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So this is what it looks like when the Chicago Cubs finally win the World Series, when baseball’s most notorious losers complete the transformation into indelible winners: Grown men, exhausted, tearful, and lost for words after surviving a crazy Game 7 that was, as one of the commentators put it, a battle of attrition. Every pitch from the middle innings on seemed like slow torture. Exemplary Christ-follower Ben Zobrist delivered the go-ahead hit in extra innings and was named series MVP.

Contrary to what’s expected of them, the lovable losers endured to the end.

Dream Come True—Finally

As a lifelong Cubs fan, I’ve dreamed of this moment for 40 years. I’ve envisioned countless scenarios in which Ryne Sandberg or Andre Dawson or Mark Grace or Kerry Wood (or countless Cubs stars of various eras) played the hero and finally ended our futility. Fans in the generations preceding mine harbored the same dreams with the likes of Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, and Ron Santo playing the starring roles.

Now, as I watch Zobrist and Rizzo and Bryant and the rest of this amazing bunch hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy, it’s surreal. This club persevered and overcame all the moments of adversity under which the Cubs have traditionally collapsed. After dropping a heartbreaker in an early-round playoff game (they squandered a ninth-inning comeback, losing in extra innings), this team rallied again in the ninth the next night to take the series. It wasn’t down for the count after trailing two games to one (and being shut out twice in a row) in the National League Championship Series. Nor were the Cubs done after falling behind three games to one in the World Series. Nor did they fold in Game 7 after Rajai Davis’s eighth-inning home run tied the game and swung the momentum to Cleveland.

Those players of the past weren’t members of this team, of course, but their roles in the journey to baseball’s summit seem significant. They endured all the ups and downs that made the Cubs’ story what it is. The same can be said, though to a lesser degree, of all loyal Cub fans who’ve endured decades of heartbreak without giving up hope. It’s like we’ve all been enfolded into this unreal moment. We’re not the ones getting the glory, but we’re basking in the glow of it and feeling we’re somehow part of it. This is an untainted moment of earthly joy that will long burn brightly in our memories, and all the hard stuff involved in getting here only makes the story’s final chapter sweeter.

Glimpse of Greater Glory

I don’t want to go overboard and speak of ending the 108-year championship drought with exaggerated significance. In the grand scheme of things, it’s only baseball, a blip on the historical radar of pop culture in a relatively tiny part of the world. But that doesn’t mean the Cubs’ accomplishment is totally trivial, either.

As John Calvin said, all of creation contains “sparks of God’s glory.” Those sparks can certainly be found in baseball. There’s much to enjoy in the aesthetic beauty of the game, the strategic calculation involved in cobbling together a victory, and the athletic prowess of those who engage in this mentally and physically demanding competition at the highest level.

God gives us 98-mile-per-hour fastballs, 400-foot home runs, and dramatic storylines so they would bring us delight. No wonder families and friends naturally forge closer bonds as they take in a game or closely follow their team season after season. It only makes sense that many Cubs fans would be moved to tears as this storyline reaches its climax. They’re flooded with images of fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, and grandparents for whom following this club has been a shared lifelong passion.

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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.

Real Deal

“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.”

Indeed, Zobrist hasn’t hidden his convictions. There’s no shortage of stories detailing how his faith affects his life.

Real Weakness 

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.

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July 2020


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