend of Sam Fuld” the Official Sam Fuld Fan Club eclipsed the Zobrist fan club. Fuld spawned Twitter games, promotions, and a full-fledged phenomenon. Fuld could do no wrong while he was donning his cape and soaring through the outfield like Superman in metal cleats. Number five was quickly declared the greatest legend since Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez.

From a cultural perspective, Fuld had a distinct advantage over Zobrist. I am convinced Fuld’s popularity exploded as a response to the loss of Carl Crawford. Fans needed to bond over the departure of their favorite superstar, and who better to lift their collective grief than a diminutive plucky brainiac scraper who by chance played the same position?

Zobrist, on the other hand, never had the advantage of playing a position Rays fans looked at for greatness. As he bounced from second base to rightfield and back again, his greatest historical predecessor was perhaps Jorge Cantu in 2005. But comparing Zobrist to Cantu is so horribly one-sided as to be unfair. In 2009 alone Zobrist was seven times more productive than Cantu, according to Baseball-Reference’s cumulative Wins Above Replacement stat.

With all his accomplishments and all he has going for him, there must be a reason people find Ben Zobrist unappealing. Maybe he is not as interesting as other Rays, maybe there is a subconscious backlash to his All-American upbrining, maybe fans find him boring. For whatever reason, he doesn’t have the commercial magnetism of Even Longoria, the underdogism of the aforementioned Fuld, the dominating talent of Price, or the maddening variance of BJ Upton. Even Zobrist’s disappointing 2010 didn’t invoke the sympathy or ire of any fellow teammate’s month-long struggle.

Being a big blues fan, I can’t help but also think of the outside chance that perhaps a lack of overarching fame was part of the deal Ben Zobrist made with the Devil to gain his prolific stroke. I can imagine Zobrist going to the Crossroads and waiting to strike a deal with the ousted Devil of St. Petersburg. Before getting a job in the Yankees front office, the Devil granted Ben Zobrist the offensive skills to be more than just a marginal utility infielder. Without the aid of Old Scratch, Ben Zobrist might have been Felipe Lopez’s Midwestern cousin.

There is no one reason why fans aren’t all aboard the Zobrist Express. Their lack of enthusiasm could be for a combination of many reasons, or it could be as simple as Zobrist being outshined by the rest of the Rays galaxy. But is there anything the All-American all-star could do to win over the fans’ passion, not just admiration? This season could hold the answer.

For now, however, for every statistical tip of the cap Ben Zobrist collects from the media, analysts, or bloggers, the great majority of Rays fans will continue to let out their collective yawn.

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