MESA, Ariz. — Ben Zobrist can’t think about achieving such a rare feat — at least not yet. He has today to focus on, and for the reigning World Series MVP, that is always the priority.
Each day starts with time spent working in the hitting cage, mastering his swing from both sides of the plate, before moving on to his dynamic warm-ups. It’s this sequence of intense stretches that has allowed him to play at such a high level well into his 30s.
All of this meticulous work has helped Zobrist, 35, enter 2017 as the only player in baseball who has an opportunity to win a third straight championship, after he earned one with the Kansas City Royals in 2015, and another in his home state as a Cub last year.
If Chicago repeats, he would become the third player in baseball history to win three straight titles, with at least one coming after switching leagues, according to ESPN Stats & Information. But he’s not ready to go there yet.
“Ask me when I get there,” Zobrist said, laughing. “The second one meant something different than the first one in Kansas City. The next one will mean something different. I haven’t thought about that yet. You can’t get there right now. I’m staying with my one-day-at-a-time routine.”
That daily routine is what keeps him going at an age when most guys are slowing down or leaving the game, allowing a bright spotlight to shine on Zobrist late in his career.
“The surreal moments for me were being on ‘Jimmy Fallon’ and getting to do about three days of Disney World in about six hours just by zooming around and going back door,” Zobrist explained in the opening days of spring training. “Obviously, getting to go to the White House and meet President Obama and the first lady at the time, and then a few weeks after that I got to go to the National Prayer Breakfast event and meet a whole bunch of congressmen and senators and then shake the hand of President Trump and the vice president.”
The icing on the cake to his two-year championship run is the car he got for winning World Series MVP: a 50th anniversary Camaro. It was the last item of his busy winter, shipped right to spring training as Zobrist arrived. His smile when discussing it said it all.
“Who doesn’t want a new car?” he asked rhetorically. “And a sports car at that. It’s cool to drive it every day and be reminded that you did something special for the team and city in a pretty fun situation.”
Without his steadfast commitment to steady habits, the whirlwind that came after he helped make baseball history likely wouldn’t have happened. It’s why the Cubs came to a rare conclusion when they signed him before last season: Zobrist was getting better with age.
Zobrist doesn’t wear it on his sleeve, but he’s partly driven by his faith. The more success he has, the more it drives him to be the best he can be on and off the field.
“He’s a straight-up professional” Albert Almora Jr. said. “He does everything the right way. He works at his craft. You should see him in the cage. He focuses like it’s an in-game at-bat.”
Pitcher Kyle Hendricks added: “He’s such a creature of habit. He does the same thing at the same time every day. I have good mentors to watch, and he’s definitely one of them.”
Hendricks actually faced Zobrist back in 2014, when the Kansas City Royals visited Wrigley Field.
“He was a tough at-bat,” Hendricks recalled. “I still remember it. Heaters down and away, he would foul off.
“He just stays on everything. He’s that pesky hitter who always makes contact.”
In an era when a 2-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio is considered good, Zobrist actually walked (96) more than he whiffed (82). It’s one reason why Joe Maddon likes him in the middle of the order. He protects everyone around him partly by making the opposing pitcher work so hard. He also has performed better than Maddon could have envisioned in RBI spots — he had 76 last year mostly batting cleanup.
“Zo is the kind of guy [you tell], ‘OK, you’re hitting fourth,’ he’s going to apply himself to that thought process [of driving in runs],” Maddon explained. “I thought he did a better job of it [early], but going into this season, he has a chance to absorb the thought, and I think you’re going to see him really dedicated to driving in runs.”
Zobrist won’t claim that any divine intervention brought him to Chicago the same year the Cubs broke their long drought, but he must have relied on some faith before ever donning the uniform. Even after winning it all with Kansas City in 2015, he held back on celebrating too much.
“My hometown [Eureka, Illinois] tried to do something after the Royals [won in 2015], but I said, ‘No, let’s hold off on that’ because I was so busy with free agency. And then once I signed with the Cubs, I was like, ‘OK, new deal,'” Zobrist said. “So we finally did that stuff this offseason.”
Another memorable moment for Zobrist came days after winning the World Series. Though his neighbors respected his privacy throughout his first year of living near Wrigley Field, winning the championship combined with being named the MVP in the Series changed all that. Playing with his own kids outside his townhouse turned into an impromptu neighborhood autograph session.
“So I started signing for a few, then people from surrounding neighborhoods started coming over,” Zobrist recalled fondly. “But just to go on the record, that’s not happening when I get back home [in April].”
At least not until the Cubs win it again. They’re the favorites, giving Zobrist the inside track on a rare chance to make history.