There are very few Rays players more fascinating than Ben Zobrist. We in the Rays community know his story: marginally successful utility player tinkers with his swing and becomes one of the most under the radar versatile all-round all-stars in baseball today. I’ve even written about Zobrist before in regards to his fan base.
The problem with Zobrist is that he has a low “gut factor”, a term coined this week by acclaimed Sports Illustrated writer Joe Posnanski. Gut factor is the feel fans have for a player. In Posnanski’s article, new Hall of Famer Barry Larkin is said to have had a low “gut factor” in that he didn’t “feel” like a Hall of Famer while he was playing, but upon further look, Larkin’s career belongs in the class with other Hall of Fame shortstops.
Ben Zobrist suffers from low gut factor in the same way Larkin did. He doesn’t “look” like one of the best players in the American League, but upon further look, he definitely is. Interestingly enough as well, after their first three full seasons, Ben Zobrist actually had a higher Wins Above Replacement (WAR) than Barry Larkin did.
Zobrist (2009-2011): 15.2
Larkin (1988-1990): 14.8
(True, Ben Zobrist was three years older than Larkin when he had his first three seasons. I’m definitely not saying Zobrist will continue to have a better career than Barry Larkin. The odds that Zobrist keeps up 10 more years of consistently high WAR as Larkin did are quite low.)
This past weekend, I watched the Pittsburgh Steelers play the Denver Broncos. I haven’t watched much football this season and when I have turned it on, it always seems the Bucs are down 35 to 0. But I watched this weekend’s playoff games. Which means I watched Tim Tebow. Although the Nole fan in me can’t root for Tim Tebow, I do understand he has done some pretty amazing things as a quarterback in the NFL.
What I don’t understand however, is the hype that surrounds Tebow. People cannot stop talking about him. Yes, he has made some great plays, to include the game-ending completion in overtime to defeat the Steelers. But most Tebow talk is based on more than just his on-the-field accomplishments. Most of the Tebow talk, whether on twitter, where his was the most tweeted name of the weekend, or on Late Night Talk Shows, includes some comment or observation of his faith. Perhaps the jokes are supposed to be the typical “knock the elite down a peg” fare and instead of attacking fame or fortune, they are poking fun at faith.
Observing the hype and discussions surrounding Tebow made me think of how we look at Ben Zobrist. There is no doubt Ben Zobrist is a Christian man. He has done interviews talking about his faith, combined baseball and ministry in Central America, and his wife is recorded Christian singer. But people don’t talk about Zobrist’s faith as they do Tebow’s. I doubt Tebow is any more pious than Zobrist, or that Zobrist is less Christian than Tebow. As a matter of fact, I don’t think there is a way to measure piousness anyway.
Is the Tebow faith talk a subliminal backlash against the hype Tebow has carried with him through his NFL career and through most of his collegiate career at University of Florida? Zobrist surely didn’t come to the Rays with much hype at all. As a matter of fact, he was practically a throw-in in the Aubrey Huff to Houston trade in 2007. There was no expectation that Zobrist would contribute more than just a utility glove. He wasn’t a highly recruited national phenomenon as Tebow was. There was no talk that the then-Devil Rays acquired a “Christian” utility infielder, just an infielder with a funny last name.
Then last May, Ben Zobrist had a monster double header in Minnesota, driving home 10 in two games. Baseball people around the country put Zobrist’s name in the headlines as the key part of the Rays sweep of the Twins. But nowhere was even one mention of Zobrist’s faith. The stories stayed focused on Zobrist’s on-the-field accomplishments.
There are few baseball players who ever carry the amount of hype of a premier college football player, especially one who succeeds in the NFL. Perhaps a top round draft pick such as Bryce Harper on Stephen Strasburg might carry such pressure, but they both have had the opportunity to hone their craft in semi-anonymity in the minor leagues. Tebow has gone from the beaming spotlight of college to the even brighter spotlight of the NFL.
Some people have pointed out that perhaps Tebow’s now-famous prayer gesture is the fuel that keeps the faith-based commentary alive. But baseball players also gesture in big moments. Rafael Soriano, for example, did a glove-pounding arm raise when he saved a game and other players looks to the sky after a home run. Tebow could also look to the sky, but instead he chooses to genuflect.
What if a baseball player genuflected as Tebow does? What if before an at-bat a player took a knee for a short prayer? Would that spark the public interest that it has for Tim Tebow?
I wonder what would happen if Zobrist was more outward in his faith. What if he genuflected during the game or said a short prayer before an at-bat? Would he be the recipient of increased popularity? Would more people appreciate Zobrist’s on-the-field accomplishments if they knew him as the outwardly Christian baseball player? Would his “gut factor” be higher?
I don’t dare say that a player should use the illusion of faith to higher fame. If it were found that a player was faking the faith, that would surely have a negative effect and would probably lead to league decisions on any faith-based action. Remember, one bad apple spoils the bunch, or something like that.
I think the Tebow phenomenon is amazing. One might hope that little kids see past the sarcasm and use Tim Tebow as a role model. He seems to be a good enough guy. But in case parents want to find a low-key role model who lives his Christian faith without the hoopla, they could do far worse than Ben Zobrist.