EDITOR’S NOTE: The following six stories mark the opening of Major League Baseball’s 2009 season.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Ben Zobrist often gets treated like royalty in his line of work. People arrange his travel and carry his bags. He stays in swank hotels. He gets autograph requests.
Such is life for the Tampa Bay Rays shortstop during much of the year.
It’s a different story at his church during the offseason. Zobrist works behind the scenes. He picks up trash. He gets beaned by bean bags.
“I manned one of the booths at a Halloween alternative party,” Zobrist said. “I remember all I did for the whole time was bend over and pick up these weighted sand pins and set them up so a kid could knock them down again. One kid threw a bean bag at my face.”
That type of humble service comes at the behest of his pastor, Byron Yawn, at Community Bible Church in Nashville, Tenn.
“It would be pretty easy for Ben to be a celebrity,” Yawn said. “With Ben’s star on the rise, the exhortation I’ve given him is, at least four or five months out of the year — exist in a place where you’re able to die to self, tie on an apron, pull up a basin and wash others’ feet. And be content with that.”
That’s often a challenge for Zobrist, especially when he’s used to having everything done for him much of the time. Maintaining a servant mentality is one of the toughest things he has to do. His wife Julianna can relate.
“Even though our lives are committed to the Lord, just the fact that he plays Major League Baseball makes it very easy to become self-consuming, even when you’re not meaning to,” she said. “We really don’t want to be, but when that’s what people are asking you about and wanting you to talk about, it’s so easy to lose perspective.
“So it’s awesome to come back to a church where they’re excited for you, but that’s not their main concern,” she said. “They expect us to serve and they expect us to stay accountable.”
Ben and Julianna appreciate the gentle guidance of their pastor, gladly following Yawn’s requests to serve in humility. It’s just one of the ways in which the church plays a vital role in their spiritual development, helping them become more like Christ.
But as Zobrist is entering another season, he begins a tour of duty removed from the fellowship he dearly loves. For the next six months or so, he will endure times of spiritual isolation and frustration. He is encouraged to know that he has a church family praying for him, and even finding ways to minister to him when he is absent from them.
“They’re a lifeline,” Zobrist said. “Christ is so evident in all that they do. It’s so focused on the Lord.
“You feel like you’re going to church because you’re going to meet the Lord there,” he continued. “If we didn’t have that, we would probably come back and be even more miserable than it can get during the season when we don’t have that.”
The Zobrists’ commitment to the local church began early, as both of them are children of pastors. His father, Tom, is pastor of Liberty Bible Church in Eureka, Ill.
Having come to faith in Christ at a young age, Zobrist recounted: “I had heard the stories in Sunday School, and I think I started being afraid of hell, being afraid that if I died, I wasn’t going to heaven someday.” That fear prompted a conversation with his mother one night before he went to bed. She explained the Gospel to him — that Jesus Christ was his only hope for salvation and forgiveness for his sins — and Zobrist believed.
Zobrist continued as an obedient pastor’s son, raised in a home saturated with Scripture. But as he grew up, he began to realize he had put other matters — like sports — ahead of his relationship with God. During his senior year of high school, he realized the problem with what he was doing. That was when he “really gave the Lord complete control of my life.”
After playing baseball at Dallas Baptist University, Zobrist was drafted by the Houston Astros in 2004 and traded to Tampa Bay in 2006. He spent much of 2008 on the disabled list but returned to the team and made an impact down the stretch for the American League champions. Earning AL Player of the Week honors the final week of the regular season and playing in the World Series were the two highlights of his career.
“At first, it was the excitement of just being there,” Zobrist said about the World Series. “Then it was, ‘Uh oh, I might actually play, so I better be ready.'”
For Game 4, Zobrist found himself in the starting lineup. He let the experience sink in, especially the introductions prior to the game.
“As soon as that was over it was, ‘Focus, and don’t drop the ball,'” he recounted.
Despite the disappointment of losing to the Philadelphia Phillies, the end of the season brought the joy of returning home for Ben and Julianna. The length of the season takes its toll, both emotionally and spiritually. They try to find ways to stay connected to their local church during the season, such as listening to Yawn’s sermons online.
The church, also, does what it can to minister to the Zobrists in their circumstances. Yawn and others from the church travel to see them a few times during the season to encourage them and pray with them.
“Ben wants it,” Yawn said of his church’s efforts to keep the Zobrists accountable. “One of Ben’s greater qualities is he’s a very unassuming guy in spite of the success he’s had in his pursuit of sports. He’s not above asking for help. He’s not above recognizing his need for it. So that makes it very easy.”
Baseball Chapel is another means of spiritual nourishment for the Zobrists during the season. For each team, Baseball Chapel provides chaplains who lead weekly Bible studies and minister to the players in a variety of ways.
“The only connection we have to the body of Christ is our chaplain and his family,” Zobrist said. “And we love them to death. They’re awesome. But they’re not the body of Christ.”
Zobrist explained that Baseball Chapel, for all its benefits, is not designed with the hierarchy of the institution that Jesus ordained through the apostles as the local church. There’s a big difference between a team chaplain saying, “Don’t do that,” and a church saying, “Don’t do that,” Zobrist said, because the church carries the authority to discipline.
“Baseball Chapel is a great para-church ministry,” he said. “It is para-church. It is separate from the church. You still have to have the church as the main ministry tool to the world. That’s what I think Christ ordained for us to be.”
That’s why Ben and Julianna so desperately desire to be a part of Community Bible Church, even when it’s hard to do.
“That’s how we stay sane, is by answering to this higher authority,” Zobrist said. “You’re not just left alone. You are not the ultimate authority, even in your own relationship with Christ.
“As professional athletes, you’re displaced so often that you start to think that it is just about me and God. I can operate independent. I am a servant of God, which is a right thought, but it becomes all about what my body is doing. What I do, instead of what the whole body in general is doing, and I’m just a small part of it.
“The body of Christ, I’m just a finger,” he continued. “I can’t do everything. There’s humility in that, because the body of Christ does not operate with a bunch of fingers.”
So during the offseason, Ben and Julianna dive into the fellowship and the ministries of the local church because they know that’s what God expects of them and what the church expects of them.
“It’s awesome to have a body that recognizes that this is just our job,” Julianna said. “It’s a form of ministry, but it’s just our jobs.”
At Community Bible Church, he is not Ben Zobrist the Major League Baseball player. He is Ben Zobrist, a brother in Christ and fellow laborer in spreading the Gospel.
“We don’t get special treatment,” Zobrist said. “We enjoy that. We don’t like being the center of attention.”
Tim Ellsworth directs BPSports (www.bpsports.net), the sports division of Baptist Press. He also is director of news and information at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.