He's vying for his first batting title and a third World Series championship in four years -- and he's doing it when most guys are winding down their careers. In a lengthy conversation with Chicago Cubs infielder/outfielder Ben Zobrist, he tells us what he would do if he were commissioner for a day -- it's not robot umpires -- his plans for the future and why this year may be even more enjoyable than 2016.
You're 37 and in year three of a four-year deal. Are you on the back nine? Is next season it for you?
Ben Zobrist: It depends on how next year goes. How many teams will want to sign me after that? I'm not going to make a declaration because I don't know how I'll feel at the time. I feel good now. That's the thing, after last year , I would have been, "Yeah, probably, that's it." But I feel good this year, and the way that they've used me, I think I can provide a lot of value to teams. I've seen a transition for me, in regards to going from every day to a little less than every day. That's been going fine.
You've obviously accepted being a part-time player.
BZ: It's helping me stay fresh. The way [Cubs manager] Joe [Maddon] has handled me and the way the team is, it works for us. Most guys don't get that luxury to make that decision. Generally, it's the game that makes that decision for you. We'll see when the time comes.
When you're in the hunt, like you guys are, it's all about team at this time of year, but how about winning the batting title? We know batting average isn't what it used to be, but that has to have some meaning, right?
BZ: I would love to do that, but the more I think about that, the less I think about having a quality at-bat. It's been a goal for me to try and hit .300. And I'm over that number at a further part of the season than I've ever been. It's more important that I have a quality at-bat, and whatever it ends up with at the end of the year, I'll feel good because I've gone about the process the whole season the right way. If it's not meant to be, I'll shrug my shoulders, but if is, sure, I'll be excited about that.
When did you know Javier Baez had zoomed past you as second baseman -- heck, as a baseball player?
BZ: After seeing how 2016 went for me defensively, I was super-motivated last year to let everyone see I hadn't lost as much on defense as they thought I had lost. I think I did that last year. And I've done that this year. But we saw in the postseason in 2016 his abilities come out on a national stage, and then we saw at the beginning of 2017 what he can do on a more daily basis for the club, defensively. The things he's able to do on a baseball field are maybe top-three-in-the-world type of talent. When we started seeing that on a daily level, it was like, "We have to find a way to get this guy to wherever the ball is being hit. He has to be there." He needs to touch the ball on every play possible. That just made sense to everyone on the team, especially me.
You and Joe Maddon seem to be aligned in one respect: The older you get, the less you cling to the old methods of doing things. Does that resonate?
BZ: Yes and no. The interesting thing is, there are a lot of those old-school things about the game that I am drawn to naturally. The tradition and the structure and the consistency over time, the way that we do things in this game. However, I'd like to think I'm forward-thinking enough and have enough of a growth mindset in me that I can still recognize where things need to change and where we need to keep moving forward. I still want to hold things in the game that I feel have lasting effect on people that experience the game, but the stuff that is inevitably going to change, I don't want to be archaic in any mindset that thinks the way we used to do it is better than the way it can be done. That's Joe to a T. He's helped teach that to me. My wife has helped teach that to me. People in my life that think outside the box do a better job than I naturally do. I'm naturally drawn to the old way and staying with the old ways, but I feel like I've grown in regards to changing with the times.
Where have you grown?
BZ: The traditional side of me says there is a purity of the game you have to buy into. I'm talking about the down time, the inaction in baseball. The unfortunate thing is, people don't value that inaction even though there is a lot going on. That part of the game has to be taught. That's been devalued. I think that's part of the cultural shift. As players, we recognize that, and we have to continue to change with that, because we don't want to be left behind as a game.
BZ: To me, it feels just a little bit more of a solid foundation. It feels a little more concrete at a deeper level. You don't have to feel like you have to carry as much weight in regards to that type of veteran stuff. We had good veterans on the club, but as the oldest guy now, we've got several other guys that have that same foundation and can continue to build with the younger guys as the year winds down.
It was interesting that you started the season with this same core that's been together, but the front office felt something needed shaking up and added these veterans.
BZ: I don't know if it had been much different if it had been younger guys they added. As the year goes on, any time you can add an infusion of new mindsets, new tools as a club, it definitely gets everyone's attention and helps kick everybody in the butt in the best possible way.
What has Murphy meant?
BZ: He just lengthens everything out. Of course, we felt the impact. Even if he takes an oh-fer, you still feel the impact on the pitcher, I think because he takes long, quality at-bats, generally.
People wonder all the time if you guys have the same vibe, or even drive, as you did in 2016. It can never be the same as '16. That's once-in-a-lifetime. It can be different but just as good. What is the vibe around here?
BZ: I'm always reluctant to make any predictions or say anything about where I think we're going to end up. I might do that in a private conversation, but I will say publicly we have what it takes. I thought we had what it takes last year, but it felt like we were always behind, trying to catch up. It was an uphill climb. That takes a toll. We haven't had to do that this year. It's been a steady progression as the season goes on. If we can finish the season strong, I have a great feeling going into the postseason.
Can you picture a year from now having that same passion for yourself?
BZ: Yes, because it's different. It had to change between '16 and '17. Last year, it changed a lot. My motivation changed a lot. Now that it's different, it's more involved in the process and less in the results. I think it's made me a better player overall. And it makes for a more enjoyable experience. It allows me to be more grateful for all the stuff that happens. The good, the bad, the struggle as well as the success. It all has more value to me than it did in the past.
The one disconnect I think many people have even with a good team is just how hard it is to keep winning. Joe often mentions how 2016 spoiled everyone. That this stuff, the ups and downs, is more natural. What's your take? Is staying on top -- especially in Chicago -- tougher than getting there?
BZ: Going back to what I said about myself, that's where the mindset has to change. It can't be the same carrot [the Cubs going 108 years without winning a World Series] in front of you, that type of drive. It has to be a drive that's rooted more in the process. I think our guys are learning that, even the young guys who were driven by the carrot and the pot at the end of the rainbow. I think we're learning to actually enjoy the ride, not just the results, and enjoy the process of becoming the best team that we can become. If you ask anyone in there, I think they would agree with me, it's been one of the most enjoyable seasons any of us have ever experienced. Obviously, the success has something to do with it, but it's more about the closeness of our group and the relationships that you build along the way. Even the relationship with the fans is growing, and when it's all said and done, you don't want to miss it. You want to make sure you recognize the gift that it is and make the most of it.
This is the culture that we're building that we think can have implications for years to come.
What's life after baseball?
BZ: I'd like to give back to the game but also support my wife in the things she's doing. A mix of charity, family and small business types of things, most likely for me.
If you were commissioner for a day, what things would you be interested in changing?
BZ: Another thing I've changed a lot on is health. The old-school me would have said you have to play every day and through pain. At a certain level, it's not healthy. Adding off days is a really good thing. I personally don't think we were made to play more than six days a week. For me, that idea of having a least one day a week, regardless of your age, that makes sense. The fact that I've not had to do that this year, it's helped me sustain a better mind and body.
So if I was commissioner, I would focus on all the health concerns involved in the game and address that a little bit more. And I'm not just talking about physical health, but mental health also. That's a side of the game that's growing. And not just about playing. I'm talking depression and the effects of putting people in these high-pressure situations. I'm talking about clubhouse, off the field, family life. We've come a long way but have a long way to go.