Five more games. That’s probably all 2016 World Series MVP Ben Zobrist has left as a Chicago Cub, with his four-year contract expiring.
And it’s weird, right? It certainly doesn’t feel that way (probably thanks – in part – to his mostly-absent season … and the fact that there was supposed to be at least one playoff series to enjoy).
But here we are, with the rug pulled out from under us – caught with our pants down, as we attempt to accept the fact that Ben Zobrist has almost certainly played his last game at Wrigley Field. I’m just not ready for it, even as I know he’s 38 and his deal is up. I haven’t come to terms with it. And it doesn’t sound like he has, either (per the Chicago Sun Times): “I’m trying not to think about that right now,” Zobrist said. “I’ve got a lot of time whenever the season’s over to think about that.”
That’s not to say he’s got an icy heart, of course. In fact, I believe the exact opposite to be true based on his comments to The Athletic): “Ever since I’ve been back, I’ve been trying to do that,” Zobrist said. “Just soak in moments with the boys and at Wrigley Field. It’s a special place. When I took some time off, you recognize a little bit more how special it is. So yeah, I’ve been trying to soak in what I can, while trying to still be focused on doing my job.”
But while I appreciate Zobrist’s work ethic and commitment to winning (how could anyone question either trait?), I don’t really care about that stuff anymore. Not now. Not after this weekend. This season is lost. It’s over. And with it an arguably unparalleled era of Cubs baseball that had as much to do with Zobrist’s day-to-day production and empowering leadership as it did any one other single person (player or otherwise).
You know, I think we too often forget that Zobrist wasn’t actually with the Cubs back during that magical 2015 season (which has unexpectedly become the second-best season in this competitive window … who would’ve seen that coming?). That offseason, Zobrist was traded from the Rays to the A’s in a five-player deal, before eventually being moved to the Royals at the trade deadline (where he’d go on to win the World Series just one year before winning it again with the Cubs).
And while his arrival marked the end of another important era to this particular Cubs fan (Starlin Castro’s exit), it was also very desperately needed in many more ways than one.
Immediately after signing his four-year, $56M deal with the Cubs, Ben Zobrist went on to slash .272/.386/.446 (124 wRC+) in an All-Star season at age-35. He also ultimately led the Cubs through the postseason, turned the entire NLCS around with a bunt single, delivered the single-most memorable moment of the single-most memorable baseball game in modern history (his extra-innings double in Game 7, duh). And, oh yeah, he became the World Series MVP in the *THE* series that finally did it for the Cubs.
In other words, even if we was unable to deliver the 4.0-WAR regular-season performance that practically paid for his entire contract after just one year, his presence that October and November was more than enough of a bounty.
But it’s difficult to really define his importance to this team and city, because every time I try to wrap my head around the sum of his contributions, I remember another way he made my life as a Cubs fan better. There was his actual individual production, the example he set for other hitters, the impact his at-bats had on the opposing starters, the leadership in and around the clubhouse, and the way he made me, personally, feel as a fan.
Again from The Athletic, here’s Zobrist perfectly articulating the mentality I’ve always wanted (or maybe just hoped) Cubs players would feel about this team:
I’d suggest everyone read Sahadev’s article on Ben Zobrist. It’s so good. This part really stood out to me. The players care about the fans. And when they don’t play well, they carry the weight of disappointing them around. That’s not the first time I’ve heard a player say this. pic.twitter.com/w2ADwzc3T2
— Uncle Jeff (@ebsoftball) September 22, 2019
If that’s not enough, how about this: “It’s the big leagues of the big leagues,” he said. “That’s the way the fans make you feel here. The front office, the organization, the way everything is run, it’s the top of the top. It’s hard to beat the experience of being a Chicago Cub, especially when you walk out on that field.”
How do you replace that? How can you?
Ben Zobrist’s second season with the Cubs (2017) didn’t quite live up to the first, as he dealt with injuries that limited him to just 128 games and a .232/.318/.440 slash line. But he bounced back in a HUGE way the following season (2018, his third year in Chicago), hitting .305/.378/.440 (123 wRC+) as a 37-year-old second baseman. He wasn’t an All-Star that year, but he was one of the top-50 hitters in MLB and only barely behind the MVP-runner up Javy Baez (130 wRC+) and Anthony Rizzo (125 wRC+) in terms of offensive production on the Cubs.
Which is probably what made this season hurt even more.
I have no idea if the 2019 regular season would’ve gone differently if Zobrist had been here for the entire year. Even if my gut tells me it would have, that’s hardly the point. His midseason absence and the Cubs’ early-elimination from contention has left me unprepared to cope with his impending exit.
With that said, if I’ve learned anything these past four years, it’s that during times like this, there’s only one person to find for advice … Mr. Zobrist, himself: “We got another week of the regular season. That’s a lot of time. Let’s go on a streak. That’s what I’m saying. Why can’t that streak start today? Why can’t the momentum shift for us today? I think that’s what everyone is feeling.” Why not, I guess. Enjoy the time we have left and such.