The Night MLB All-Star Ben Zobrist Bought Me Dinner
Although it had been planned for months, I found myself sitting through the final out of the Seattle Mariners/ Tampa Rays game Tuesday, wondering if I really was about to have dinner with Rays All-Star, Ben Zobrist.
It’s a good thing Britton Dennis, friend and fellow NotinHD.com writing wonderlic – who was at the game with me and was the sole reason I was to potentially meet and hang out with Zobrist – never totally gave up hope, because it turned out to be an unforgettable experience.
Not everything discussed that night was on-the-record, but don’t worry, I will be gifting you with plenty of gold, as I recount the wacky events which led up to the meeting, as well as some insider Zobrist info as well.
What an incredibly insane day it was. The game/dinner was nearly derailed over half a dozen different times.
Among the things worth mentioning was Britton calling me the, “Taylor Swift of his friends” right to my face. What immediately followed was a debate over whether or not he would actually ask the cops to take me to jail, should I opt to rip his nose off his face, like I was mulling over.
He concluded yes. I didn’t totally believe him, but I did JUST ENOUGH to let it slide.
Upon picking me up in Tacoma, for the trek to Seattle, my good friend B. Dennis soon told and showed me, just how close we likely were to total agony. In fact, as soon as I sat down in his truck, he confessed two blunders, worthy of a groin-kick. Five more were to follow…
Blunder No. 1
Britton nearly locked his keys in his house, which would have been a real shame considering that being noon on a workday, the house was understandably empty and we wouldn’t have been able to re-enter without breaking a window.
Would I have been prepared to do so?
Blunder No. 2
Britton also nearly forgot the tickets at home. Would have been a rookie gaff. Good thing he remembered. Because I never would have let him forget it.
Blunder No. 3
Upon picking me up and turning onto the main road before I-5, we notice a cop pull up right behind us. An interesting predicament, considering Britton wasn’t wearing a seat-belt.
I had never before seen a statue drive a truck before. Britton was petrified, frozen rock-solid.
I reassured him he would be fine and that the cop wouldn’t care. Lucky for him, I was right.
Blunder No. 4
After stuffing ourselves full of crab legs, oysters, muscles and salmon, we left the restaurant to go find ballpark snacks. And gasoline. You know, since Britton was running on fumes with his gas light on.
Ever try to find a station in downtown Seattle? No? God help you should you ever have to do so.
As we drove up hills, towards random highways, searching in vain; “in play” jokes starting flying. As in…
Ben: “What are the odds that in a few minutes, I will find myself outside pushing this truck up the hill, until we can coast down the other side, trying to find a gas station?”
Britton: “I’d have to say, that’s in play.”
Ben: “What if I pee in your gas tank to give it the juice to get there?”
Britton: “Not sure that will work, but sure, it’s in play too.”
Ben: “Ok, how about this… to ensure that we reach a station, I’d be willing to climb out the passenger side window (we were on the highway by then), maneuver along the step-side and re-fill your tank with my urine, while you keep driving. The way an aircraft would re-fuel a fighter jet in mid-air.”
Britton: “(Pauses for a moment) I think by the time you are able to think up, assemble and perfect some sort of make-shift harness to wear, while you go out there, you’ll have been able to pee a few dozen times.”
Ben: “A few dozen? Try a few thousand man! I’m not mechanically savvy enough to figure out a contraption like that. It would never happen. But if I did try, it might be way less. After all, I might die.”
Britton: “Yeah, you dying is definitely in play too.”
Blunder No. 5
Upon arriving in Seattle, Britton quickly realized that wearing shorts, a polo shirt and flip flops, was going to be a problem. It was about 43 degrees, really windy and would likely rain later (which it naturally did).
It took just under eleven minutes before my compadre was a shivering, goose-bumped, shell of a man. By the time we had reached the second inning, something drastic had to be done. Something frighteningly unparalleled…
Britton Dennis, the bluest of Dodger fans, sunk to the low of purchasing a Mariners Snuggie®. What a guy.
I don’t think it’s possible to don a Snuggie® without resembling a wizard. The only debate would have been whether Britton was more Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.
Blunder No. 6
We nearly got locked inside Safeco Field. How does that happen? Let’s just say that a Britton pit stop after the final out, took a tad bit too long. It must have been all those garlic fries and nachos.
Safeco apparently doesn’t have much love for those who stick around to loiter after games, still soaking in the fun. Because they locked every exit but one in center field. Did I mention we had parked near the right field exit and it was pouring rain? Yeah, not a fun walk folks.
Which brings us to our next issue…
Blunder No. 7
As aforementioned, even moments before the final out, we were uncertain where exactly we were meeting Zobrist. Would he just ask us to lean over the right field fence, shake our hands and say a few kind words? Would he invite us into the visitor’s dugout or clubhouse? Possibly a nearby bar or restaurant?
It was the restaurant/bar. Zobrist wanted to meet us at Pyramid Breweries. The only problem? Once we got to the brewery, we found that it had been closed for 45 minutes.
