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In two of the last three Chicago Cubs games, Ben Zobrist has hit a late double to spark a rally. The first—against the San Francisco Giants in the ninth inning—helped the Cubs win the National League Division Series. The second—against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the eighth—led off an inning that would end with a game-clinching grand slam and a 1–0 lead in the National League Championship.
Zobrist is a key player on a team that hasn’t won a World Series since 1908. The young team won 103 regular season games, its most wins in 106 years and more than any other team in the Major Leagues. Most of the players are on multi-year contracts like Zobrist ($56 million over four years), igniting hopes among Cubs fans that they’ll be even better next year.
But for Zobrist, the utility player hired fresh off his World Series victory last year with the Kansas City Royals, it isn’t all about the win. It isn’t even all about the game.
“Ben gets it,” says his pastor of 10 years, Byron Yawn. He leads Community Bible Church in Nashville.
“He understands redemption and has a great grasp on what’s important in life. His greatest joys are at home with his family or in the church in the purposes of God. He finds great satisfaction in what he does, but when he leaves baseball, he’s going to endeavor to use whatever celebrity that remains to place himself on a different mission field with the same agenda. It’s hard to overstate or make it clear—he really is the real deal.”
Zobrist’s dad is a pastor, and he’s been a believer since childhood. When he points to the sky while crossing the plate, there’s no doubt “he means it,” Yawn says. “There’s a lot of sincerity there.”
While Ben’s star has risen about as far as it can, Yawn still maintains he’s “a normal human being with frustrations, anxiety, and weakness. . . . He doesn’t handle everything perfectly.”
It’s no wonder, because professional baseball is, according to Yawn, “a very guilt-ridden, self-conscious industry, where working harder for success can contradict the realities of the gospel itself.”
Professional athletes are expected to “work their tail off” to improve their mechanics, exercise their bodies, and stay healthy.
While this works well for Zobrist on the diamond, there was a temptation to allow his tireless work ethic to become the basis of his faith, believing that working hard at prayer or Bible study gained God’s approval.
“When Ben first came into the league, he struggled significantly with this,” Yawn says. Things hit a crisis point early in Zobrist’s career during a prolonged slump that adversely affected his faith. “I had a chance to fly out to spend some time with him and this immense emotional weight and the stress of living under this legal spirit.”
Yawn’s plan was “to talk and pray and throw away all of his crappy Christian books.” He remembers telling Ben, “I would be here for you whether you were a professional baseball player or not. The things you’re suffering are normal, they’re just made exponentially greater.”
Everybody wants to draw a direct correlation between how hard they work and God’s benevolence, Yawn says.
“It’s in our DNA.”
Failure, Forgiveness, Progress
This temptation is especially strong for Christian athletes. They might connect their current slump to their recent lack of diligent spirituality. Yawn called this mindset a type of “hyperspiritualized transactionalism.” Yet it’s also easy for fans to think this way. Half of Americans—and 60 percent of white evangelicals—believe “God rewards athletes who have faith with good health and success.”
“There was a time when Ben would beat himself up or overspiritualize [a slump], thinking it was a result of him not being faithful as a believer,” Yawn recounts. “Teaching Ben that his identity is in Christ and not in his batting average has been the greatest liberation in his life.”
Baseball is a game full of failures. If a player get a hit one out three times, he’s probably in the Hall of Fame. But it’s also a game of forgiveness.
“You can fail 7 out of 10 times and be great,” says Zobrist’s first pastor, Tom, who is also his dad.
Tom likened the game to the Christian life, as each underscores the necessity of maintaining perspective through the process.
“You can’t measure by results,” he said, “but by whether you’re faithful.”
He’s right. Throughout the whole of October, Zobrist can do everything right at the plate and watch his screaming line drives caught for an out; similarly, a missionary can evangelize his or her whole life and never see any conversions.
Knowing this, Tom prays for Ben, but not that he’ll win games, he says.
“I pray for his faithfulness—that he’ll be faithful to work hard, faithful to the process of baseball, faithful to his testimony.”
This mindset has been a source of peace for Ben, who told his dad, “If I’m faithful to do what I’m supposed to do, then I can accept the results in the end.”
Tom has gone through a process himself, morphing from a diehard St. Louis Cardinals fan to a fan of the rival Cubs.
“It’s evidence of God’s gracious sense of humor,” he said. “The worst thing in the world isn’t your son playing for the Cubs.”
Baseball and Jesus
Ben was 3 years old when his dad headed to Calvary Bible College and Theological Seminary—now Calvary University. After seminary, the Zobrists settled into Eureka, Illinois, a town of about 5,000 two hours south of Chicago. Tom became the pastor at Liberty Bible Church, a nondenominational congregation where he still serves today
The rest of Tom’s family lives close by, and they’re split in their loyalties between the Cubs and the Cardinals. Tom always cheered for St. Louis, so Ben grew up a stout Cards fan.