Not only that, but earlier in the evening, Zobrist’s contact had asked Britton and I for a photo, so Zobrist would know who he was looking for. Only, for some reason, Britton couldn’t get a text or e-mail to go through. Funny story, half-way through the dinner Zobrist finally received a photo-text from his contact. So eventually, it worked out.
So there we were. Sitting in Britton’s truck, in the Pyramid parking lot, wondering what in the heck was going to happen. Should we just go home (we both had to get up early for work the next morning anyway)? Should we stick around for a while? Did Zobrist even know Pyramid was closed? The madness was seemingly never ending. What a confounding evening.
Then it happened. We got the magical call. (No, Britton wasn’t wearing his wizard-like Snuggie® at the time.)
I can only imagine getting that call – which was only half expected – while sitting in the parking lot, was a small taste of what it must be like for a minor league to get THE call from the big club. Not really sure whether or not to get your hopes up, but praying to God that your phone rings soon.
Zobrist was next door at Jimmy’s (right across from both Safeco and Pyramid) waiting for us.
Britton turned to me in the truck: “So what do you think… should we walk over there?”
We quickly made it across the street to meet the Tampa star. After brief introductions, Zobrist asked if we minded if he grabbed a bite to eat. It was probably then that we should have known what kind of night it was going to be, what kind of person Zobrist was going to end up being and how he was going to answer our questions and talk to us in general. But it wasn’t until later that I figured it out.
Near the end of the evening, once the check came, he didn’t hesitate for a moment before grabbing it (And sure you might be saying to yourself, “OF COURSE HE GRABBED IT, HE JUST SIGNED A $30-MILLION EXTENSION! WHAT KIND OF JERK FACE MILLIONAIRE WOULDN’T PICK UP THE CHECK?!?!?”). But, buying us dinner wasn’t part of the deal. He chose to pick up the tab out of kindness, when I’m willing to bet that there are big leaguers out there who wouldn’t have done so.
But while cool, buying me dinner wasn’t really what awed me about the kind of guy Zobrist was. It was what he said after Britton and I thanked him for dinner. Without missing a beat and with what certainly appeared to be total sincerity, he in turn thanked us for the company we provided.
Pause on that for a moment… Ben Zobrist, American League All-Star, could have spent his post-game meal with just about anyone in Seattle. People FAR more interesting than two pro-bono sportswriters, but all the same, he graciously thanked us for spending time with him. And I’m telling you, Britton and I knew he meant it.
Two other things which accentuated his character:
1.) How freely he talked about sensitive subjects, like say, his faith. Many Christian athletes hesitate to steer a sports driven conversation towards their religious beliefs. Of course, I’m sure it didn’t hurt that like Zobrist – and much to his surprise – Britton and I both went to a Nazarene college. He to Olivet and the two of us, to Point Loma.
2.) Piggy backing that thought, once Zobrist found out that we were by happenchance, sportswriters, the star sunk back into his shell. Totally justified, and expectedly so. But only for a brief moment. After a short, “Uh oh, what are these jokers planning here? I have to keep my guard up and not give up ANY information that could conceivably come back to bite me” pause, to collect himself, he exhaled and told us that he trusted us. For one reason: We were believers.
That was cool. And after that, Zobrist answered every question our unpredictable brains thought up, with complete and utter honesty. He didn’t hold back. It was as if we were friends whom he had known for years. Probably from Olivet. It’s the Nazbo thing. It bonds you, I tell you.
So what can I tell you about Zobo that you haven’t read on Yahoo! Sports or his Wikipedia page already? You know, something other than trivia style facts, like that out of high school, he wasn’t even going to be offered a single scholarship until his coach got him to attend a special tournament, which prompted a small NAIA school (Olivet) to give him a shot. One which they wouldn’t regret.
Well for one thing, he has the utmost respect for his Tampa teammates, realizing what a special team this Rays squad is. Can they win this year? Absolutely. Do the Rays believe? You better believe it.
He told us that the Rays love playing in the AL East, competing against the best of the best. So much for that kooky idea that teams like his would be better off with some sort of weird re-alignment, ensuring that along with the Red Sox and Yankees, the Rays would have a shot at the playoffs each and every year, rather than just two of those three as it is. Tampa doesn’t need a hand-out. It’s a tough division, but finishing the season strong, fighting and clawing their way into the postseason – rather than sleep-walking into October like some teams in weaker divisions have the opportunity to do – ensures that they will be playing their best baseball at the right time. It’s a simple concept. Finish strong, be ready for the playoffs.
Zobrist had a predictable answer to the “toughest pitcher in baseball” question: Roy Halladay. The Doc. Of course. Who else would it be? Zobo said that against a guy with the filth Halladay has (as he described Halladay’s stuff, his hands were quickly and sharply shooting down towards the corners of an imaginary plate, as a cobra strikes at its prey), you can’t really approach at-bats with a particular strategy. It’s back to the basics against Doc. Look for a fastball in a particular spot, pray you get one pitch in that area and if not, do the best you can to adjust. Easier said than done, naturally.
When Britton doubled up and added that it must have been so much less nerve-wracking on Tampa’s last road-trip to Toronto, only having to worry about the likes of Shawn Marcum and company, Zobrist sarcastically replied, “Yeah… it was ROUGH.”
On the flip side, his answer when I reversed the question (Which pitcher causes you to salivate at the dish?) wasn’t nearly as predictable. In fact, it was one of the most hilarious answers I have ever been offered, to ANY question.
Zobrist slyly looked at me, his head cocked slightly left-to-right, the way you can imagine a chocolate Labrador would when he hears the word, “walk” and cooly responded: “A.W.R.”
Not wanting to look like a fool in front of my new baseball friend, my mind began to race…
Who is the heck is A.W.R.?
I’m a huge baseball buff for crying out loud! I ought to know those initials, hiding the identity of some run-of-the-mill No. 5 starter. Lucky for me, Britton didn’t waste much time relieving me of my misery.
“Ok Ben, tell us who is A.W.R.,” he asked.
Zobrist paused, smirked and replied, “Average, white, right-hander.”
(Zobrist gave a good hearty laugh.)
What gold that was. And it makes sense. Those are the guys big league hitters make their living off of. Are they the worst pitchers? No. But their stuff isn’t dynamite either.
(For some reason, I can’t shake the images of Bobby Jenks, Jim Johnson or Kevin Gregg from my mind. I have no idea why…)
In addition, a righty who relies on his sinking fastball, plays right into Zobrist’s strength; his left handed swing, which he feels most comfortable with.
I couldn’t help but wonder what Zobrist’s minor league experience was like. Was he always confident he would reach the Majors? Did his teams (he was drafted by the Astros and played all but about two weeks of his minor league career with their organization) consistently reassure him that they had a plan for him? Was he confident he could hit at each level?
The answer to all of those questions was yes. Zobrist said hitting around .300 at every level helped his confidence and also kept him advancing. In 2006, he was dealt to the Rays and sent to Triple-A Durham. After about two weeks there, he found himself flying to Tampa.
One interesting Zobrist tid-bit, albeit unexpected, was that he said that hitting predominantly in front of All-American Hero and MLB 2K10 spokesman, Evan Longoria, hasn’t brought him anymore fastballs.
You would think that pitchers would attack Zobrist aggressively with four-seamers, not wanting to nibble corners, lest they risk facing Egore with a runner on base for him to drive in. You would think that, but you would be wrong. It’s been mostly off-speed junk thus far, according to Zobrist.
One last Zobrist story for you. While receiving more attention from a waiting staff than I ever have had at a table (they swore it was because it was late and they were bored, but Britton and I weren’t buying it), Zobrist seemed like he appreciated the extra attention, but was undeterred by it. He never once appeared conceited, like he deserved all eyes on him.
In between water refills (I swear my glass was topped off with less liquid than you have to package in a clear 3 oz. Zip-Lock, to get through airport TSA, at least a dozen times), a young couple (late twenties) timidly approached our table. They were decked out in Tampa apparel. We pressed pause on our conversation and looked up.
“Hey, sorry to interrupt your meal, but we just wanted to thank you for a great game,” the guy said. “We’re really big Tampa fans.”
(Later, I asked Zobrist if he had gotten used to people randomly approaching him in public. He told me he really doesn’t mind most of the time, when they seem non-theatening, just wanting to say hello or shake his hand. In fact, he doesn’t even really mind autograph hounds. You know, the ones who come to several games a month, wanting a dozen items signed each time. He figures that in the end, if they can make a buck off of his name, good for them.)
Zobrist thanked the couple for the compliment and asked where they were from.
“Alaska,” said the girl.
All three of us were flabbergasted. But not as shocked as we were about to be…
“Yeah, you guys don’t come around these parts often, so when we heard you were coming to Seattle this weekend, well, we just had to drive down,” the guy confessed.
I wish I could remember the town the couple came from, but to be honest, the fact that they drove down from Alaska pretty much knocked my socks off, leaving me freeze-tag inoperable for a minute. Crazy. Ultimately, I guess the town they came from wasn’t so important. How far they drove was. Zobrist showing an interest, of course, asked.
“Oh, eleven hours or so,” the guy said.
That is almost like driving from Chavez Ravine (Los Angeles), to AT&T Park (San Francisco)… AND BACK again!
As Britton and I sat there, mouths agape, the couple thanked Zobrist again and wished him good luck the rest of the year. He in turn thanked them for their support, and they were soon out of sight.
The All-Star sheepishly chuckled for a moment, filling the dead-air surrounding our table, as he waited for one of us to resume grilling him.
“Those two should be the ones sitting here at this table, talking to you,” Britton appropriately said.
Though I couldn’t have agreed more, Zobrist proceeded to rope us back in, showing us the value and attention that he would have to his biggest fans.
Regardless of how the rest of our lives pan out, Britton and I will forever be uniquely tied to Ben Zobrist, baseball player and human being. And from this point forward, we will root for him.
How could you not?